This blog was originally published in The MJ on 28 July 2020.
I have been taken into an optimist mode by the outpouring of volunteers in this crisis. When the chips were down, it turned out that people did care about their neighbours, did do the shopping for the vulnerable and shielding, did pick up the prescription for the elderly in their area, did look out for each other. And yes, retired professionals were willing to come back to help the NHS. Mutual aid groups sprung up ‘spontaneously’ to get things going in many areas. It has been inspiring.
Years of working in the Treasury in past lives make one a sceptic. You challenge everything—that is your job. You have enthusiasts telling you their project can save the world, if only you fund it, and you grimace. And where others see sunny uplands, you always see the possible downsides—the dead weight, the inefficiencies, the optimism bias, the overruns.
This outpouring of volunteers is very heart warming. It seems to tell us things about the way we could run society in the future if we could harness these impulses and organise ourselves in a more bottom up, community led way.
Rising to a crisis
We need to think why this worked, how the public sector, from councils to health authorities, enabled this to happen, what local groups need to succeed. And the review MP Danny Kruger is doing for the Prime Minister on the role of civil society may well say some things about this.
In a crisis we have seen people’s better nature come to the fore. This often happens in crises and is massively to be welcomed. But that does not mean it marks a new way of organising things, that people will do this in ‘normal’ times. It’s not obvious that people will want to give up their time any more than they will want to continue stockpiling pasta. Rising to a crisis is not the same thing as the continuous volunteering so many charities are hoping for.
What has worked well?
To really gain from what has happened, we need less of an attempt to resurrect the ill-fated Big Society initiative and more of a critical reflection on what has worked and what has not during this crisis, so we can think about how we keep the best of it.
Some questions are for the voluntary sector itself. Did many charities get an influx of volunteers? How did they handle it? What did they and the volunteers do? Will they stay? Specific to the crisis, how did charities with volunteering at their core, like the Citizens Advice Bureau, support volunteers to work at distance given issues of IT access and confidentiality?
Some questions are specifically for the NHS, although councils will have a massive interest in them too, not least regarding social care. How did the NHS Responders volunteering scheme go? How many of the 750,000 volunteers were used? What did they do? How did they find it? How do they feel about it now? What did the NHS really think of them? How did this link in with existing NHS schemes—often hospital based? Has this changed perceptions of volunteering over and beyond the NHS?
Some questions are more specifically for councils and other local actors. How did the mutual aid movement and support for things like food banks work? Where was it strongest? Who joined it and how diverse and additional to volunteering were they? Did they attract new people or were they the ‘usual’ kind of people? What did they do? Was it useful and additional? What were the issues—like safeguarding? How did they manage links with the statutory services and councils, and how did these work? What do they think will happen when the crisis is over?
We need to use the databases of those volunteering to be NHS Responders, organised largely by the excellent Royal Voluntary Service, to keep in touch with all these volunteers. Data must be kept sensibly at national level, and volunteering made easier through rapid matching with need and not having to have constantly restate your skills or preferences.
And crucially, delivery needs to be at local level with close interaction of councils, the NHS and local charities.
It’s not that hard for us to keep a lot of the momentum going. While the sceptic in me says the chances of all of it sticking are pretty low, even a bit would give us a better world.