The Big Society seems to be disappearing from political rhetoric these days, but in Kensal Rise, as local people come to terms with key cuts in public services, we’re witnessing an example of citizen-power in action.
Following the decision to close the Kensal Rise Library over two months ago, local residents have been out in force to campaign for volunteers to run the library and to attract donations for additional books and IT services.
Determined to keep a local library service, local volunteers have organised a ‘pop-up’ library, with further plans to transform the old library building into a social hub at the heart of the community – also staffed by volunteers.
Frankly, I’m absolutely in awe of the small group of committed people who believe in their local library service, and are doing all they can to defend and protect it. However, the key question I keep returning to is the issue of sustainability. What happens when the good will of a small group of volunteers runs out?
Is goodwill enough?
It’s clear that the local council is not prepared to back down on its decision to close the library. Instead, it appears that it is relying on community members to step forward and fill the gaps in key public services. Of course, it’s possible to argue that volunteers have been doing this for decades – centuries even – filling gaps in public services. So what’s new?
Well, it seems to me that what’s new in all of this is the shockingly erroneous assumption that underpins the citizen-power agenda – that volunteering is a cost-free alternative to publicly funded services. Supporting volunteers to deliver high quality public services requires co-ordination, training, support, good governance – as well as every day travel and subsistence expenses for the committed individuals who give their time to keep valuable services open and accessible to their communities. Assuming that all of this can be delivered for free, ad-infinitum, is a huge mistake and one that will see the goodwill, time and talents of local people eventually run out.
David Cameron has said that he wants people to come out and reclaim these services for themselves. But unless this activity is properly resourced and supported, it’s unlikely to be sustained in the long term, and may ultimately have the reverse effect, as volunteers become disillusioned and withdraw their support.
Here at vinspired, we’re particularly concerned about high levels of youth unemployment, and we’ve already made a compelling case for renewed investment in high quality, structured volunteering programmes which enable young people to develop their skills and experience, whilst helping to deliver key public services. We have experience of delivering long term volunteering programmes such as vtalent year and 24 /24. These programmes provide an important contribution to this agenda, enabling young people to undertake 6 – 9 month placements in local councils, supporting the delivery of education, leisure and library services.
Creative thinking on the part of government could turn a youth unemployment crisis into an innovative public service volunteering programme. So, pick up the phone Dave – we’re waiting for your call.