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

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:

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:

Number of 3rd Sector Organisations per 1,000 population

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.

Finally – Actions that are missing.

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