Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Volunteers - let's be 'aving you

At the start of November I noticed a small flurry of blog posts and media mentions focusing on volunteering in policing.
The first that got my attention was on the BBC New website, “Volunteer Army may swell police ranks”. This reported on the recent Home Office consultation “Reforming the Powers of Police Staff and Volunteers” which, in a volunteering context, seeks to:
“…enhance the role of volunteers. We are consulting on ending the anomaly whereby volunteers can either have all of the powers of the constable, as a Special; or have none of the powers, as a police support volunteer. We will instead allow volunteers to mirror the roles played by police staff, for example as Community Support Officers.”
The BBC article tells the story of Alan Hunt, a volunteer with Dorset police who monitors CCTV between 730pm and 4am every Friday and Saturday night. Mr Hunt, who has been in the role for five years, radios officers to attend any disturbances caught on the cameras.
It also mentions a volunteer with the National Crime Agency (the UK’s equivalent of the FBI), who uses his skills as a security adviser with and insurance firm to help give a different perspective on projects to the regular NCA officers.

Another article I noticed from my home county of Lincolnshire explored the role of students in a new volunteering scheme with the county’s police force. In this scheme, the police and the University of Lincoln have partnered to to give students the opportunity to volunteer as Volunteer Police Community Support Officers or Police Campus Drop-In Centre volunteer.
Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Hardwick is quoted as saying that this initiative is not about getting unpaid volunteers to do the work of paid officers:
“There are no officers who would come and sit in the drop-in centre so the idea that the volunteers are doing their work is totally wrong. The volunteers will be able to engage with students far better – the students are their peers and part of that community."
Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police, Neil Rhodes, adds:
“What’s different about today’s initiative is that it’s aimed at young people who will be able to act as an interface with us as volunteers policing the streets of Lincoln and at the drop-in centre.The scheme is about having a bridge between the force and the university. Sometimes it can be quite daunting to approach a police officer whereas if you can speak to one of your fellow students who can help you access our services, that should be easier.”
Sadly (but unsurprisingly) the unions seem less enthusiastic. In the BBC article Ben Priestley, Unison’s national officer for police and justice services, raises concerns about competence and accountability.
“There’s a general question about whether the general public believe that policing should be carried out by, in many cases, well-meaning amateurs. Policing is a serious business, dealing with serious crime, and our members who work as police staff are fully trained, they’re fully vetted and they’re very, very committed to the job they do. If you’re a volunteer, you’re not under the direction and control of a chief constable, as police staff and police officers are, and that’s a very real problem, and I don’t think the general public would be happy about that.”
Mr Priestly makes mistakes common to those within the union movement when it comes to volunteers [1]:
  1. He confuses amateur with incompetent i.e professional means competent. I’ve blogged on this before so do take a look at that post for my thoughts.
  2. He implies volunteers within the police will just be random people, plucked from the street and placed into roles with no training or support. Read the two articles I have already referenced to see that this isn’t the case, police volunteers are properly trained, vetted and supported. Volunteers, when properly recruited, managed and supported, are no less competent at what they do than paid staff.
  3. He suggests volunteers, because they are unpaid, may be less committed than paid police officers. Interesting. Doing a job for no pay implies less commitment? If anything, the issue with volunteers is them being too committed!
  4. He indicates that volunteers would not be ‘under the direction and control’ of a chief constable in the same way as police staff and officers. Why? Volunteers in policing roles are already under such direction and control and held to standards of conduct and behaviour. Mr Priestly is assuming that you can’t control volunteers or hold them responsible and accountable, an assumption that is simply wrong.
  5. He does what all union people who speak out about volunteering do, which is to fail to recognise the the very movement and organisation he represents runs on volunteer labour. As they state on their webiste, Unison employs 1,200 staff and have 1.3 million members, relying on volunteer activists. Without them Unison would not be able to function. Or are all union volunteers untrained, unsupported individuals who can’t be managed or controlled?
My own view is that the role of volunteers in policing, indeed in any public service, is incredibly valuable and should be enhanced. Volunteers don’t simply complement and supplement the work of employees, they bring something else. For example, that could be a distinctively different credibility with the community by virtue of them being unpaid, such as the student volunteers in Lincoln that the Chief Constable highlighted in the remark quoted earlier.

Crucially, the role of volunteers should not be expanded because they are a free or cheap form of labour. That is lazy and wrongheaded thinking that harms both volunteering and the people those very public services seek to help. Where such ill-considered decision making is concerned it should be challenged and we Volunteer Managers should do more to speak up, challenge and help those making the decisions to do so in a better way.

I want to conclude with the words of Justin Davis Smith at NCVO who wraps up his excellent blog post, “We need a better vision for volunteering in policing” like this:
The modern police force was born out of volunteer involvement in the 19th Century. We have a glorious opportunity to re-shape our public services for the 21st Century by harnessing the power of volunteers alongside our paid professionals. It is not a zero sum game, but a complementary, symbiotic relationship, where volunteers and paid staff do what they each do best, operating in consort to deliver a more effective and efficient service better in tune with the community in which they operate.

  1. For more of my blogging about job substitution / displacement / replacement issues, please take a look at the relevant tagged posts.  ↩