The value to both employers & employees of a well thought through, carefully planned scheme to release staff to volunteer in their communities is a good thing. There is plenty of evidence that this approach can as Eric Pickles is claiming improve productivity and benefit society more widely. However a top down, centrally dictated one size fits all initiative from within the middle of an election campaign has every likelihood of doing a great deal of damage to current and future volunteering schemes. For some people this proposal will act as a catalyst with eager volunteers pushing for this change now, before the election has even taken place and certainly before plans have made it off the back of the envelope, let alone been implemented. After all Cameron and Pickles are still Cabinet members even if MPs have lost their offices. Sadly not everyone who will request time off to volunteer will do so with the best of intentions. Some people whose lives are being made much easier through the hard work of current volunteers may wondering if their helpers are really acting as a result of previous Government edicts and political campaigns. After all David Cameron has form on this topic. The organisation of volunteers is not an easy thing, it is usually much more complicated and time consuming than organising paid employees, and 3 days a year in isolation does not lend itself to a well organised service. If as one report suggests, 15M workers would be available for 3 days each year that is potentially 45M days that could be released. At this stage we have no idea if such a vast resource is needed or even wanted, much less how it would be organised. It is the equivalent (in time only) of 225,000 full time employees each year. Brighton & Hove Council used to employ 8,000 people including School Teachers etc so this is the equivalent of nearly 30 Councils of the size of Brighton & Hove. However because these people would be available at times of the year that suit the employee and their boss there would be no consistency in terms of when their days would fall. Clearly not all 15M people would volunteer on the same day, but equally there would not be many days when exactly 225,000 would turn up for work as yet unspecified. There could be days when 1M people volunteered across the country and others when only 5-10,000 did so. Some way would need to be found to ensure that the time that these 15M people ‘donate’ is not wasted, and that these donations are dealt with in a manner that really does give them a sense of having contributed to improving lives or environment around them, because that is at the heart of the efficiency gains which Eric Pickles seems to know so much about. The only practical way of providing this management would be through highly skilled volunteer managers and logisticians, potentially at least 30,000 of them working full time based on my experience of working with volunteers. These people would need to be paid, yet these are the sort of posts that David Cameron and Eric Pickles regularly claim to want to cut out of health and education services for being bureaucrats. I estimate the cost of employing them could easily be £1.2Bn each year. Where would the funding come from to pay these people, let alone the cover costs for the many ‘volunteers’ from public sector bodies until such time as the hoped for efficiency gains begin to make their impact?
The alternative that Cameron and Pickles could have offered is to speak about their own commitment to the concept of volunteering. They could have reported back from the decision to encourage Cabinet Ministers and their own civil servants to volunteer during the last Parliament and perhaps spoken of the value placed on volunteering within companies that currently have MPs sitting as directors. They could have offered freedoms and flexibilities to public sector agencies that build volunteering into their work plans and offered tax breaks to businesses that do the same. However that wouldn’t have captured the headlines quite so well, especially as some of these issues reflect badly on the track record of the coalition and the extent to which second jobs are embedded in the life of the Conservative Party MPs. It would also have pointed to some of the good policies of the previous Government as well as the current aspirations of the Conservatives. However volunteering and the concept of a strong civil society (whatever name it is given) is far too important and long lasting to become a hostage to short term party politics.