Thursday, 25 November 2010

A crisis of volunteer management? Yesterday I was at a conference in which representatives from the voluntary sector in south London were seeking understanding about big society. Today I was at something quite different - the launch of a substantial paper on poverty and social exclusion in later life by the Centre for Social Justice. On both occasions I was struck by a clear common sub-theme in the discussion: people involved in the management and support of volunteers are getting very agitated as their work is getting hacked away and its validity seems not even to be debated. What seems to be happening is that public sector funding cuts are eroding systematic management of the volunteer force rapidly. This is consistent which what some people see as the big society ethos: process hardly seems to matter any more. Big society isn't bothered how stuff happens, as long as people get out there and do it. Against that, volunteer managers speak from experience when they insist that volunteers need management, support, regulation, training and so on. I think it's fair to say that a significant proportion of the volunteer force comes from the traditional conservative philanthropic base, not from community action so there's an interesting new political take on this. But having railed against the over-formalisation of human and social systems for years, even I am starting to feel a little queasy about the wild ride we're all going to have as the free-for-all involvement culture takes over.
'Fantastic and important' - the Online Neighbourhood Networks report Tuesday saw the launch, at Mary Ward House in London, of a report on online neighbourhood networks which I co-authored with Hugh Flouch. In spite of torrid weather conditions, around 90 people showed up and we had a hugely positive day. There's a four-page summary of the research, an extended summary, a full report, several video interviews and some background papers. Over on the NN blog we've posted an informative note about it: here I thought I would allow myself a few personal reflections. I've probably put more into this report than anything else I've ever written. It is consistent historically with some things I wrote fifteen or 20 years ago, but the issues seem excitingly fresh, I suppose because they are less speculation and more evidence. And it's a report I've been wanting to write for years - at least since I met Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman in Toronto ten years ago. I listened to how Keith was processing his findings from the pioneering Netville study and returned to the UK wanting the community development field to appreciate the implications of neighbourhood online networks and take a lead in developing the movement. Fat chance. I managed to get some dosh from central government to get Keith to England in 2004, and he gave some inspiring presentations. In one post I wrote at the time I noted: 'Government is paying attention, but (apart from the interest of the Oxford Internet Institute) where were the academics?' Maybe I was partly misled. I'm writing this from a hotel in Oxford, having been invited through the ever-enterprising Tim Davies to present our research to the aforementioned OII this evening. Only Tim turned up. Some students apparently have deadlines tomorrow. Staff have better things to do. While an hour spent chatting to Tim is not the kind of opportunity I'd ever pass up, this is very telling. Overnight I'd received an email from Keith Hampton saying that, having read our report, he thought it was 'a fantastic and important piece of work'. The OII, having no track record in taking the local social aspects of internet use seriously, is not even motivated to find out if he might have a point. I do realise that doesn't really matter too much. It's not all that surprising to reflect that among the first people to be left behind by ideas or social change will be academics studying the internet. What's gratifying, and does matter, is that a load of practitioners get it. Hugh and I have had a flurry of reassuring comments: William Perrin described it as 'superb original research', Steven Clift refers to 'neighbourhood awesomeness coming out of the UK.' Most of all I appreciated some generous remarks from Richard McKeever: 'Recognising how people actually live in neighbourhoods and identifying the additional convening and organising power that can be added by the use of online networks is the right way round.' More thoughts soon on some of the issues.

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