News and Comment

Local government volunteers – not simply a case of good or bad

Friday 17 August 2012

Earlier this week Tim Smedley from The Guardian wrote an article on the role of Community Champions in local government. Unsurprisingly this contentious subject caused an impassioned debate and The Guardian followed the piece up yesterday with a poll asking simply:  “Are volunteers good or bad for local government?

The extent to which local authorities make use of volunteers in areas that have traditionally been the domain of paid public sector workers represents one of the most radical and visible shifts in the provision of council services.

Some people view this development in an entirely negative light, perceiving the voluntary sector as forced to take up the slack caused by cuts to councils’ budgets. Others see the changes more positively – as local people unprecedentedly engaged and active in shaping the life of their community.

And whilst it would be a pointless and futile task to try and persuade the proponents of either of these views otherwise, I think it is worth making clear that the roles carried out by volunteers in local government is slightly more nuanced than either the original article or subsequent poll suggests.

Research recently carried out by OPM in conjunction with a number of local councils – highlighted three distinct volunteer categories within local government. These are “augmenters”: those who supplement and improve on a service still provided by local councils, like street cleaners and park groups; “saviours”: those who rescue community services from closure, and “challengers”: local groups who proactively approach their councils and ask to take on the running or a particular service or facility.

These different volunteer types indicate that the issue of volunteer involvement within local government is a little bit more complex than simply “good” or “bad”, or for that matter that it is councils approaching volunteer organisations to ask them to help in the provision of services and not the other way around.