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Do your values match Gordon’s Voluntary Army?


In a council estate just over a mile from where I live, life is looking a little brighter than it did in the late eighties and early nineties. Whilst crime on the estate is still higher than in surrounding areas, it appeared to peak in the mid-nineties, and is now falling. There is a growing community spirit on the estate, and the shabbiness is disappearing.

If Chancellor Gordon Brown gets his way, this trend will accelerate up and down the country, as he recruits and encourages an army of voluntary workers to help, and maybe even partially take over, the roles of health workers, teachers and public sector workers.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of Labour’s election campaign, writing in the Times newspaper today, makes clear that should the party win the forthcoming election, then the new term in power would see a dramatic shift of power from central government to local communities and neighbourhoods.

The plans include:

  • a “grey army” of over 100,000 over-50s to work as volunteers in the public sector
  • An ‘Active Communities Unit” funded with £300 million to encourage community and volunteer work
  • A ‘National Mentoring Network’ offering expertise on a one to one basis, on anything from business start-up to reading and writing
The plans appear to signal a return to Victorian style philanthropy in what the Chancellor himself describes as “the biggest transformation in the relationship between the state and voluntary action for a century”.

The move indicates a recognition that central government over the last century has been unable to deliver the pace of social change seen in the nineteenth century.

Whilst denying that the move represents abdication of goverment responsibity or a cut-price alternative to the State, the Chancellor writes:

“In the next five years the role of government will shift even more from the old directing and controlling to enabling and empowering voluntary action. Increasingly the voluntary sector will be empowered to play a critical role ranging from under-five provision and preventative health to adult learning and the war against unemployment and poverty.”

Mr Brown goes on to explain that there is now a clear distinction between advancing public interest and managing public interest:

“For a clearer distinction is now being drawn between advancing the public interest – which for new Labour is a duty of government – and equating the public interest with state ownership, bureaucracy and centralised administration. We can demand that a service can be promoted in the public interest without insisting that the government manages that service.”

Comparison of the efficiency and values of societies at different stages of development and at different times is not easy. In many ways, the Victorian philanthropic era is seen as a golden age of social awareness and development whilst ignoring the self interest of the managers of such change. We ignore such self interest at our own peril.

Many sociologists and social historians would suggest that there is a current myth that in the pre-industrial era working class people were uneducated, and that education resulted from the philanthropic trends of Victorian industrialisation. In practice, left to their own devices, working class people of the 18th and 19th century frequently met together to discuss issues of the day, philosophy, politics and even classics, literature and music. Gin palaces and brothels were not the norm in that era despite modern popular belief.

Today, there are still social problems, but taking my local estate as an example, it is the source of the highest number of students who complete training and education at the local college. The government and voluntary sector need to recognise the spirit of success already existing in society. The intended recipients of ‘voluntary’ activity already display very worthy values.

One broadly accepted sociological argument suggests that philanthropists, such as James Arkwright and Joseph Rowntree, had a vested interest in their actions, in that by providing education, health and housing facilities that they were simply laying the foundations for a ‘controlling’ power over their (potential) workforce.

The argument goes that the middle and upper classes instilled their own values and beliefs on the working classes in order to benefit industrialists and investors, whilst proclaiming it as social responsibility – an example of Victorian spin doctoring.

One example being that upper and middle class values at the time accepted the idea that women stayed at home to look after the house and children whilst men were involved in business. In the working classes, women and children formed part of the labour force and whilst not denying horrendous exploitation, income from such labour contributed to family welfare and cohesion.

Extending upper and middle class values onto the working classes at the time resulted in a broad societal acceptance that ‘the woman’s place is in the home’ and that ‘men go to work’. Such societal structuring has become a battleground for modern society.

The point here is that voluntary and philanthropic work may be seen as laudable in itself, but can have serious repercussions if the values and self-interests of the managers of the voluntary input are not taken into account.

For the HR practitioner, who may be called on to examine corporate input into voluntary activities there is a need to examine the values of the organisation. Will organisational voluntary interests simply be a self-serving marketing activity or will it form part of a wider societal change? If it is part of a wider societal change then who’s values will it promulgate? the government’s? the voluntary agencies? or the society being served?

In a hundred years from now, it would be interesting to see how our society is viewed. Perhaps we will be seen as a drug-taking, heavy drinking, individual serving, crime ridden society saved by Gordon’s well-meaning Voluntary Army. On the other hand we may be seen as a socially controlled national community serving government values whilst relieving the government of the cost.

One Response

  1. Lead by example Gordon
    Of course, a significant proportion of the government will meet the criteria to join the over 50’s volunteer army. I look forward to seeing the fruits of their labours (or if that New Labours?)!

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