Getting involved: Public participation in public services

Rebecca YoungRebecca Young is a policy officer at NCVO, working primarily on public services and volunteering policy. Before joining NCVO, Rebecca led on mental health, housing and disability policy at the National Union of Students.

NCVO has recently published a piece of research called Getting Involved (pdf, 3.4MB), one in a series of publications that offer trends, facts and statistics on a range of issues affecting civil society. This wide-ranging piece of research helps us begin to develop a picture of the scale and variety of volunteer involvement in and around public services.

It is impossible to make a clear distinction between our public services and the people or communities they serve. We live our lives through them. At their best these services can change our lives for the better. Therefore, it is only natural for us to want to be a part of and shape our local schools, libraries and hospitals.

The scale and scope

Our research highlights that there are approximately three million health and social care volunteers in the UK. There are:

  • 78,000 volunteers for Acute NHS Trusts in England
  • 36,000 volunteers in libraries
  • 100,000 volunteers in independent museums.

We also know that 300,000 people support the school system by acting as a governor, and there are 20,000 special constables in the police force.

The role of volunteers in public services is not new. Our coastlines have been kept safe by RNLI volunteers since 1824. Since the 1960s a network of hospices has been run by volunteers. What is relatively new is the opportunity for volunteers – citizens, service users and members of the public – to shape and challenge, as well as support, their public services.

Volunteers have the potential to transform public services through a combination of creativity, freedom and lived experience. Ideas, such as the value of peer support and involvement for those with mental health conditions, or even the use of hens to combat loneliness in care homes, challenge and change our ideas of what public services should be and how they should work. Volunteers are also crucial to advocate for the needs of their communities. For example, Healthwatch enables networks of volunteers to shape their health and care services, and use their experiences to create change. Citizens UK supports community organisers all over the country to amplify the voices of their local communities.

We think volunteers have the potential to transform services if given the right support and opportunity. As the examples above highlight, volunteering in public services can be so much more than plugging funding gaps. This is about people of all shapes and sizes coming forward of their own free will to be active citizens and articulate the sort of society they want to live in. They represent the interests of themselves, their families, their friends and their neighbours rather than the company or government department they work for.

Without volunteer voice and action – without citizenship – we will struggle to maintain public services and communities that truly meet the needs of the people.

A strategic approach

Cultivating a balance of voluntary action to support and challenge public service delivery and decision-making doesn’t just happen – it needs to be considered and invested in. This is a real concern for areas where local voluntary infrastructure has been badly hit by cuts to local funding.

Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council (pdf, 2.7MB) is an example of an area that has been hit hard by austerity but has strived to think differently about how to support local engagement and participation. The council has made changes to the way it works and makes decisions, in part by ensuring that social value and the value of volunteering is recognised across all areas of their work, and not simply to cut costs.

Next steps

At the beginning of the year NCVO called for a national debate about volunteering in public services. In his own capacity, our CEO Sir Stuart Etherington has called for an expansion of volunteering in public services, recognising that this presents both challenges and benefits. There is understandably some concern about the impact of volunteering on paid workers in public services, and academics have raised concerns that volunteers may also experience more pressures and limitations when volunteering for voluntary organisations delivering public services. This is a complex issue which requires further evidence and debate.

We look forward to having an open and forward-thinking discussion with the public and voluntary sectors in the new year to build a more detailed picture of volunteering in and around public services, addressing both the benefits and the challenges.

In the meantime, you might find the following resources helpful.

 

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