Future participation targets in the government’s National Citizen Service programme will be missed by more than 40 per cent if current growth rates continue, the National Audit Office has warned.
In a report on the scheme, published today, the government’s spending watchdog says that costs are far higher than expected and must fall by almost 30 per cent per place if the £1.7bn programme is to stay within budget.
Meg Hillier, chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, said that with the NCS costing the public purse almost £2,000 per participant and its ambitious growth targets having been repeatedly missed, "it is difficult to see how it will be sustainable in the long term".
The NAO’s report says the programme, which was established in 2011 as part of the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s big society agenda, has had some early successes, but it is too soon to assess whether it will meet its long-term aim of contributing to a more responsible, cohesive and engaged society.
The scheme typically involves groups of 16 and 17-year-olds from England and Northern Ireland completing a four-week long programme that includes outdoor team-building activities and work on community projects.
The report says the Office for Civil Society spent £443m on the scheme up to 2015/16 and has committed a further £1.26bn to it up to 2020.
It says participation in the scheme is not increasing as fast as was hoped by the OCS or the NCS Trust, the body set up in 2013 to take over the management of the programme.
It says that in February last year, the OCS set the target of increasing participation in the scheme to 360,000 young people in 2020/21, almost four times the number that took part in 2016 and representing 60 per cent of 16-year-olds in that year.
It predicts that if growth at the current rate of 23 per cent continues, there would be 213,000 participants in 2020/21, missing the 360,000 target by more than 40 per cent.
The report says the cost of the scheme per participant to date has been higher than anticipated and needs to fall.
The OCS and the NCS Trust have not yet prioritised reducing costs, though the trust told the NAO that this was one of its four main priorities, the report says.
It adds that funding made available in the 2015 autumn spending review implied a unit cost of £1,562 per participant in 2016, but the OCS and the NCS Trust expect to have spent £1,863 per participant for each of the 93,000 young people who completed the programme in 2016. "The cost per participant needs to fall by 29 per cent to £1,314 in 2019 for the trust to provide 300,000 places and stay within the funding envelope," the NAO report says.
It adds that the NCS Trust paid providers an estimated £10m for places on the scheme that have not been filled, although it plans to recover those costs.
The report says that young people have been positive about their experiences on the NCS: 84 per cent of participants in 2015 said they would recommend the programme to others.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said the programme was at a critical stage.
"The OCS and the trust have shown that the NCS can attract large numbers of participants, and participation has a positive effect on young people," he said.
"These are no small achievements, but it remains unclear whether these effects are enduring and whether NCS can grow to become 'a rite of passage' available to all 16 to 17-year-olds.
"The OCS and the trust now need to think radically about the aspects of the current programme that work and how best to achieve NCS's aims at a more affordable cost to the taxpayer."
Michael Lynas, chief executive of the NCS Trust, said the trust was grateful to the NAO for its recommendations and would work closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which houses the Office for Civil Society, and other partners to deliver them.
He said the report noted the positive impact that the programme had had on the young people who took part and the scheme had grown rapidly to reach more than 93,000 young people last year.
He said the NAO drew attention to the mix of backgrounds represented on the scheme, with a higher proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds taking part in the scheme than make up the general population.
"NCS Trust is proud of these achievements, which are a credit to the 300,000 young people who have had life-changing experiences on the NCS, and the network of hundreds of youth, charity and voluntary sector organisations that make the programme happen in communities up and down our country," Lynas said.
"While doing this, our network has reduced the cost of delivering the programme and we have remained inside our budget."