Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Many people are worried about the extra work being given to charities

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Letter to Bury Free Press [BFP]:

Many people are worried about how the extra work given to charities, as part of Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction, is going to be funded. They should also be concerned about the loss of public sector jobs, the quality of essential council services, and the impact of the proposed changes on the whole ethos of volunteering.

Outsourcing to the private sector could, hopefully, lead to companies taking on workers in the public sector. There is some evidence too, that staff transferred to the private sector could see some improvement in terms of pay and conditions. Outsourcing through competitive tendering can also result in an improvement in service quality, though there are some notorious examples of dramatic failure.

But outsourcing to a charity is a different matter. It might work if charities take on properly paid experienced professionals but this is unlikely in the current climate of cost-cutting. Similarly, the rhetoric of the “big society” might have some resonance at a time of expanding national income, but at a time when local councils are being forced to cut costs it could become a vehicle for undermining the quality of essential public services.

For example, there are suggestions that volunteers might run libraries. Good libraries, like all good local services, need expert people working within them. There may be a role for some aspect of volunteering, but all the central stuff must be done by people who are qualified to do it. The same goes for other areas ear-marked for outsourcing like care for the elderly.

Traditionally, volunteers supplement the role of professionals – they do not replace them. “Citizens Advice” is an excellent example of how well-trained and experienced volunteers support, and are themselves supported, by a core of paid experts.

If (as some local politicians are determined should happen) the voluntary sector takes on new contracts, this could change the whole ethos and purpose of volunteering. The concept of “big society” could lead to the “politicization” of volunteering. People may well be encouraged, or conversely, discouraged from volunteering because of political ideology. Will you want to volunteer if you know that you will be putting someone out of work? Will you want to do things for nothing that previously you used to get paid for doing? Will you want to volunteer because Mr Cameron says you should? You may even prefer to pay higher taxes and let paid professionals do the jobs.

If you are on the receiving end of the services provided by these new platoons of volunteers will you question their experience and expertise? Can you demand professionalism from someone who is merely doing you a favour? Can you sack them if they are no good at their job?

There are even suggestions that volunteers could gain “big society reward points” or loyalty cards for doing good deeds such as looking after elderly neighbours. These would be redeemable in supermarkets, shops and restaurants.

The problem with this approach is that it emphasises “extrinsic” rewards and self-interest. Traditional volunteering emphasises “intrinsic” benefits and involves a mutual endeavour and altruism where people are more inclined to look out for each other because it gives them the personal satisfaction of “doing good”.

Charities, if they are not careful, could find themselves being hi-jacked by a local council invoking “big society” rhetoric to legitimise party political motivations and their programme of cost-cutting. So, before we volunteer to run local council services, we need to think long and hard about how it may impact on the proper balance between the public and voluntary sectors, on the quality of the newly organised services, and on the positive and constructive ethos of volunteering itself.

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