Left hand, right hand...
This week BIS has decided to tackle overly burdensome bureaucracy, which might be deterring people from getting involved in volunteering. They have launched a new engagement exercise designed to identify and ultimately remove needless restrictions to volunteer events.
The website mentions activities like jumble sales and jubilee parties - but doesn’t recognise the huge contribution volunteers make across many aspects of society. The website also contains a rousing (if clumsily written) quote from Mark Prisk, BIS Minister, who says:
“Volunteers are the unsung heroes of communities in this country. But dealing with the way rules are enforced enforcement of rules [sic] can sometimes be more of a problem than the red tape itself – no one volunteers to be a bureaucrat.”
The website asks people to consider questions such as “wat [sic] sort of advice would help you run an event without worrying about whether it meets e.g. health and safety rules?” (Yes, that’s the actual wording), and to give examples of “any really good guidance or best practice you might have come across in setting up or running events.”
My personal favourite asks: “If you already organise a volunteer event, do you get useful help, and if so where from, or do you keep quiet and hope no one knows?” This suggests that perhaps it might not be bureaucracy which is preventing success but poor marketing.
Prisk also says: “So, whether it’s an inspection by someone who won’t listen or having to fill in the same form twice – we want to hear about it.”
All good stuff, you would think: a noble intention. Except that at the end of last week, Cabinet Office also launched the latest in their ongoing series of exercises looking to tackle overly burdensome red tape and regulation, and which focused on civil society, including volunteers.
It asks questions such as: “What problems have you faced when trying to volunteer or get involved in your local community?” and “Have rules and regulations prevented you from doing something for others?”
This may seem like an example of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, and in the context of a Minister commenting on the burden of having to fill in the same forms twice, somewhat ironic (nearly up there with having to fill out a form to access CLG’s barrier-busting anti-bureaucracy taskforce).
In this instance though, Cabinet Office do make reference to BIS’ exercise, making the (perhaps too) subtle distinction between the exercises being about what the regulations are versus how they are enforced. This clarification is at the end of a long list of previous engagement exercises with the voluntary and community sector, such as ‘Unshackling Good Neighbours' and Lord Hodgson’s review of the Charities Act.
Many of our members and partners will have contributed to these engagement opportunities, or conducted research designed to provide clarity and insight, such as NCVO’s recent report from their Charity Law Advisory Group.
I know that Compact Voice’s board expressed concern about yet more ways of asking the sector the same or similar questions, at a time when resources are diminished, capacity is low, and goodwill might be in short supply.
The spirit of Prisk’s quote above - engaging with people who won’t listen, and having to repeat yourself - is one I’ve often heard leveled at the complicated policy landscape faced by the voluntary and community sector.
There are new consultations regularly issued on a baffling variety of topics, with many open for less than the recommended period of twelve weeks. It would be a complicated process to identify whether extra steps have been taken to ensure that the engagement is meaningful.
Compact Voice, the Compact, the National Audit Office review into its implementation, and senior government officials have all extolled the importance of proper engagement with the sector by central government, and this is not supposed to undermine that clear message.
But if we are asked the same questions over and over again by different people, without describing how the questioners are talking to each other as well as to us, it’s hard to feel that the process isn’t just contributing to the overly burdensome bureaucracy that these new exercises are seeking to eliminate.
So what’s the answer?
Like all these things, it’s probably simple, such as offering clarity about how they all work together, what’s been done with the information we’ve already provided, how and where we can get involved, and how you have taken on board what we’ve said.
It’s not just that we want to be heard. We want to be listened to as well.