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Volunteering and Health a missed opportunity – Department of Health Strategic Vision for Volunteering

November 16, 2011

Its hard to get people engaged with your vision if you are not honest about the challenges that we face and clear about where you think we should get to.

Use of words 

The titles that governments give to policy documents give a good clue to how important they are felt to be. So when a document has the word “Vision” in it you need to read carefully – civil Servants tend to use the “Vision” word when they have struggled to get clear ministerial commitment to action.

A touchstone of this government has been its active promotion of the ‘Big Society’ (note this link to the Big Society no longer mentions the ‘Big Society’ the term has largely disappeared from Government policy although the awards continue) – active and engaged citizens; a rebalancing of the relationship between the state and the citizen; Less top down; less big brother; more freedom and responsibility for communities and individuals.

So – this strategic vision should be a key document – after all the Department of Health is one of the governments biggest hitters – the second largest department by spend. You might imagine that when DH takes an interest in volunteering everyone stops and listens – you should be able to hear a pin drop.

Unfortunately this report is disappointing. Although it says it is aimed at leaders it is really more of a primer on volunteering and health – much of what it says will be of interest to junior managers in the health system who are new to developing community services – this is no bad thing in itself – but it is not the leadership we expect from a Government Department.

This lack of serious ambition and challenge  can be taken as an indication of the lack of interest from key ministers – Paul Burstow and Andrew Lansley in this agenda. It is not the responsibility of the tiny DH Voluntary Sector and Big Society Team – who have clearly done their best to make the most of the limited mandate that they have been given – the fact that it has come out at all is an achievement. You can get a feeling for how difficult even getting it out must have been because one of the key actions  promoted by the strategy is to support the European Year of Volunteering – the strategy came out 2 months before it ends!

3 Indicators of Disinterest

What do stakeholders say?

Have a look on the web – I have scoured the web for a comment on this document and found very little – aside from short factual statements – the best of which is that on the Volunteering England Website (no online) – which focussed on the very small amount of funding – £2.4m available for 2012/13. The Kings Fund aren’t interested, neither is NCVO or ACEVO. Of equal concern – given who the policy is aimed at – there is not a flicker of interest from the NHS Confederation or the Local Government Association.

What does DH say?

Have a look at the references in the document – this gives you a feeling for how seriously the big hitting directorates take this issue at the moment. There is only one direct reference to an existing mainstream DH policy – The Mental Health Strategy. It has clearly not proved possible to make a connection with mainstream DH policies that are central to the work of the NHS, Public Health and Adult Social Care.

This is an indication of how peripheral the volunteering agenda continues to be to DH.

Whats the problem?

At the moment the voluntary and community sector are getting thumped by government cuts. In Yorkshire and the Humber alone INVOLVE the excellent regional voluntary sector infrastructure (closed down due to cuts in 2015) organisation tells us in its 7th Quarterly Confidence Report that:

“More than 70% of respondents think that general economic conditions within the voluntary sector will continue to deteriorate. Interestingly, nearly half of these respondents expect their local authority to be a positive influence to their organisations success while more than a third expect central government departments to have a negative influence.”

Its not just about the voluntary sector itself – as the report acknowledges – the number of people who are volunteering has actually gone down. The Governments last (in both senses of the word) Citizenship Survey tells us that:

  • Thirty-four per cent of people said that they had engaged in civic participation at least once in the 12 months prior to interview. This figure was unchanged on 2009-10 but lower than in any year before then (between 38 per cent and 39 per cent).
  • Twenty-five per cent of people reported that they volunteered formally at least once a month in 2010-11, a lower rate than at any point between 2001 and 2007-08 (when it ranged between 27 per cent and 29 per cent), but unchanged on 2008-09 and 2009-10 levels.

So – we have a local voluntary sector under extreme stress, a decrease in volunteering and a Government Department whose mainstream policies pay little attention to volunteering.

These are the challenges the document needs to get to grip with – and it does not – and equally dispiritingly it offers little idea of how society might look if this “vision” were realised.

Whats positive in the document?

The Questions

The document is structured around 4 sections – Leadership, Partnership, commissioning and Volunteer Support. At the end of each of these are set of questions that local players might ask themselves. They are quite helpful although too often a bit wet – after all this is a document that says it is “aimed at leaders and decision makers” these people expect to be asked tough – hard nosed – strategic questions – if they aren’t they lose interest. So some of the questions I would be tempted to ask are:

  • Do you know the extent of volunteering in your community….in detail?
  • How many of your service pathways involve volunteers at a system level…where do you set out your ambition for services to involve volunteers?
  • What is the extent of grass roots volunteering in your community and what are you doing to strengthen it?
  • What work are you doing to rebalance services to place less emphasis on professionals and bring them closer to communities?
  • Do you monitor the state of health of the voluntary and community sector in your community? This is quite achievable by the way – here are some examples from the yorkshire-and-the-humbermapping-report1412101-mc-final:

Number of 3rd Sector Organisations per 1,000 population

  • Craven – 6.99
  • Calderdale – 3.01
  • Sheffield – 2.62
  • Wakefield – 1.76

Helpful Actions?

Here are some of the actions that the document proposes that feel helpful (and it is slim pickings) and the questions they prompt for me.

  • Evidence – A commitment to work with partners to develop the evidence base
  • Question – how much funding is DH committing to this over the next 3 years?
  • Resources – Targetted resources to promote volunteering in health, public health and social care
  • Question – will DH commission these directly from the Voluntary and Community Sector; DH has had a good tradition of doing this.
  • Discussion  – Facilitate discussion on key issues and improved access to information
  • Question – excellent – How much funding is DH going to put into this?
  • Facilitate improved access to information and good practice
  • Question – will this include national data that can be interpreted locally on the extent of volunteering
  • Health and Social Care Volunteering Fund
  • Question – what is the level of funding that will be available over the next 3 years?

Finally – Actions that are missing.

  • DH Voluntary Sector and Big Society Team
  • Question – how much investment will be going into this team over the next 3 years to ensure its work is sustained and strengthened?
  • Mainstream DH Policy
  • Question – what actions will DH be taking to embed work on volunteering at the heart of Public Health England, the NHS Commissioning Board and work on Adult Social Care?
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Cynthia Roomes permalink
    November 23, 2011 09:22

    A well written and insightful blog with really useful resources, thanks for sharing it with this forum. I hope the powers that be take note, especially of the points where the allocation of funding is critical to making health policy – including volunteering, work effectively in practice.

  2. November 24, 2011 14:32

    Reading your blog brought this this quote to mind:
    “If you have come because you want to help us, you are wasting your time; if you have come because your liberation is tied up with ours then you are welcome”.
    Lila Watson
    Your comments on the new Vision for Volunteering and the difficulties facing voluntary organisations are well made but do not seem to me to fully recognise the positive aspects of the massive shift in thinking the vision represents away from a deficit model, (needing the intervention of professionals), to “a society where social action and reciprocity are the norm”.
    However, your own strap line, “taking control of our own health and wellbeing”, leads me to believe that you are in tune with this part of the vision. Let’s therefore focus on encouraging a shift in practice and attitude by DoH staff to accompany the new vision – not least an acceptance that ‘engaging with the community’ means more than formal meetings with voluntary sector organisations and attending public forums.
    There is a long, long road ahead but there is now just a bit more hope of moving forward in the right direction, towards stimulating informal care by linking up local people with common interests. They are the greatest assets we have and they are the only ones who can put mutual aid back into the DNA of communities.


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