Informal vs formal: notes on a story of challenging bureaucracy
Informal and formal volunteering
“Formal volunteering is defined as unpaid help given as part of a group, club or organisation to benefit others or the environment”
“Informal volunteering is defined as unpaid help given as an individual to someone who is not a relative”
Citizenship survey (2008-9) – Volunteering and Charitable Giving Topic Report
“Anyone who has ever known doctors well enough to hear medical shop talked without reserve knows that they are full of stories about each other’s blunders and errors, and that the theory of their omniscience and omnipotence no more holds good among themselves than it did with Moliere and Napoleon. But for this very reason no doctor dare accuse another of malpractice. He is not sure enough of his own opinion to ruin another man by it. He knows that if such conduct were tolerated in his profession no doctor’s livelihood or reputation would be worth a year’s purchase. I do not blame him: I would do the same myself. But the effect of this state of things is to make the medical profession a conspiracy to hide its own shortcomings. No doubt the same may be said of all professions. They are all conspiracies against the laity; and I do not suggest that the medical conspiracy is either better or worse than the military conspiracy, the legal conspiracy, the sacerdotal conspiracy, the pedagogic conspiracy, the royal and aristocratic conspiracy, the literary and artistic conspiracy, and the innumerable industrial, commercial, and financial conspiracies, from the trade unions to the great exchanges, which make up the huge conflict which we call society.”
- George Bernard Shaw – The Doctor’s Dilemma (1909)
“As life becomes increasingly complex, duties and activities we once took personal responsibility for, are taken over or expropriated by professionals who do them for us.”
What is unnecessary bureaucracy?
In the past, the usual suspect has often been that social scourge: unnecessary bureaucracy.
“by forcing responsible adults to go through the rigmarole of a vetting procedure it will actually reduce the amount of care and love in children’s lives as adults will give up volunteering to help children”
David Cameron, Hugo Young lecture, ”The Big Society”, November 10 2009
It’s nothing new for politicians to blame bureaucracy for volunteering’s ills.
“Restrictions on minibuses will be cut. So will the red tape which makes it so difficult for small firms and voluntary bodies to provide better ways to get around for those without cars, particularly the very old and the disabled”
Conservative Manifesto, 1983
“‘I realise that where government deals with the voluntary sector we need to help, not hinder the work of volunteers. It is part of my job to ensure that there is a culture change so that we do not end up stifling the desire to help.’”
Ed Miliband, Minister for the Third Sector (2007)
Countless reports have also highlighted bureaucracy as an issue constraining volunteers.
Better regulation for civil society:
A taskforce investigating the activities of Britain’s 16 million volunteers found they were were hamstrung by different levels of bureaucracy. Charity managers spent many hours a week on supplying different sets of similar information for central and local government regulators.
Sir David Arculus, its chairman, said: “The voluntary and community sector is working in areas that the public and private sectors have failed to reach. Yet too much red tape can have a negative impact on the public’s willingness for volunteering and the sector’s ability to innovate and deliver.”
More recently the Report of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering and Manifesto for change (January 2008) “heard stories of bureaucratic hurdles” for volunteers. In fact, one of its recommendations was:
“We recommend that, as a matter of urgency, the government sets up a working party with volunteer-involving organisations and the volunteering infrastructure in order to remove unnecessary or disproportionate obstacles to volunteering (for example, in relation to Criminal Record Bureau checks, entitlement to benefits by volunteers, risk management, etc).”
Then in the Giving White Paper (2010) two key recommendations intended to contribute to removing bureaucracy for volunteers have been:
- the introduction of continuously updated CRB checks to reduce the need for employees and volunteers to have new CRB checks when they move positions
- substantially reducing the coverage of the Vetting and Barring Scheme to individuals who have close and regular contact with people with support needs.
There’s clearly a consensus that bureaucracy fetters volunteering. Why’s it singled out by politicians and report authors alike?
Simple. Unnecessary bureaucracy, like unnecessary tax, is universally condemned. However, talk is cheap.
This debate boils down to values. It’s ultimately your values that inform your opinion as to whether the bureaucracy in question is unnecessary or not.
Whether it’s criminal record checks, insurance policies or health and safety regulations, for each, there are some who’d say it’s necessary, and others that would say it’s unnecessary; depending on your point of view. It rapidly becomes a question of degree.
So this ‘bureaucracy’ argument only takes us so far. We need something else to explain what is happening to volunteering.
Let’s return to this new argument about the role of the professional management of volunteering. After all, it’s a general phenomenon affecting volunteering. It certainly feels like something that’s more recent. While volunteering has always had to wrestle with bureaucracy to a certain extent, the professional management of volunteering feels newer.
