Wednesday 2 February 2011

Get real on volunteering

New research from the third sector research centre comes at an opportune moment. Governments of all colours like to talk in a romantic and hazy way about citizenship and us all "doing more", helping our neighbours etc.

Indeed at the moment the Government are working on a top down, centrally driven programme "community organisers", to encourage more people to volunteer in communities (ignoring community organisations as it does so, and with Councils cutting their support: crazy world we live in eh!)

The new research shows,

"policies to engage people in community action need to be informed by a more sophisticated understanding of how and why community organisations operate. People primarily take part in community action for very personal reasons rather than from a sense of civic duty, and the research questions whether this can be co-opted to deliver particular policy objectives. Voluntary action for many is about social needs, ‘fun’, doing something different to the ‘day job’ or taking action about something that directly affects them, their families or community.

The research team found that there were major concerns among organisations involved in this activity that the Big Society agenda would create greater inequalities, by favouring strong communities with the resources, skills and knowledge to engage. The research identifies a need for policy to be informed by a much stronger analysis of power relations within and between communities and the state.

Where Governments have been successful at directly motivating people to act, anger has also played a major role. This can be seen in the establishment of the Countryside Alliance, the anti-Iraq war demonstrations, anti-globalisation actions at the G8 and G20 Summits and recent demonstrations against increased tuition fees. Yet this has received very little attention in ‘Big Society’ debate

I had a meeting yesterday at DCLG of the Sector Advisory Board. The Minister was down to attend, but too busy. A surreal moment when we were waiting in the lobby to be ushered up by a civil servant (they don't want you wandering the building looking for leaks!). A civil servant appeared and was calling for the "aspiring communities group". She looked at me. I said, "No, no, we are the expiring communities ".

I made clear to the meeting of officials the anger there is in the sector about uninformed, senseless cuts. I made the point that despite Coalition agreements on fairness these cuts were clearly hitting disadvantaged communities more severely. I said it was time for a direction from the Department. Ministers speeches are not enough. Nudge is clearly not working. I'm afraid the civil servants seemed to think that demonstrates the value of good practise will shame others into behaviour change.

Of course with my decades experience of Local Government from the inside I know this is not going to work in time.

The capacity and infrastructure of third sector and community bodies takes time to build but moments to destroy. We will pay a big price in the country for the axe being wielded over our sector. It's our beneficiaries who suffer. And they are.

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