February 3rd saw the publication of Steve Holiday’s much anticipated report into Full-Time Social Action (FTSA) for young people. The report is the result of an independent inquiry into full-time volunteering commissioned by the government a little over a year ago. It is the same piece of work I mentioned in a recent article on this blog that looked back on 2017.

I started drafting this article shortly after reading the report but have held off publishing it until now to allow myself to calm down and reflect on the contents. You see my initial response was mix of anger, disappointment and frustration. Whilst there is some good in the report, much of it is weak and, frankly, poor. So here, tempered by a few days of reflection and re-writing, are my top nine reasons (in no order of importance) for feeling so disappointed by the report.

1 – No mention of family volunteering

Whilst it speaks about the role of government and education providers in encouraging young people to embrace volunteering, the report barely mentions the importance of families. Family volunteering is recognised as great way to instil values of service and volunteerism in young people, yet it doesn’t even warrant a mention. Yet again, an initiative to explore engaging more young people in volunteering places all responsibility on the state.

2 – The role of National Citizens Service (NCS)

I am concerned that the Holiday report places too much emphasis on NCS as a framework for developing full-time volunteering. I worry about the independence of a report commissioned by government that seeks to strengthen the argument for a government scheme, funded in excess of £1billion, and with big questions still to be answered about its efficacy. Whilst I see the sense in not creating yet another new organisation, questions still remain about the effectiveness and value for money of NCS. For example:

  • A key NCS volunteering metric is that eight million hours of volunteer time have been given. However, nothing is said about the impact that time had and the difference it made to young people and their communities.
  • 64% of NCS graduates would consider engaging in social action. This is touted as a success but, as I argued in my recent article about the problem with volunteering pledges, considering future engagement in volunteering does not mean they will actually go on and do more volunteering.

3 – Quality vs. quantity

Throughout the report there are calls for further evidence before action is taken. Yet this demand for evidence weakens significantly when it comes to discussion as to whether the quality of a volunteer experience is more important than how many people engage in volunteering, and how such time they give.

“Many organisations argue that quality of social action is more important than quantity. However, intuitively, the more a young person engages in voluntary activity, the greater the impact will be – although we need more research to substantiate this belief.”

Basic common sense would argue that if the quality of the experience is not good then it doesn’t matter how many people participate, they will not gain from it as much as they would if they had a great experience. Evidence surely isn’t needed to substantiate this?

Furthermore, I noticed in the call for evidence responses on page fourteen of the report (“What impact does full time social action / volunteering have on young people and providers in comparison to part time social action / volunteering?”) that the arguments for full-time volunteering over part-time volunteering relate to how well designed volunteer roles are (quality) and not how long people spend doing them (quantity).

4 – A missed opportunity regarding volunteering infrastructure

Page six of the report briefly notes the the inadequacy of infrastructure support to help young people engage in volunteering.

Since 2010 funding for volunteering infrastructure in England has been slashed, resulting in the closure of many local Volunteer Centres and, in many, cases a reduced service from those that remain.

It would have been good for an independent report such as this to acknowledge that the impacts of austerity on volunteering infrastructure have had, and will continue to have, long-term and significant effects on support for young people to engage in part- or full-time volunteering.

5 – Recommendation two – is there an echo in here?

“To ensure that social action is accessible to all, we recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions supports Job Coaches, to proactively inform young people who are Universal Credit claimants of their right to reduce their job-seeking hours up to 50 percent to participate in voluntary activities. We also favour extending this right to all benefit claimants and ask that the crucial role of volunteering is better recognised by this department. The Department for Work and Pensions should explore this and report back on implementation plans within 12 months.”

Different words may have been used on this occasion but that’s the same recommendation countless reports have made to the Department for Work and Pensions and it’s predecessors over the last 20 years. Still nothing has changed.

