Volunteering is often seen through an all too simple lens. If you were to ask someone to describe an example of ‘volunteering’, they might say helping to serve food at a homeless shelter, checking up on an elderly neighbour, or tending to a community garden. They are less likely to say doing the bookkeeping for a local charity, writing a business plan for a social enterprise or undertaking some desk-research for an NGO. Yet it is arguably these kinds of activities that third sector organisations will need greatest help with over the coming years, not least because they are being enticed into taking on more sophisticated functions such as tendering for public service contracts.
The changing face of third sector operations will in turn require a transformation in the calibre of the volunteers we recruit. In short, we will need to get better at identifying and mobilising skilled individuals who are up to the challenge of undertaking more demanding tasks. This is in part what we have attempted to do with the RSA’s ‘ChangeMakers’ project. Using an innovative new method, we were able to identify some 240 ChangeMakers in Peterborough who are driving positive change – among them businessmen, housing officers, students, artists and social entrepreneurs – and are now in the process of bringing these individuals together as part of a new collaborative network which works to improve the city.
Although mobilising this group will prove something of a challenge, we are not starting from scratch – by definition, ChangeMakers are already highly active in their communities and have experience of applying their skills for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, the same cannot necessarily be said of most skilled individuals. Despite the fact that twice as many people with a degree volunteer compared to those without any qualifications, there are still many out there who we have been unable to galvanise into action and whose wealth of talents remain untapped.
One reasonable explanation for this is that these highly educated, experienced individuals have less time at their disposal. They are more likely to be in senior positions at work, meaning that even if they want to help out at a local charity or social enterprise they simply don’t have the time or energy to do so. Another reason is that they don’t recognise themselves as particularly skilled or talented. Or if they do, they fail to see how their abilities could be applied in such a way to support a third sector organisation. Judging from our experience with the ChangeMakers project, this is entirely plausible: many of the people we identified were genuinely surprised that they had been nominated as someone driving positive change.
Bring these and other explanations together and we can begin to paint a more detailed picture of the difficulties in recruiting and managing ‘elite’ volunteers. The big piece that is still missing, however, is an acknowledgement of the mental demands that accompany participation. We can ponder endlessly about whether people have the time, the skills or the knowledge to volunteer. But this debate will prove fruitless unless we understand that ‘participation is personal’, something which is ultimately tied up in the nature of our identities and how we see ourselves in relation to others.
Take an example. A high-flying graduate who works for a major consultancy firm has the necessary time and skills to help undertake an audit of a charity in their neighbourhood. On the face of it, there should be no barrier stopping this person from offering their services. But this would be to ignore the hidden mental demands that are associated with the task. For instance, as somebody who may be in a position of authority at work, they may feel some discomfort at being directed by a less senior person in a smaller organisation. It may also be that the culture of the third sector environment doesn’t go in tandem with the one they’re accustomed to in the private sphere. Likewise, they may have to work with individuals who they wouldn’t normally choose to associate with in their work or private lives (see our Beyond the Big Society report for a fuller explanation of this ‘hidden curriculum’).
What this means is that any aspiration to grow the numbers of skilled people offering their services as volunteers will have to be accompanied by a much more considered approach to identifying, recruiting and coordinating those individuals. It will need to be one that thinks not only about matching specific skills with need but also about linking people and organisations based on their like-mindedness and cultural similarities. The immediate costs may appear too large at first and the exercise overly complex, but in the long run the dividends will justify the time and expense. Indeed, it’s not a case of if we choose to reform the way we recruit and manage volunteers but rather when and how.
David Brookes recently argued that our view of human nature should have profound implications for how we run public services.
What are those implications? Or, as Americans say, “where’s the beef?”
Over the course of this week I am going to try and sketch out what I think are some of the implications for public services of new insights into human nature. Specifically, I will be looking at the implications of findings on the importance of social networks.
I would really appreciate your feedback on what I write here.
