David Boyle

Beyond Britcorps

Talk to the Centre for Reform - National Liberal Club, London, 17 November 2004

I want to talk about three things. What is happening in the UK in the field of what Americans call ‘national service’. The gaps in that approach. And finally, a potentially broader way of going about things that puts some flesh on the new buzzword ‘co-production’.

I use the term ‘national service’ not in the sense of conscription, but in the American sense.

It’s peculiar though that national service, in both its meanings – voluntary and compulsory – has become a stock in trade in the United States of the Left.

If you can call the Democrats the Left, that is, and I’m not so sure about that these days.

It was a Democrat in the House of Representatives, for example, last year – and from the relatively left-leaning city of New York – who proposed the reintroduction of the Draft.

What’s more, he did so for good Liberal reasons.

For the very real reason that an all-volunteer military in the USA means that an overwhelmingly black army is now taking the brunt of the fighting in Iraq. While the children of those who ordered them are being let off the hook.

Would America’s leaders have been quite so keen on invading Iraq if their own children were going to have to do it?

Under this argument, conscription would actually make war less likely.

Still, even in Bush’s America, conscription is just too expensive and it’s probably unlikely – touchwood, of course. Certainly it is here, but that is somehow not the end of the argument.

There were some positive benefits to national service in the UK which we should not forget.

It undermined the class system. It gave young people insights into the sheer range of their fellow citizens. It gave them a stake in society, and confidence in their abilities. It increased national cohesion.

I know that for some people it did precisely the opposite of all these things, but we might agree that the general thrust was in that direction.

That is the heart of what I think we’re discussing tonight. Is there some way we can achieve something along those lines today – in the UK – without reverting to anything like compulsory military service?

So yes, this is a discussion about volunteering, but with a difference – or rather two differences.

One, we are talking about it the opposite way round to usual. Ministers talk about volunteering – when they talk about it at all – as something that meets needs.

The point here is that it also has enormous benefits to the volunteers – and these may far outweigh any benefits to the people who are volunteered to (and I’ll come back to that later).

What I think the American approach recognises is that most people also have a serious and largely unrecognised need – unrecognised at least by politicians – to make a contribution.

To find what Kennedy called “a cause beyond self”.

The other difference is that we are talking about volunteering policy and its possibilities, not as the last conceivable item on any manifesto list, but one that puts it potentially absolutely central to what any government wants to do.

So a little background in the United States.

Kennedy’s potent phrase led to the Peace Corps. A similar scheme dates back to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty: Vista Volunteers are paid a basic stipend to work for a period of two years with non-profit groups.

And it is a similar scheme, Americorps, that has attracted Gordon Brown.

Americorps dates back to the 1992 presidential campaign when Bill Clinton found, to his surprise, that his ‘civilian service’ idea got the loudest cheers in his campaign rallies.

The Republicans fought AmeriCorps every inch of the way, but it has actually proved extremely popular.

So when George W. Bush was criticised for asking ordinary Americans to go shopping to help the economy, as their sole contribution to the post 9/11 world, lo and behold, a new organisation emerged called Freedom Corps which was originally intended to subsume the others.

So in the Budget speech this year, the British Chancellor announced his intention of launching a British Americorps, dubbed by the press as Britcorps.

We have a pilot scheme running already, basically paid volunteering for young people. We also have the Russell Commission, and I’m very glad we have representatives from there tonight.

Well, I’m in favour of Britcorps. It should be an enormous potential boost to the voluntary sector and community endeavour at every level.

It provides a means whereby anyone of university age can find some cause beyond self, and experience the way other people live.

It also breaks down some of the old-fashioned categories that still get in the way. This is paid volunteering, after all, but it’s still volunteering.

But there are other things to say about the future of volunteering here. Three things in fact.

First, if Britcorps was to become a major model of UK volunteering, you would have to say that it also leaves some of the structural problems of the voluntary sector pretty untouched.

The emerging division between the new mega-charities, which are government agencies in all but name. Using public money, measured and micro-managed by targets like a government agency. Carrying out tasks that would once have been done by government agencies.