Reading the DWP ‘ statement in the report – which I can only assume is included to show they are responsive – I am struck by their failure to acknowledge that the rules aren’t the problem, it is how individual advisers interpret them. Doing what we have always done will get what we have always got. New thinking is needed to get DWP to change and I see no evidence of that here.

6 – Recommendation four – I’m sorry, what?!

“…the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) should lead an activity with NNVIA, Volunteering Matters, the Association of Volunteer Managers and V-Inspired to develop non-mandatory guidelines specific to 16-25 year olds with support and encouragement from government. This could include of ‘out-of-pocket’ expenses, setting realistic targets, good recruitment and safeguarding processes and reiterating that completion of social action programmes does not guarantee employment. Furthermore, they should develop a plan that encourages charities to operate transparently with young people, and encourage charities to provide better information, advice, guidance and support to young people during their social action journey.”

Whatever this ill defined activity is, this kind of work has been ongoing since Millennium Volunteers was conceived in the late 1990s. Exhibit one, the 1996 book pictured below from the National Centre for Volunteering, based on a year-long research project with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Volunteering By Young People Book, National Centre for Volunteering, 1996
Volunteering By Young People Book, National Centre for Volunteering, 1996

I can’t help but think that energy directed towards this recommendation will reinvent wheels. Much better would have been a focus on helping Volunteer Managers to create relevant and engaging full-time volunteering opportunities and support them in challenging the institutional barriers many would face in doing this e.g. paid staff feeling threatened that full-time volunteers will take their jobs.

Recommendation four demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding about volunteering and volunteer management, not surprising given no leaders of volunteers were on the inquiry panel.

7 – Recommendation eight – know your history

I was astounded to read this in recommendation eight of the report:

“…FTSA programmes are still in their infancy in the UK…”

Community Service Volunteers, now Volunteering Matters, has been running full-time volunteering programmes since 1962. Something fifty-six years old is hardly in its infancy!

8 – What about the clients?

The report talks extensively about the benefits of full-time volunteering to the volunteers and the organisations that involve them. Not once does it mention any benefit to the clients and beneficiaries of the organisations people volunteer for.

In fact, the only time this ever gets a mention is a point made (I assume by a young person) in the consultation with young people (page 17) which says:

“…full time social action opportunities need to have greater impact, led and developed by the communities they work within.”

Cliched it may be, but volunteers want to make a difference to the lives of others. Missing this element from the discussion of full-time volunteering is a significant omission.

9 – What’s in a word?

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted I have talked throughout this article about volunteering, not social action. That’s because I am a firm believer that we do not need a new word for volunteering. What we need is to reframe volunteering so it is more relevant for people.

Page fifteen of the report states:

“Social action was a familiar term to 75% of young people, but only half were able to define it”

In other words, whilst they may of heard of it half of young people don’t know what it is. If we are going to have to work hard educating people, why not do so with a term that probably has higher recognition but a bit of an image problem?

Furthermore, on the same page, social action is shown as distinct from volunteering by this statement:

“Social action is distinct from work experience and volunteering. It is about creating lasting social change on big issues that matter to young people and their communities. It can be used to address inequalities, challenge racism, and improve women’s rights. It is often personal to each young person, and that is the biggest motivating factor to getting involved.”

Because volunteers have never created lasting social change (HIV / AIDS awareness in the 1980s).

Because volunteers have never addressed big issues that matter (e.g. climate change and the environment).

Because volunteers have never tackled inequality, challenged racism or improved women’s rights.

Because volunteering is never a personal act. I’d give an example to challenge this but I don’t even know what point is being made. How is giving your time not a personal act?

Charlie Brown sums up my feelings about the use of the term social action.
Charlie Brown sums up my feelings about the use of the term social action.

So there you have it. As you can tell, I am less than impressed. But what do you think of the Holiday report? Do you agree or disagree with me? Leave a comment below.

And before I go, for a different spin on the Holiday report, take a look at Shaun Delaney’s assessment on the NCVO website.

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