News and Comment

Qualified or not, public services need to equip themselves to work with more volunteers and lay people to get the job done

Monday 28 October 2013

The long running squeeze on funding is forcing public services to think very differently about their workforces. Long gone are the days when organisations struggled to recruit quickly enough to meet top down directives to increase the number of front line staff. Instead, public services now have to face up to the task of cutting the size of their workforces in response to ever decreasing budget allocations and changing responsibilities. It’s demoralising and difficult work.

It is in this context that the current war of words on whether teacher’s need to be qualified or not – between Nick Clegg, Labour and teaching unions on the one hand, and Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on the other – is taking place. But, whilst interesting to watch, this discussion is actually something of a distraction from the broader changes that are happening elsewhere across public services.

In a climate of providing more for less, public services need all the help they can get – and often this means pulling in volunteers, parents, community organisers or other willing local people to help them run services, whether this is a local library, care home or youth service.

Of course certain jobs – such as teachers, doctors, nurses, and social workers to name but a few – will quite rightly remain the preserve of those with the requisite qualifications and experience. There are also many skilled and important roles discharged by non-qualified staff that are critical to the successful running of public services which it would not be appropriate for volunteers to deliver. These also need to be protected. But, in order to help these professionals do their work as effectively as possible a number of support positions exist, which increasingly are being carried, or are able to be carried out, by a cadre of highly capable and enthusiastic volunteers in receipt of the necessary support and training.

Several of the programmes OPM has been working on recently are heavily reliant on such voluntary staff, many of whom do not have formal public service qualifications. The National Citizen Service for 16 year olds for instance – which OPM helped to evaluate – involved local voluntary sector bodies drawing in help from volunteers to run everything from outward bound trips to the country side to supporting social action projects in the community.

The evaluation found that providers of NCS need to change the way they worked in order to recruit, train and support good volunteers to help them provide the service. Those that did it well were adept at communicating and selling the benefits of being involved; supporting volunteers with excellent induction and training, linking involvement to career development and skills acquisition, and providing good supervision and support throughout.

Another project we’re evaluating – the Sure Start Programme delivered by 4Children and funded by the Department for Education – aims to get parents and community groups involved in taking over ownership and management of children’s centres. In this case, 4Children needed to provide a substantial amount of training and support to parents to give them the necessary grounding they needed to take on formal roles and responsibilities, such as help with understanding governance, legal frameworks and engaging with communities and the local authority. In doing this, they also had to be very flexible, providing advice at times and locations that suited busy parents who often had full time jobs.

Whatever the outcome in the battle over whether teachers need to be qualified or not, it will not stop the wider drive to involve more unqualified (at least in terms of formal public service delivery roles) people in the public sector service delivery.

This is not about pitting qualified staff against unqualified volunteers, rather, it is a recognition that in cash strapped world of public services, increasingly non-statutory positions will be supplemented (as opposed to substituted) by lay people in either paid or unpaid roles – as a pragmatic way of ensuring services run efficiently and effectively. The public sector needs to be at the vanguard of this movement – encouraging and enabling those who are willing and able, to contribute on delivering services to the public Learning about what works in recruiting and supporting these people will be an important skill of anyone who wants to lead and manage public services in the future.