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Volunteers in public services play a pivotal role and so it does not come at a surprise that their contribution is debated and re-evaluated in times of scarcity. The future for public services and volunteers alike might be bleak if services are cut and demands on volunteers increase beyond a sustainable level. However, as is often the case, challenges also open up the space to think about new opportunities and so the future might be one of collaboration and co-producing services for local needs.

Budget cuts, combined with an aging population put significant pressure on public services. Whilst the former points towards the need to do less, the latter points towards the need to do more. Here, volunteers are key. Active citizenship may help modern services mobilise or access a broader range of assets with which to meet community needs and aspirations.

The range of roles undertaken by volunteers is just as diverse as volunteers themselves. Volunteers are at the forefront in the health and care sector, policing and community safety as well as libraries – sectors that have been severely affected by cuts in recent years. This leads to the obvious question of whether volunteers are merely a substitute for paid staff or if they can bring a unique set of skills and knowledge to the table.

Here at the RSA, we invited volunteers and volunteer experts ranging from innovators, service leaders and academics, to debate how we can shape the future of volunteering in public services for the benefit of individuals and communities alike. The roundtable debated the way in which public services are engaging with volunteers to achieve the outcomes volunteers themselves wish to see, and also the types of volunteering that might bring about positive change by disrupting familiar services. Our discussion looked at how to produce change at both the level of individual services, and at the level of the place. We asked ourselves what can diverse public services learn from each other about changing their services creatively – co-productively – with volunteers? Moreover, what can diverse public services in a place do together to nourish the volunteering capacity and norms of local communities?

We also wanted to see which circumstances give rise to creative and powerful forms of volunteering. The RSA’s Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor, argued that we lack strong conceptual frameworks for thinking about volunteering and suggested looking at it through a cultural theory conceptual lens that “can enable the combined efforts of volunteers to make the world kinder, better, more dynamic - and just a little more likely to succeed.”

To kick-off debate we asked ourselves what volunteering means to us and each participant brought with him or her an object of choice that he or she connects with volunteering. The answers - and indeed the objects - were just as diverse as our audience and included:

  • An Oyster card symbolizing the need of the economic and practical means to travel to take part in volunteering activities,
  • (Imaginary) bricks which are the building blocks of homes, just as volunteers are the building blocks of our society,
  • Soil which developed over many years and needs careful treatment to be preserved as it be destroyed quickly.
  • A laser gun that enables community volunteers to take action against speeding (by recording speed, rather than by destroying culprits!).

This shows us that volunteering is about much more than providing your labour for free. Volunteering is about empowerment, connection, trust, learning and sharing – giving and taking aliketiny_Twitter

Our range of speakers included experts from libraries, academia, local councils, charities, volunteer organizations and blue light services and community resilience organisations all of whom praised their volunteers for being an integral part of their services.

In libraries, volunteers are doing more than just shelving books. Volunteers also have a stake in the library ownership and thus serve as community connectors and as a consequence the relationship between locals and their library became more transparent and open. The degree of local ownership ranges from co-produced libraries to community supported and community commissioned libraries, each with a varying degree of council and volunteer support. These co-produced libraries are not just delivered from the community for the community, but they are also believed to be more sustainable as ‘local people have wrapped their arms’ around the library. It is evident, that trust, honesty and tapping into willingness and skills is essential here.  

However, volunteers are not just resources that can be mobilised as ‘units of actions’ in times of need as one of our speakers argued. Mobilising volunteers requires excellent management practice ‘to help each volunteer to realise their potential’ and ‘to make co-production reality’.

Sometimes, you need to ‘let go’ to allow volunteer action to occur, if ‘co-production is to be more than just rhetoric’. Sometimes, you need to ‘let go’ to allow volunteer action to occur, if ‘co-production is to be more than just rhetoric’. 

This also echoes the point made by another speaker who argued that volunteers have ‘tremendous skills’. The Special Constabulary, for example, provide a trained force of volunteers with full police power that provide vital links between the police and the community. Police Support Volunteers also serve in over 100 different roles to keep communities safe. The diversity and range of skills needed is huge. Young volunteers in particular provide, for example, vital support to Police forces when it comes to fighting crime. Moreover, a quarter of volunteer police cadets are from deprived backgrounds, enabling young people to actively participate in the community and to gain valuable skills and experience preparing young people for their future careers.

This is of particular importance in terms of community resilience. In modern times, people have become more reliant on the intervention of the local and national state.  The state is often very good at doing things. But as major incidents as witnessed during the Somerset flooding highlighted, the state still has limited capacity. There is a need for active communities and structured volunteer action when the state by itself lacks the capacity to help.

So the obvious question, then, is if public service volunteering can drive change, what needs to be done to encourage all sectors of the community to be part of this process? How can we enable culture change and what are these mechanisms of change?

Our participants responded by arguing that a change of language is essential. Oftentimes, we talk of ‘using volunteers’, but as mentioned above volunteers are not unit of resource, they are a powerful way of empowering people or recognising what the RSA would call their Power to Create. So it’s about more than ‘using’, it’s about giving people a sense of citizenship, belonging and enabling them to contribute to their local community. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves what we are giving back to people in return for their time and effort.

After all, volunteers do not just want to fill gaps, volunteers want to make a real difference tiny_Twitterto the experience of service users’.

Moreover, volunteers need to be engaged in determining what volunteer support is needed in their local community. The use of open data is of great significance to let local interpret local data and to work out possible approaches to mitigate negative effects. Here, the community speed watch scheme was cited as an example.

Sometimes, as one of our speakers argued, we do not need to create services enabling volunteers to contribute their time and skills to society. Instead, we merely need places ‘where people bump into each other’ – they don’t need a strategy, they ‘just design and do it’.  

What became clear in the discussion was that changes that have been sparked and driven by austerity are opening up richer possibilities.

This is the first in a series of events supported by Wiltshire council, which are asking question where next for localism? In the next event we are looking and arts based approaches to belonging and identity. 


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