This week, a cross-party committee of MPs criticised the National Citizen Service in a report that raised concerns about value for money and transparency. The report concluded that "now is the time to think radically" about the programme’s future.
The Public Accounts Committee is right: we do need "radical thinking" about how to embed civic volunteering in public life. Unlike the US, France, Australia and Germany, the UK has long lacked an established, government-backed voluntary service scheme for young people. That’s not for lack of demand: more than 90 per cent of 16 to 60-year-olds agree that a programme of voluntary service should be on offer in the UK.
The NCS is the first concerted attempt by government to make the experience of giving back to your community one that is shared, nationally recognised and worthwhile for those who take part. Like its sister initiatives abroad, such as AmeriCorps in the US or Service Civique in France, the NCS has the potential to mobilise a new generation of volunteers in areas of high social need. That’s the radical vision we should be reaching for.
In light of the Public Accounts Committee report, it is absolutely right to pose some tough questions about the way the NCS is currently delivered, but it would be wrong to slate the entire endeavour as a doomed vanity project, as some have. Too many other countries have got this right for us not to ensure the NCS is a success.
Let’s be clear. There would be nothing radical about defunding or scrapping the NCS. Each of the last three Prime Ministers before Theresa May chose to scrap a major volunteering initiative set up by their predecessor. Each time this has happened, the voluntary sector has had to recover painfully.
The PAC report concluded that the NCS was getting a number of things right where previous attempts had failed. The NCS brand is not far behind the Duke of Edinburgh's Award in terms of name recognition by young people, a remarkable feat given that the DofE has had 50 years to reach its current status. The NCS has been shown to have had an impact on young people in outcomes such as wellbeing and social trust.
Radical thinking about the future of the NCS should be about building on these successes to ensure even more return on the money spent by central government. That means lowering the cost to administer the scheme and leveraging higher social impact out of the volunteering that the programme supports.
When it comes to lowering costs, a radical approach would be to integrate the NCS much more into national schooling, perhaps alongside reintroduced citizenship education, so that less money needs to be spent on recruitment; or being more flexible about how the NCS is delivered so charity groups that already do social mixing and adventure camps are more involved.
Government should also do much more to help direct the NCS at some of the social issues with the most need. After all, this is where the payback from money spent on the NCS will come from. For example, the NCS can help channel new volunteers to roles in the social care system, in disadvantaged schools or in heritage and conservation sites that are often hard to maintain.
To help support these new roles, the government might need to look at changing the law to create a new legal status for people who take part in extended and full-time volunteering. An independent review of this issue has been announced, and it feels more urgent than ever in light of this week’s report.
These are all important steps that government can take, and reasons why I feel optimistic about the NCS, so long as we all think a little more radically.
David Reed (@ddotreed) is director of Generation Change, a partnership of the UK's leading youth volunteering charities