A division between them and the smaller charities, whose lives are entirely focussed on the bizarre funding arrangements ushered in by short-term grants from the Lottery or otherwise.

It is for example now relatively easy to raise money to evaluate a community project. It is possible also to raise money to start an innovative new idea.

But once that idea has proved itself, shown that it works successfully – can have a major effect on people’s lives – it is next to impossible to raise money to continue it.

You must go to the statutory sector, say the funders – but there is no statutory sector prepared to fund them any more.

This is the big lie of modern philanthropy. And simply providing charities with a constant supply of stipend staff via Britcorps doesn’t solve the problem – though there’s no doubt that it would help.

Second, there is another kind of divisiveness potentially at the heart of Britcorps. The one between the volunteers and the volunteered-to.

This is not a dig at the tremendous work that indefatigable volunteers do all over the country every day. But it is to point out that sometimes, when you ask for nothing back from the person being helped – maybe for their entire lives – you give a damaging and erroneous message.

That the person has nothing whatever to offer that society needs.

That is a deeply damaging, disempowering message which is at the heart of a great deal of contemporary social collapse.

'Charity wounds', said the anthropologist Margaret Mead, and this is what she meant.

Third, and following on from that, government policy in this area has been skewed for some years – perhaps less so recently – towards semi-professional volunteering: trained, mentored, measured.

Middle class volunteering, parachuting into poor neighbourhoods. What was at one stage referred to in government circles as ‘meaningful volunteering’.

Well, I say we need more meaningless volunteering. Volunteering below the official radar. Unmeasured volunteering.

And I’m glad to say that there is increasing recognition in policy circles that social networks are absolutely vital. But still the plea for meaningless volunteering stands.

Not just because the people who are volunteered to or mentored – refugees for example, but not just them – have great skills, experience and time that we need.

Not just because we are currently wasting these. But because the need for a ‘cause beyond self’ is actually universal.

It doesn’t just exist in students or the middle classes. It exists in people with long-term depression, in disabled people, in unemployed people and bedridden elderly people.

What’s more, our experience with time banks is that, once people find they are after all needed – doing something useful, something that allows them to look themselves in the face – their lives can be transformed.

So Britcorps is all very well. But what we need, and need urgently, is some kind of infrastructure that allows anyone – whoever they are – to do the work that neighbourhoods need.

And do so, even while they are receiving help themselves. To end, in other words, the old division between giver and receiver.

Reciprocity, in other words, is the great missing moral principle in the Britcorps idea and so much of recent policy on volunteering.

We need gap year students, certainly. It will make an enormous difference to provide them with stipends on the same scale as they do in the United States. But actually, even more, we need everyone.


So just to move onto the third part of what I was going to say – what we might also be doing – let me give two examples of what I mean.

We forget in the over-professionalisation of our public services just how much we need the support of patients, pupils and public for their success.

Doctors can’t make people well without their co-operation, but also the co-operation of family and neighbours too.

The police can’t tackle crime. Recent research in Chicago by the Harvard School of Public Health shows just how much the crime level depends on the willingness of local people to intervene when they see children hanging around.

On very little things, in other words, but things that professionals can’t actually supply, however well-resourced they are. Engaged people. Friendly faces.

This is the missing element in public service reform that keeps being forgotten. It has nothing whatever to do with public representation on boards, and everything to do with volunteering – but meaningless volunteering, reciprocal volunteering, that requires some kind of infrastructure.

This is an idea increasingly known as ‘co-production’, and there are more and more examples of how this can break the back of otherwise intractable problems.

There is the Lehigh hospital outside Philadelphia, which has dramatically cut its re-admission rate by involving former patients in a scheme to check up on recently discharged patients, whether they’re OK, if they’ve got heating or food in the house.

The service is provided by local volunteers, through a time bank, on the understanding that patients will be asked later in return if they can help another patient. It is now 500 volunteers strong.

There is the Sentara hospital group in Richmond, Virginia, which has drastically cut the cost of treating asthmatics by using asthmatic volunteers – again through a time bank – to befriend and advise other asthmatics.

