We need a better vision for volunteering in policing

Update (January 2016): Read NCVO’s Home Office consultation response ‘Reforming the powers of police staff and volunteers’

Volunteering is an essential part of the future of a new generation of user-led, co-produced public services. The police service is no exception and today there are 500,000 citizens involved as volunteers in policing, carrying out a wide range of roles, from special constables and police cadets, to victim support and independent custody visitors. And there is scope to involve more.

Enhanced policing for communities

Volunteering can deliver a host of benefits, bringing new skills and experiences and improved partnership working with communities and other public services. Citizens in Policing, supported by the College of Policing, recognises the benefits of citizen involvement; including increased support for neighbourhood policing, giving communities a greater voice, and providing an opportunity to share responsibility for community safety outcomes.

When fully understood and done properly, volunteering can add enormous value to our public services – bringing unsalaried credibility, objectivity, luxury of focus, freedom to criticise, and an ability to experiment.

With such wide reaching benefits it is no surprise that the government is keen to go further. The Home Office wants to ‘enhance the roles of volunteers’ and announced new reforms in September to extend the powers of police volunteers.

Although the proposals recognise some of the potential of volunteering, they lack vision and fail to explore the true value volunteering can bring beyond cost reduction. Without a compelling vision we will fail to realise the full potential of volunteering to help deliver better policing and stronger, safer communities.

A better vision

The Home Office proposals aim to create volunteer positions that are ‘equivalent’ to or ‘mirror’ paid roles. This approach fails to understand the nature of volunteering and the full contribution it can make.

Development of volunteering should start by looking at what skills, experience, motivations and values volunteers can bring. Volunteer involvement is about recognising the distinctive contribution volunteers can make and about balancing the needs of an organisation and the individual volunteer. Treating volunteers simply as unpaid members of staff misses the point and will do nothing to motivate individuals to get involved.

Rather than the language of equivalence we need the language of distinctiveness and complementarity. We need to develop roles for volunteers that take account of their distinctive motivation and contribution. Or more to the point, we need to work with volunteers to help them to design the roles which best meet their needs and can deliver the maximum impact.

A modern police service will require volunteers and staff to work effectively alongside each other, and ensuring these relationships are built on mutual understanding and trust will be essential for a successful outcome. Policing will need to look differently in the future and some of these new models of working will require a change in the balance of volunteers and staff. This offers enormous opportunities but also poses challenges, especially at a time of cuts to police budgets and a reduction in number of paid jobs.

Changes need to be handled carefully and in consultation with stakeholders, including existing staff and volunteers. Relations between paid staff and volunteers can be supported by good procedures, clarity of respective roles, mutual trust and support; there are plenty of examples of good practice in other public services, and indeed within the police force, which demonstrate this.

Investing for return

Volunteering is of immense value, but it is not cost free. It requires investment to work. The Home Office proposals acknowledge the costs to police forces in issuing uniforms and delivering training to new volunteers, but fail to appreciate the depth of support and resourcing required to deliver an effective volunteering programme, from investment in volunteer management and training to reimbursement of expenses. Again there is a disappointing failure of understanding of what makes for a successful volunteering programme.

Back to the future?

The modern police force was born out of volunteer involvement in the 19th Century. We have a glorious opportunity to re-shape our public services for the 21st Century by harnessing the power of volunteers alongside our paid professionals. It is not a zero sum game, but a complementary, symbiotic relationship, where volunteers and paid staff do what they each do best, operating in consort to deliver a more effective and efficient service better in tune with the community in which they operate.

It is too important a vision to get wrong.


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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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