Rob Jackson: The Civil Society Strategy is flawed and a major missed opportunity

There is absolutely nothing of any real substance in the government's document

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Like many people, I was enjoying my holiday in early August and missed the launch of the Westminster government’s much anticipated Civil Society Strategy. Having read up on it since my return (thanks, in part, to a helpful summary from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations), I want to share with you everything of real substance that I think the strategy says about volunteering:

Yes, that’s right. Throughout all 123 pages of the Civil Society Strategy there is nothing substantive about volunteering. Volunteering, an activity worth billions of pounds to the economy, something in which nearly 40 per cent of the adult population engages every year and which provides the vast majority of the social sector’s workforce (yes, social sector seems to be the new buzz term for the voluntary and community sector).

Volunteering is fundamental to civil society, yet all it gets are warm words and vague aspirations. I wonder why? Perhaps the toxic legacy of the failed bg society initiative still looms large. Perhaps because the only other volunteering initiative proposed by the government (paid time off work to volunteer) seems to have quietly disappeared since David Cameron left office, despite officials saying the idea is "still on the table".

Whatever the reason, as Shaun Delany points out in his analysis for the NCVO, most of what the Civil Society Strategy does say about volunteering is a rehash of old announcements, existing funding and current initiatives. Delany also rightly points out that most of this work is focused on young people, despite the government stating a desire to enable "a lifetime of contribution" (this is an issue I this is an issue I addressed in 2016, when the government consulted on future plans for lottery funding).

I was especially dismayed to see that volunteer management isn’t mentioned once! Throughout the whole document there is no recognition of the need for effective leadership to engage volunteers. Perhaps ministers think all that volunteering happens by magic!

The Civil Society Strategy makes no reference to the government’s own Community Life Survey 2017-18, which, among other things, provides details of the barriers people faced by people who want to volunteer. Consequently, nothing is said about how those barriers might be overcome and what government, civil society and others could do to address these barriers. A missed opportunity.

If I have to end on a positive note then it’s the commitment by NHS England to strengthen volunteering in healthcare, but even that isn’t anything new given the ongoing efforts of HelpForce and others to ensure that volunteers make meaningful contributions to the NHS.

Ten years ago the Commission on the Future of Volunteering launched its Manifesto for Change. A decade on we have a UK government strategy that says nothing meaningful about volunteering.

Put simply, when it comes to volunteering, the Civil Society Strategy is a waste of paper.The government might as well have not bothered.

Perhaps we should dust off the Manifesto For Change and do it all ourselves instead.

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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