National Citizen Service: The arguments against compulsion

Adam Wildman is the latest commentator to call for National Citizen Service (NCS) to be made compulsory but, as with others before him, the arguments don’t stack up.

Writing on the conservativehome blog he argues that NCS can build social capital and offer young people a route out of poverty, but only if it is made mandatory.

Whilst not strictly a volunteering programme, a key element of NCS is the 30 hours of voluntary action participants are required to undertake. It is this element that Wildman believes has the potential for most impact:

For the whole cohort, the economic value of these volunteering hours has been estimated at £11.4 million, with programme costs of £5.9 million. The programme, therefore, produced volunteering benefits of £5.5 million – or £1.90 for every £1 spent. That indicated that NCS is value for money for the taxpayer. But perhaps the greatest benefits NCS bestows are on social capital and poverty.

Given its growing success the recent plans to extend NCS are to be welcomed, although questions remain over whether it can be scaled up at the pace desired. But the suggestion that the benefits can best be spread by making it mandatory is misguided.

The clue is in the name

Volunteering works because people choose whether and how to get involved. Any attempt to coerce people to participate is both intellectually moribund and destined to be counterproductive.

If you force people to volunteer it should come as no surprise if they give it up as soon as they have a choice. Research at the American University of Armenia shows how the legacy of mandated volunteering under communism has left a negative perception within the population and that it is only now that young people are shaking off this legacy and leading the drive to greater participation.

NCS is being positioned by the youth social action campaign, Step up to Serve,  as the centre piece of a journey of social action, with young people as young as 10 being encouraged to move from volunteering at school into NCS and then out the other end into (hopefully) a life time of social action.

It makes a nonsense of this strategy if the cornerstone of the journey is compulsory. It will do lasting damage to the image and spirit of volunteering.

Building quality opportunities

Rather than heading down the dead end of compulsion, the emphasis should be on how to use the billion pounds allocated for the expansion of NCS over the next five years to make the programme the must-do choice for young people.

How to create opportunities that are so compelling that young people are clamouring to get involved. How to position NCS so that alumni, upon leaving, have seamless opportunities to get involved in other activities. How to encourage NCS to seize the spirit of the age and offer more opportunities for young people to design and lead their own volunteering opportunities.

Strengthening local connections

One thing which will be required if NCS is to meet its ambitious targets is for the programme to be more embedded within the volunteering ecosystem.

The lack of connectivity with volunteer centres and other local volunteering organisations deprives NCS of local expertise and reach, and hampers the provision of quality opportunities – for both programme participants and for those young people who have enjoyed the experience and are looking to do more.

There are one or two examples where these local links are working well but they are few and far between. We are currently in discussion with the NCS Trust and the Cabinet Office about how to build stronger local connections.

Building a quality volunteering programme is a complex undertaking, requiring investment, creativity, energy and perseverance.

The money allocated over the next five years for NCS offers a golden opportunity to create something very special. Let’s not be seduced by lazy calls to short circuit this process by making it compulsory.


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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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