First, let’s deal with the view that this argument about the professional management of volunteering is really just the same argument about bureaucracy dressed up. Some clearly argue that the key problem with professionalisation is that it leads to greater bureaucratisation of volunteering. However, while this may be true in some regards, it’s not true in all. The relationship between professionalisation and bureaucratisation is not clear cut.
Sometimes professional good practice may mean less bureaucracy. For example, a better understanding of current law would, in many cases, result in less criminal records checks being carried out on volunteers, not more. This is just one example of greater professional knowledge resulting in less bureaucracy.
Ok. So, anyone spot the deliberate mistake? Let’s shift gears.
Why do we frame our arguments in the negative? Why not ask what enhances and enriches our sense of volunteering? My bet would be we would start to unearth new ideas and new approaches. Ask the same question, phrased in a slightly different way, and you’ll get the same answer. Sometimes professionalisation can enhance our understanding of volunteering, and yes, sometimes certain bureaucratic processes can also enhance our sense of volunteering.
When we reduce volunteering to being a means to an end, we forget the reason for the processes and procedures surrounding it. However professional these processes and procedures may be, once their meaning is lost, they start to feel like unnecessary bureaucracy.
Volunteering has traditionally thrived on informality. It is this increasing tendency to formalise volunteering practice that has squeezed out the very thing that makes volunteering distinctive.
Perhaps these issues, such health and safety, have always been there, hidden by a veil of ignorance that professionalism has lifted definitively.
Ignorance is bliss
Informality can be a strength – it cuts through the red tape – a volunteer’s unofficial status often allows them in, where other’s with a more official status might not get through.
Mrs. Pincus is quick to defend her role to those who say volunteer work is demeaning for women. “I think of myself as an unpaid professional,” she said. “If I had to support my family, I’d roll up my sleeves and go to work. I know how to work. But my husband provides very well. Because I don’t have a salary, there is certain red tape that I don’t have to deal with and certain bureaucracies I can cut through. I think I have a much more exciting professional life because I don’t require a paycheck.”
Philosophically is there something in how we conceive and value volunteering that’s contradictory. We fear there is. We want a less formal volunteering. A less constrained volunteering.
At the same time we’re demanding volunteering be more formal. We’re institutionalising it’s economic function. Measuring its results. Paying by results.
This assertion is certainly reflected time and again in policy terms. There are countless politicians who have aspired to support volunteering, by declaring their intention to remove unnecessary bureaucracy that stands in the way of citizens volunteering in their communities.
Blair’s Big Society beta version
Graphic taken from: “Better Regulation for Civil Society – Making life easier for those who help others” – November 2005 (p.16).
This in the Guardian:
‘The professionalisation of free volunteering puts people off,’ said Mark Restall, head of information at Volunteering England. ‘Red tape leaves the volunteer saying to himself, “Hang on, I am not being paid for this, but I am being treated as a salaried professional.’”
Unshackling Good Neighbours (Cabinet Office)- Report of the Task Force established to consider how to cut red tape for small charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises.
Lord Hodgson, was President of NCVO and as Shadow Minister in the House of Lords, led for the Conservative Party on the proceedings of the Charities Act 2006.
Recommendations: Summary of recommendations for this section
- The Attorney General should make a reference to the Charity Tribunal asking it to consider establishing a test of reasonableness for volunteers.
- The Law Commission should be asked to consider whether current law provides adequate protection to volunteers.
- If neither of these prove fruitful, the Government should consider how the issue of volunteer liability should be addressed.
- Posters should be prominently displayed in all Job Centres and there should be regular emphasis on guidance on the rules concerning unemployed individuals undertaking voluntary work and links between individual Job Centres and their local CSO’s should be improved.
- A Working Party should be established by the insurance industry and CSO’s to provide a forum to address the insurance needs of the sector.
- The broad proposals contained in the Reviews of Criminal Records, Health and Safety and Contingent Fee Litigation should be followed through.
Informal and formal work
“There are three main narratives underpinning most discussions on the future of work.
The first is that the formalisation of work is gathering pace, whereby products and services are increasingly being produced and delivered by the formal economy. Conversely, informal work, such as subsistence production, informal exchange and/or mutual aid, is rapidly becoming less relevant to everyday life.
The second, known as the ‘commodification thesis’, suggests that capitalism is spreading into almost every corner of human activity. For example, this could include the marketisation of state functions or the pricing of environmental pollution such as carbon trading.
The final narrative is that globalisation is gaining pace and that the path to development is the way of the free market, with nation states declining in economic importance. In other words the formal market knows the best course of action. Simultaneously, informal work, here taken to mean work that is not declared to the state but is legal in all other aspects, is seen as a brake on development and a residue of previous times.”