That is co-produced health. There are similar stories in this country but on a much smaller scale.

The other example is also about reciprocity, again about what happens when it’s absent.

The originator of the time bank idea is a Washington civil rights lawyer called Edgar Cahn.

As a member of the War on Poverty programme in the sixties, he set up the National Legal Services Programme, the equivalent of our legal aid. Over its first 30 years it helped and supported an astonishing 100 million people, getting on for half the US population.

When, a decade ago, Newt Gingrich’s House of Representatives targeted the programme for major cuts, Cahn was horrified to discover that not one member of the public came forward to give evidence to Congress on its behalf.

By coincidence, his law school in Washington – the District of Columbia School of Law – was also facing closure at the time, which would have shut the only law school in the city open to anyone other than the wealthiest in the land.

But this time the city council was overwhelmed with people and community groups, all helped by the law school’s outreach programme, coming forward to give evidence on its behalf.

National Legal Services was decimated, but the law school was saved. But what was the difference?

Cahn says the answer was that the law school didn’t just help people. It asked for something back: maybe simply to pass on what had been learned to other organisations.

The point was that it was reciprocal, and reciprocity is a powerful involver, a powerful moral principle.

The point I’m trying to make here is that all this is a bigger agenda than policy-makers have given it credit for.

It’s about asking everyone for something back, and giving them the opportunity to provide it. And creating a genuine national, all-inclusive – but local – infrastructure that can make it possible.

It’s about redefining citizenship along these lines, so that we no longer have an increasingly exhausted professional class and an increasingly disempowered client class for who time hangs heavy.

But it’s also about reforming public services so that they are efficient, and welfare services so that – maybe even for the first time since Beveridge – they actually work.

It’s about recognising that nothing the government can do, with their regulations and targets, is able to make things happen without the active involvement of the clients of services, working alongside.

So this is a plea really to roll back technocracy, the miserable Fabian-inspired creed that has so undermined our neighbourhoods.

To shift professional practice so that they no longer simply categorise clients for what they can’t do, but start looking for what they can.

And to reform a welfare system that asks nothing of anybody except that they should demonstrate constant need in order to access anything from the system.

This is, after all, a system which forgets that, at some point, professional support will end, prisoners will be released, patients discharged – yet has done nothing to provide effective, informal family support systems to hold things together.

So let’s just be more precise.

We need experiments in this country like the youth courts in Washington, which now try half the first time non-violent offences in juries of teenagers. Who earn credits for being there they can spend on computers and training.

Or like the peer tutoring system in Chicago public schools, also able to engage young people as advocates of good behaviour.

We need a network of reciprocal systems – maybe time banks, maybe similar – in every public institution from doctor’s surgeries to schools and housing estates, that are able to measure and reward the small efforts people make.

We need a major fund for charities and public sector organisations to back experiments with co-production – reinforced by regulations that they must use some system whereby professionals and clients can be equal partners in the delivery of services.

We need an understanding by Lottery funders that any grant must be matched by time put in mutual support by local beneficiaries.

This is really the only way we can tackle the culture of empty community centres staffed by professionals, and lottery funding for middle class professionals that may or may not have any permanent impact on the ground.

Those four things are intended to bring volunteering policy to bear on wider social and political issues, to try and break out of the glass bubble where it currently exists – so that it is once again a key element of health policy or schools policy or housing policy.

Lying behind all of this is the question of how governments can act upon the world. In social policy it often seems that they can’t, but having said that, there are important caveats.

They need new ways of helping people make personal change happen, and there is a tacit admission in yesterday’s discussion about public health, that this is something governments and professionals simply can’t do alone.

They can’t just do it with billboards and remonstration either. They have to work with ordinary people, giving their time and effort, at local level.


So there we are - a rather inadequate outline of what co-production is all about.

But the bottom line is this: everyone wants to make a contribution – not just gap year students – and doing so can change their lives.

It means, perhaps to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, asking not what your health centre can do for you, but asking what you can do your health centre.


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title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers