Late last year, The Daily Mail joined with Helpforce to launch a fresh call for people to volunteer within the NHS. Shortly afterwards Matt Hancock MP, the UK government’s Health Secretary, called for the introduction of a volunteer passport. He said:

“I want to make it easier to volunteer in the NHS. I want to introduce a volunteer passport so that the checks that it’s important people undergo can be done once and then somebody is approved and trained to work as a volunteer in any setting. At the moment if you have a background check it’s for a particular role. It should be based on the need for a particular person and then that could be taken across the NHS.”

What then, are some of the pros and cons of such a passporting scheme?

Potential benefits

The obvious one is that a volunteer passport could help to reduce bureaucracy and make it quicker and easier for people to start volunteering. Instead of it taking three-to-six months from submitting an application to a volunteer starting in their role, the aspiration is to get this down to one month.

I have written before about the risk avoidance culture in many Volunteer Involving Organisations, a culture that creates barriers for people because paid staff view volunteers simply as well-meaning but incompetent simply because they are unpaid. Arguably, this culture is just as – if not more – prevalent in the NHS than the voluntary sector.

If this passport scheme tackles the excessive barriers many volunteers face, then it will be a very valuable tool in public sector volunteer engagement.

There is also the potential for such a passport to make it easier for volunteers to move between different volunteer roles more seamlessly. Instead of re-checking someone when they switch their volunteering to another department, the passport would credential the volunteer, enabling them to get started straight away.

Equally, if someone is doing a volunteer role in the NHS at one end of the country but moves house to the opposite end of the country, they should be able to move straight into a similar role near their new home without new checks and assessments being conducted. In fact, if this passport could be extended beyond the NHS it may well revolutionise the bureaucracy involved in all volunteer recruitment!

Potential challenges

First, who will conduct and pay for the initial volunteer screening and how will the quality of that process be assessed? Somebody has to do the first set of checks on a volunteer and conduct any induction training that the passport will cover. This work needs to be done to a standard that all NHS bodies and regulators will agree to if the passport is going to fulfil its purpose. There will be a cost to this that will need to be covered – volunteering is freely given but not cost-free after all – and the money for this will need to found from already over-stretched NHS budgets.

Second, will everyone who volunteers in the NHS be screened to the same level, regardless of role? If so, then I would suspect that level will be the highest one possible. But do we really need someone staffing the tea bar to have a full-suite of criminal record checks conducted when they will never get near a patient on an unsupervised one-to-one basis? And wouldn’t this contradict the rules bodies like the Disclosure and Barring Service have in place about not conducting volunteer checks on people who don’t need them? Similarly, might this not cut across the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act which protects some people from having to disclose spent convictions when applying for some paid and volunteer roles?

Third, will a passport scheme on its own really address the ingrained cultural issues that regard volunteers as risky because they are unpaid? Might we not end up with well screened and trained volunteers working in the NHS who paid staff still look down upon and treat badly simply because they are volunteers? Tackling the operational barriers to volunteering such a culture creates is one thing, actually changing the culture in order to deliver a better volunteer experience is a whole other can of worms.

Fourth, technology has never been a strong point of the NHS. However good a passport scheme is, it needs to be built on sustainable, secure and reliable IT infrastructure, something the NHS isn’t known for. This is the institution that is only just phasing out fax machines and who still use outdated and un-secure versions of Microsoft Windows!

Finally, will there be any flexibility to allow for the importance of the human element of good volunteer management and screening? As one colleague from Australia commented when I shared this article on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd Facebook page:

“Volunteer Managers should still be allowed to make the reference check each time (if the role requires it). That chat to a previous Volunteer Manager can be vital to ensuring that the volunteer is in the right role for them and the organisation.”

Let me conclude by saying that I believe the Helpforce volunteer passport is a good idea and something worth supporting. It has real potential to make it easier for people to volunteer in and across the NHS. In fact, if it works, it may even set a model for a passport that could apply across other sectors as well.

It is worth the effort to try and overcome the challenges of these kinds of schemes so the benefits can be realised and I look forward to seeing how the plans develop over the coming months.

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