Involunteering and the #bigsociety

Matthew Taylor’s post on the coalition government’s proposals to compel people on out-of-work benefits to do voluntary work – which he names “involunteering” – is excellent. I recommend you read it in full.

He highlights what I consider to be the key point: whilst conditionality in welfare is reasonable, compulsion takes it too far.

Matthew highlights 4 reasons to be wary of it:

  1. It places extra citizenship obligations on people because of their circumstances
  2. It means the state is the judge of what is socially beneficial
  3. There is a sharper management cost for supporting people compelled to volunteer
  4. It creates the requirement to adhere to a government definition of citizenship in order to achieve a basic income.

I’m particularly interested in the third point.

It was noticeable that the CBI, often supportive of government’s policy announcements, was silent on the topic of whether or not they supported the idea.

For why should people compelled to “volunteer” not be compelled to “work” for free – where does the boundary lie, if not simply in the difference in remuneration?

I suspect it’s because the CBI knows that the benefits accruing to host organisations of 4 weeks involunteering are far outweighed by the costs to do so.

As a manager of a disability charity, the question I would ask myself is why would I take on volunteers compelled to get involved (for four weeks) when I have plenty of volunteers willing to give their time without compulsion?

For example, in the last 10 weeks, my organisation has recruited nearly 50 new volunteers, 14 of whom gave their time last Saturday to learn about the work we do and how they can contribute to it. The average length of involvement of volunteer is well over 2 years.

Why would I undermine this successful system we have in place for people who possibly wouldn’t want to be there, and for a much shorter involvement time?

Despite much wariness of the concept of the Big Society, it felt to me like it was starting to take shape and get some traction on the ground.

With compulsory volunteering, the coalition government has just watered once again the seeds of Big Society doubt.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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