Andrew Jepp 05 August 2014

Community volunteering brings risks and rewards

Community volunteering brings risks and rewards image

As the public services trilemma of growing demand, spending cuts and reduced workforce continues to put pressure on public services, the LGA last week announced a possible solution that would see community volunteers benefit from a 10% council cut.

This is an innovative approach that could encourage community engagement, but the risks associated with increasing volunteer-led public services must also be carefully managed.

According to the LGA, a £50m start-up fund could help half a million volunteers, encourage new ‘community champions’ to step forward, and save the public purse millions of pounds.

We know that there is much existing good practice of devolving services. Indeed, last year, volunteers worked with Camden Council to keep the borough’s libraries open when 70% of them were threatened with closure, and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy estimates there are over 20,000 volunteers supporting public libraries across the UK.

The input of volunteers in a controlled and managed way can reap significant financial and social benefits for local communities, potentially allowing local authorities to maintain service provision and strengthen community cohesion.

However, opening up these services to unpaid and inexperienced volunteers is not without risk. Effective volunteer-led services depend on strong collaborative working and a good deal of strategic oversight to ensure service delivery and standards are maintained.

A key challenge for local authorities, is ensuring that volunteers are able to maintain the comprehensive levels of service and expertise that would be expected of paid employees. This is true in all service areas, but never more so than for potentially challenging scenarios associated with social care, children’s services and looking after the elderly.

Organisations will need to develop robust workforce planning approaches to ensure volunteers receive sufficient training and support and work effectively in partnership with qualified or paid employees.

Public acceptability of community-run local services remains low, creating a further potential obstacle for local authorities. A report published by Zurich revealed that almost half (47%) of the public feel that public services being run by community organisations and local charities instead of the council is a bad thing. Whether real or perceived, this could cause a decline in reputation and trust.

To manage this risk, the government needs to be proactive in its appeal to local communities and communicate effectively the benefits of greater community involvement and how the quality of provision will be ensured.

The challenges of human resourcing and the risks associated with the devolution of services require objective and careful leadership, focused not only on the immediate issues facing public services, but the long term perspective as well. Local authorities should welcome the rewards that come with the increasing use of volunteers, but they must also be adequately prepared to face the challenges that accompany them – both now and in the future.

With public services facing a hugely challenging few years, innovation should be embraced, but it is equally important to take into account – and mitigate – any associated risks.

Andrew Jepp is director of public sector at Zurich Municipal

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