- Do no harm
I think the most obvious and least contentious implication of the importance of social networks is analogous to Mill’s Harm Principle. Wherever possible public services should attempt to ensure that they do not damage people’s social networks. If they do, they should be conscious of what they are doing and have weighed carefully the costs and benefits of such a course of action.
Although this may seem a fairly obvious principle it does immediately raise the question as to whether social networks are good in and of themselves and whether there are optimal arrangements of social networks. I am indebted to Perri 6 for raising these points with me.
I am not arguing that simply having a large number of friends or acquaintances is a good thing or that there is a perfect arrangement of acquaintances that we should aspire to. However, I think there are clear cases where damaging someone’s social networks can have negative affects on people. For example;
We know that loneliness and isolation can be very bad for people. However, those people who are most isolated or lonely are often those who benefit from a large number of public services.
In many cases these public services actually reinforce isolation. This could be through agency care workers that come and go at a bewildering rate or online customer services that are completely impersonal.
Being forced to think about how the bread and butter work of public services can reduce isolation, rather than reinforce it, is one of the most striking challenges to come out of the work on the importance of social networks. This could come through initiatives like TimeBanking, Co-Production or by networking services users, as is done in Southwark Circle.
Governance and participation
For several decades now there has been a cross-party consensus that the users of services should participate in the governance of those services. This can be seen in a range of initiatives from Safer Neighbourhood Teams to tenants sitting on the board of Arms Length Management Organisations for housing stock to Local Involvement Networks for health.
The coalition government have continued this approach, notably encouraging parents to be more involved in the running of schools and giving patients a role in the new health and wellbeing boards.
A social networks perspective throughs up an interesting take on the idea of participation in the governance of public services. One of the strongest reasons for encouraging this type of participation is that service users understand the needs of other services users and are therefore representative of other users, in some sense.
However, a paradox here is that those service users that do participate in this way are often labelled as ‘the usual suspects’ by public officials and their views can be discounted. Worse still, their connections with other service users can be weakened as a result. Partly because they spend so much of their time attending board meetings and the like but more profoundly because they are seen to be part of the system.
The implication is that when public services create space for the participation of service users in governance arrangements they need to ensure that they go out of their way to support these service users to network and remain in contact with as many other service users as is possible.
Disrupting social networks
There are often reasons why government programmes might radically disrupt people’s social networks, for example a transport project, such as a new high speed rail link, or a regeneration project such as the one currently taking place in the Aylesbury estate.
These large infrastructure projects are very difficult to cost. Considerations over land prices, optimism bias from contractors and the availability of finance all need to be weighed up.
It is much harder to put a price on the social networks that are disrupted by such projects. It is also harder to mitigate against the disruption that will be caused. However, I think that one of the conclusions we should draw from insights on the importance of social networks is to be wary of projects that will radically disrupt social networks and take all possible measures to mitigate the damage that might be caused.
I would love to hear your thoughts on what I have written here and whether you think there are other implications for public services.
“We want to be super-local, seriously neighbourhood-based and almost microscopically granular” so said Francis Maude, last year, on the government’s proposed Communities First Fund.
Indeed “the neighbourhood” is the location for a number of government initiatives including the proposed neighbourhood plans.
This government is not the first one to decide that they want programmes to be delivered at the neighbourhood level. What lessons can we learn from previous neighbourhood level government initiatives?
I was prompted to ask this question after meeting John Hitchin, who had worked on the EC1 New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme. He gave me a copy of their evaluation report. Unlike many evaluations it is an accessible and practical document that provides some food for thought.
So here are three lessons I would draw from previous neighbourhood level programmes;
- Participation should be broadly understood
Sometimes the idea of resident involvement, which was central to the New Deal for Communities (NDC) programmes, translated into creating ways for residents to be involved in the NDC itself, rather than participation in community life.
