Volunteers in public services are needed, whatever unions may believe

With a renewed focus on funding cuts and the future of public services, we can expect a debate about the role of volunteers in delivering those services, says Rob Jackson

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

With the recent Autumn Statement from the government and a renewed focus on funding cuts and the consequences of austerity, the spotlight is inevitably going to shift towards the future of public services. Within this will surely be a debate about the role of volunteers in delivering public services.

The RSA have been doing some helpful work in this area as part of theirPeople Shaped Localism programme, seeking to illustrate how public involvement in service delivery through volunteering can be a good thing rather than just something to be concerned about. They argue that, "…by expanding formal and informal volunteering, local public services have a positive opportunity to promote wellbeing and social value, move resources towards prevention, and redesign services to be more inclusive, collaborative and accountable to their communities and service users."

One thing I can pretty much guarantee is that the main group who will speak out against greater volunteer engagement in public services are the unions. So this month I want to highlight four things that are usually flawed in any union’s anti-volunteering rhetoric.

First, they confuse amateur with incompetent, assuming the opposite – professional means competent. This is the same argument some in the voluntary sector use to argue for paid trustees – we pay people, we get more professional behaviour and more competent practice. That simply does not hold up to reality. What someone is paid is no indicator of their professionalism or competence. This is an area I’ve blogged on before so do take a look at a post on my own blog for my thoughts.

Second, they imply volunteers within public services will just be random people, plucked from the street and placed into roles with no training or support. This is something no competent volunteer manager or sane person would ever do, yet it is taken as gospel when stated by unions. Volunteers, when properly recruited, managed and supported, are no less competent at what they do than paid staff.

Third, and this one is a little bizarre, unions sometime suggest volunteers, because they are unpaid, may be less committed than paid staff. Interesting. Doing a job for no pay implies less commitment? If anything, the issue with volunteers is them being too committed!

Finally, and crucially, every union spokesperson I hear or read about fails to recognise the the very movement and organisation they represents run on volunteer labour. As they state on their website, "Unison employs 1,200 staff and have 1.3 million members, relying on volunteer activists. Without them Unison would not be able to function". So why are other volunteers well meaning amateurs, untrained, uncommitted individuals who are out to take paid staff jobs yet union volunteers aren’t?

As leaders and managers of volunteers we need to stand up to these ill-informed, prejudice driven perspectives on volunteering. We need to challenge lazy thinking and find a way to work with unions, and others, to ensure volunteer involvement in public services adds value without displacing people from paid work.

I wonder if we are ready for the task ahead?

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