Can we define a difference between volunteering and active citizenship?

Active citizen or volunteer?

Over recent months we have seen an explosion in both active citizenship and in volunteering. These both bring tremendous value to the fabrics of place and society and I am interested in the acts that are at the boundary as well as the connections between the two.

We can see the boundary between civic participation and democracy in the different framings of the active citizen label. Democracy doesn’t exist without participation but too often we see a disconnect between the ways in which people play a role in their communities and the way in which we shape and make the decisions that affect that community. This disconnect is there in the language we use to describe what people are doing. The participation world talks about coproduction and ladders of participation, in democracy we talk about processes and representatives. The active citizen in a participation framing is someone who takes an active role in their community, a democratic framing sees active citizens as campaigning and organising.

Volunteering is something different. Volunteering is obvious an act of participation but often less about a community and more about an organisation or cause. NCVO define volunteering as:

We define volunteering as any activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or someone (individuals or groups) other than, or in addition to, close relatives. Central to this definition is the fact that volunteering must be a choice freely made by each individual.

Volunteering by this definition is very close to both of the framings of active citizenship but I think its more often used – wrongly – to describe the effort substitution that we see in charities or in and around the NHS. In those models of volunteering people are asked to carry out unpaid roles which are part of the operational fabric of the organisation they are working with. At CRUK for example volunteers in shops are vital to the charity’s shops success, the same could be said of volunteers at the National Trust and countless other charities.

So was the mass participation in mutual-aid groups and signing up for council and NHS volunteering active citizenship or volunteering?

I think we can argue that it’s a bit of both but the critical question is in where it was driven from; bottom up from active citizens or top down from governmental calls for help? The language reflects the framing of the activity and so I am cautious when we talk volunteering – it implies we have a list of things we want people to do where in fact what we are talking about is a shift to a more participative society as a whole.

There is a delicate balance here – organisations like Councils are likely to know the things that need doing but to package them out as a todo list is seems to undermine the potential for coproduction which sits at the heart of active citizenship. Attempts to strike that balance can be seen in things like TimeBanking or Microvolunteering but it’s still difficult to shift from what Jon Alexander would call a consumer to citizen mindset while you are still offering up a menu of tasks to consume (More on the citizen shift here). Its also important to remember that sometimes people do just want to be told what to do.

But I don’t want to lose the other more democratic framing of active citizenship which is so well demonstrated in the rage and action of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here you see the active citizenship of a networked social movements – it feels like a distant cousin of anything that you might call volunteering. Look at the intriguing connection between activism and participation which you find in the climate emergency debate where half of the battle is getting people to participate in behaviour change. These networked social movements are native to social media

Things got digital
The fact that we have been doing all of this virtually signals a huge shift. The possibilities which are opened up by digital engagement are enormous if properly designed (more on this from this report from Demsoc). But it’s about much more than mutual aid WhatsApp groups. Design thinking requires us to properly understand both the problem space and the user need before designing a solution and I think we are only just starting to do that.

Active citizenship and volunteering both benefit from new technologies and approaches but more than that they benefit from the application of user centred design to the tools and platforms which organisations who are working with citizens create. In recent work at CRUK I was struck by how splintered the volunteer experience can be as each area of the charity imagines it as an extension of their service or domain – and I am sure that this is echoed across many other charities and organisations.

The deep implications of technology design on democracy are the subject of the latest Pew institute report which is as ever worth a proper read.

There is a lot in there but one of the reasons that I reassert the need for user centred design is that the alternative is technocratic and dispowering for citizens with yet more tech bro’s designing what they imagine is the perfect experience for people they don’t actually recognise. This is the real work of co-design that is needed and its a foundation for digital coproduction for the future. In the same way as you can’t create digital outcomes using analogue methods you need to build coproduction into the fabric of the system and not just ring fence it for special occasions.

Our democratic system would if you like need to be practicing user centred democracy to get the best out of more digital forms of participation.

What next?
All of this is very much front of mind for me as I move into my new role at Adur and Worthing. The team – led by Tina Favier have done amazing work over the Covid period (you can read her excellent blog on this here) and we are keen to explore what we have all learned from this period of rapid collaboration across the Adur and Worthing systems – looking at people and organisations.

I’m also keen that we look at our democratic and participation tools – and the app that was created during Covid was a great starting point for this. Some of the participation work we are planning at the moment is of necessity going to have strong digital elements and I’m keen to make sure that we are building something sustainable here as well.

In doing that I am keen that we look at that disconnect between participation and democracy and make sure that the work that we are doing is framed within the context of a system of democracy that allows both for coproduction and effective representation as the role of members in all of this is central.

Further reading:

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