One of the problems with the state itself creating spaces for resident involvement is that the state can then, in turn, ignore the views of these residents. JRF’s work on participation in Haringey starkly illustrates this point. They looked at the different mechanisms that residents could be involved in decision making in the local authority, the primary care trust and in the police. They found that public officials were very sceptical of the ‘representativeness’ of any residents that got involved in these mechanisms and this enabled them to discount views that were challenging. There was little evidence that resident involvement had actually materially changed practice or policies.
Rather than seeing participation through the lens of public services and encouraging residents to become more involved with neighbourhood initiatives, future neighbourhood programmes could look at ways in which they can support people to be more involved in community life.
- Support community groups to be themselves
Sometimes the additional funding that comes with neighbourhood programmes means that local community groups change their behaviour in order to obtain money from these programmes.
This can be more or less subtle. Community groups can start to adopt the organisational culture of the public sector (KPIs and all), start running new programmes which are not their priorities but the priorities of their funder, or spend more of their time understanding the needs of their funder rather than the needs of the people who use their services.
Finding ways to support community groups without drastically altering their culture or behaviour is no easy trick. I have mentioned before the Grassroots Grants programme, which I think had some success in supporting small community groups that had not previously received government money. Looking closely at this programme could pay dividends for those who are designing new neighbourhood programmes.
- Don’t top up core funding
The temptation for programmes aimed at improving neighbourhoods is to spend money making the area cleaner, greener and safer, since these are invariably the priorities for residents.
There is a real danger that this will mean that those public services that are already responsible for these things will use this as an excuse to lower their levels of service.
More subtly, when a neighbourhood programme tops up existing public services it can make it harder to influence the way in which those services are delivered. Changing the culture of existing public services was one of the most notable achievements of some of the neighbourhood management pilots, and the idea of “bend the spend” should be maintained as a focus of neighbourhood programmes.
New governments want to make an impression. They want to make it clear that they are distinct from the previous government. That is understandable. This article is not an argument for preserving programmes or initiatives that went before. Rather, it is an argument that we should learn from what went before.
Working on a programme called Citizen Power is, I have to admit, a bit of a challenge coming from a human rights background. Who is this citizen whose power we’re so interested in?
For all that Socrates may proclaim himself a citizen of the world, citizenship is, by its very nature, exclusive. The citizens of a community must satisfy some set of requirements in order to enjoy membership in that community. While these requirements may have changed drastically from the fall of the polis to the rise of the nation state, they serve a similar purpose: to draw a line between those who belong and those who do not. The citizen is inevitably defined in opposition to the non-citizen – the culturally, ethnically, linguistically or politically different ‘other’ who lies on or outside the boundaries of the ‘imagined community’ of the nation state.
This is so for several (interrelated) reasons. First, in the modern welfare state, citizenship confers various social and welfare rights on citizens. In order to ensure that the state remains economically viable, it seems wise to limit these rights to those who, in turn, do their bit by paying taxes, contributing to the labour market, and so on.
Second, the principles of democratic legitimacy require that that rights of political participation are extended to all those who are affected by the political decision-making process. By exercising their right to vote or stand for office, citizens grant politicians a mandate to create or amend public policy on their behalf. Again, it makes sense to limit these rights to the legitimate members of a political community – we can’t have every tourist and their dog turning up on polling day.
And third, citizenship – particularly in its civic republican form – is a reciprocal agreement that demands active participation from its members. Yes, citizens are entitled to certain rights – but, in return, they also have certain obligations to contribute to a common social good (by engaging in public deliberation, shaping public institutions, helping out elderly neighbours, etc). This is reflected in the idea of a “Human Rights Act Plus” (which looks at supplementing existing rights and liberties with citizens’ responsibilities), and documents like the NHS Constitution and the Department for Education’s Guidelines on parental responsibility, which set out both rights and corresponding obligations.
This is all very well in theory, but in practice it gets a bit messy. There are many groups that are affected by political decision-making but excluded from the sphere of citizenship, particularly where this is premised on active participation. This may be because they fail to meet the formal requirements of citizenship (including asylum seekers, refugees and migrants); they have forfeited their rights to political participation (including prisoners); or they lack the basic capacities required to participate (including those who are very elderly, severely mentally disabled, extremely poor, homeless, unable to speak English, or otherwise marginalised).
In Peterborough, where the Citizen Power programme is based, there are relatively high levels of poverty (in 2009, 18% of working age persons were claiming a key benefit, against the national average of 15%), homelessness (in 2008-2009, 2.41 households were recognised as homeless per 1,000 people, up from national average of 1.03) and ethnic diversity (8.99% of Peterborians were born outside the UK or Ireland, up from the national average of 8.32%) and, anecdotally, large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. Citizen Power aims to revitalise a sense of attachment to place in Peterborough by building connections between people and communities and encouraging active public participation. But, in doing so, how inclusive is it of those who lie at the margins of – or beyond – the framework of citizenship, and are arguably most vulnerable? And, perhaps more importantly, how inclusive should it be?
There are definitely steps in the direction of inclusiveness. The Recovery Capital project is working closely with injecting drug users and prolific and persistent offenders. Peterborough Curriculum draws on the resources offered by a culturally diverse local community to create a unique place-based curriculum. The Take Me To project took a diverse group of residents – including members of the local Polish and Muslim communities, elderly community members, and adults with learning disabilities from 49 Lincoln Road – on an exploration of place and belonging. And the Civic Health project will examine the capacities required for active participation – including, crucially, where these are most lacking in Peterborough – and provide tools for addressing these gaps in order to encourage as broad a sphere of participation as possible.
Citizen Power Peterborough seeks to resuscitate a shared sense of community identity premised on other-regarding behaviour. In doing so, how can we best look outwards towards those on the margins of citizenship who are most in need of empowerment?
One of the component parts of Citizen Power (a two year programme of innovation, participation and place-making in Peterborough) aims to spark and support local people’s ideas that could make “green” behaviour easier throughout the city. When planning the project we were inspired by insights into what can influence people’s behaviour and decision-making (such as the dramatic effect of social proof).
Our approach has been to teach these principles to local residents and help them apply them to the behaviours that underlie local environmental problems. We think that giving community activists the knowledge and support to “nudge” their neighbours could be a better way of encouraging behaviour change. National attempts to apply these principles could leave people feeling preached at, or alienate people by taking covert approaches.
Instead, we think that training community activists with the knowledge they need to nudge their neighbours can harness their local knowledge, their “one-of-us” status, and their existing trusted relationships with their community.
Towards the end of last year we tested this approach in a two-day workshop. Twenty-five enthusiastic residents learned about the effects of personal, social and infrastructural factors on human behaviour, then worked together to apply this knowledge to Peterborough specific problems. After a pitch to a panel of judges, two ideas were selected for seed-funding and non-financial support to allow them to become pilot projects.
One of the pilots will encourage a wider segment of the community to manage local plots of unused land. The group behind this project plan to map unused land in their neighbourhood and throughout Peterborough, then run small interventions to encourage local people to take an active role in stewarding the land.
The other pilot will encourage residents living near an area of ancient woodland to take an active forest management role. Currently neglected and the scene of anti-social behaviour, the community decided to create a woodland walk to make walking through the forest a normal activity for local residents.
Part of this approach to local nudging was informed by a paper – The Ecology of Innovation - that we published just before Christmas. It presents a few simple principles that could be used to encourage and support local people in getting projects off the ground. These principles include ensuring that local community organisations are able to participate in contributing their ideas, and supporting their ideas with financial and non-financial support so that they can be tested. You can read the paper online or download it here.
In 2011, we’re looking forward to getting these ideas off the ground, and also holding more workshops to encourage and support more ideas that could make Peterborough into an even greener place to live!