Volunteers’ contribution to health and social services

Baroness Neuberger’s report on volunteering in health and social care services offers a potential step change in how best to unlock the positive energy that volunteers can bring to our public services.

Volunteers already add value in many public services including in schools, hospitals, prisons, crime prevention and social services. They reduce re-offending, transform the lives of mental health service users and work powerfully with the families of children at risk. But the resource they offer is, by and large, not exploited.

The first ever volunteers in child protection in Bromley and in Sunderland have been helping to prove initial sceptics wrong. They have worked alongside social service professionals, helping over 50 families. Their regular support and practical help has led to more than two-thirds of the families coming off the at-risk register.

Independent evaluation by Professor Jane Tunstill of King’s College, London, reveals extraordinary examples of children returning to school after long absences, of mothers overcoming depression and accessing training to become classroom assistants.

Most striking has been the confidence the volunteers have built up to enable parents to engage with the system: how to be honest with social workers without losing their temper securing places at chosen schools and how to cope with the three or more officials calling at their home.

While initially hesitant, social workers now view the volunteers’ contributions as a positive resource supporting their work. Sadly, this example of opening doors to volunteer involvement in care services is the exception.

Every public body should develop a strategy to involve citizens in its work. Training for doctors, social workers, teachers and other public servants should include how to harness citizens’ energy in their work.

Successive governments have affirmed the value of volunteers in both service delivery and as strengtheners of civil society and builders of social capital. The value of volunteer engagement exceeds £4bn a year.

However, there are costs in recruiting, screening, matching, supporting and recognising volunteers. At a time when the nation needs to secure “best value” in the delivery of public services it is time that government accepted responsibility for these costs so that volunteer organisers can focus their energy and skills on involving citizens not endlessly fundraising to help it happen.

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless is executive director of CSV, a charity which promotes volunteering

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