The Aves Report: the old debate on volunteering and public services

This month I have mostly been reading The Voluntary Worker in the Social Services, known as the Aves Report. It was named after Geraldine Aves who chaired the Committee on the nature of volunteering in this developing public sector field, set up in 1966 and reporting in 1968. If you’re an avid voluntary sector fan like me, you might have noticed this age-old debate has popped back into the narrative over the past month or so, prompted by a letter from NCVO Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington. Ill-disguised historian that I am, I thought it was a good time to think about what it looked like in the olden days. (It’s another long read – sorry.)

What was going on in the 1960s?

Aside from the Beatles and naughty spies and all that boring stuff, there was also a significant re-examination of the nature of social work, its organisation and the role of local government in providing it. Conversations about a multi-layered conception of social work, encompassing neighbourhood-level community work as well as case and group work, played out across reports, committees and organisations like the Younghusband Report on social workers’ roles and training (1959 – I’m cheating), Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s report Community Work and Social Change (1968) and the Seebohm Committee report on local authorities and allied personal social services (1968). This one recommended that local authorities start to take a much larger degree of responsibility for social services, proposing the creation of specific local government departments. Government was also experimenting with longish-term, community-based projects like the Urban Programme (1968) and the Community Development Project (1968) in poor neighbourhoods and areas where recent immigration had brought with it perceived changes and tensions in local places. Voluntary organisations and volunteers ran like a thread through these programmes and debates, and at the same time new voluntary organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG – 1965) and Shelter (1966) were being formed as the country ‘rediscovered’ poverty and thought they’d better do something about it.

The Aves report on the role of volunteers in personal social services at a point where there was a sense that things needed to change. As the report itself says:

Social services had become more comprehensive and more complex than ever before, and there was increasing realization of the part that they needed to play. The aims of the services were becoming more explicit; their limitations as well as their potentialities were more clearly realized… it had become apparent that only by the intelligent mobilization of every resource could society hope to realise its aspirations to meet a very wide range of human needs.

So what does it say about volunteers?

The report includes some great material on volunteer roles, frustrations, relationships with social workers and views on the support they got (or lack thereof). There’s a real sense of celebration of the role volunteers played, including their relative freedom compared to bureaucratic services, a perceived stronger focus on individuals and human needs, and the ability to offer continuity where an individual might encounter a wide range of different professionals. It is not without criticism; things like ‘’friendly’ visiting’ comes under fire where it exists without any real purpose and without adequate support from organisations, and there’s a powerful reflection from a disabled person who feels they are a ‘captive audience’, obliged to keep up conversation with their volunteer visitor. There is plenty in there, both good and bad, that will be familiar to anyone who’s volunteered or worked with volunteers.

There are also some key themes about the nature and role of volunteering in relation to the state, which is what I’m most interested in:

  • The report is absolutely clear that volunteers should not be used to replace services, and should not be expected to do jobs where normally somebody would be paid. Voluntary workers, it says, ‘should be seen as part of an overall social work plan, not as a stop-gap for lack of trained workers’. Volunteers should complement, expand and extend the work done by professional social workers and services. It isn’t prescriptive about what volunteers should and shouldn’t do, but does make a call for clearer policy and role definitions in different service areas.
  • The report doesn’t talk about prevention. Obviously it is written at a time where this is not really on the agenda in the way it is now, but nevertheless there is no question that the people receiving help from volunteers need that help. There is no idea of preventing people from needing to use services, but rather volunteers are described as reducing loneliness, providing an ‘outside world’ perspective to people in hospitals or other institutions, befriending, being a conduit for service-user involvement and so on.
  • The Committee talked to different government departments about their views on volunteering. Some departments were more engaged than others, but it generally found that there wasn’t a great understanding, and that departments would talk about volunteers and voluntary organisations interchangeably. The report recommends establishing a national volunteer ‘foundation’; Government took them up on this, setting up the national-level Volunteer Centre (and the Voluntary Services Unit too).
  • There’s a serious tension between public services recognising the potential value of volunteering as part of service delivery, and having the resources and skills to make it a reality, particularly at a time when belts were tightening. In the report’s words, ‘the feeling was that voluntary workers could be very useful of only we had time to cope with them.’ There is lots of discussion about potential solutions to this problem, but throughout there is a recognition that the only way to increase volunteering is to invest in roles and services for recruiting and supporting them.
  • Volunteer bureaux weren’t such a big thing at this time. Councils for Voluntary Service and Settlements were well-established and had important roles in recruiting and supporting volunteers, as did other service-focussed organisations, but there were only a handful of organisations dedicated to advising and advertising to people who wanted to volunteer. The report calls for a much more comprehensive network. Noting the reluctance of the general public to donate to cover admin costs, it argues this should be funded by local and/or national government, given they will reap the rewards of having local organisations in place to organise volunteer recruitment, training and management.

How does this match up with debates going on today?

Well, it’s a very different narrative. It’s the perception of the purpose of volunteering that’s important here; for Aves it is clearly about complementing and extending, whereas in much of Sir Stuart et al.’s writing it is about preventing recourse to the state – an idea with a much longer lineage. This isn’t all that surprising; Aves comes after 20 years of the state as prime deliverer (broadly speaking), whereas Stu’s speaking after 20 years of New Public Management (likewise). The policy and rhetorical environment is different, as is the dominant ideology. Sir Stuart criticises people who take an ‘ideological’ position against government cuts, but his own is far from ideologically neutral (and neither is that of Aves, or mine). It says something about how far the conversation has developed and how far these concepts have been normalised that this is being presented as an inevitable path (or even, however tongue-in-cheek, as the only thing standing between us and our new robot overlords). I think we need to view this much more critically, and be careful with how we frame things like what volunteers do, what service users want and need, and the social care crisis within the conversation – which after all is affecting lots of voluntary organisations, whose business models are becoming unsustainable or whose beneficiaries are losing the services they need. I also think we need to talk to people who’ve been at the hard end of this, because ‘more volunteering’ is never going to be a remedy to the social harm inflicted by recent policy.

It is nevertheless striking how much of what’s in the Aves report resonates today. In my personal experience being a volunteer and working with them, the complaints of 1968 are still often complaints today (although I have been privileged enough to always volunteer for fantastic organisations who support me exceptionally well). So are many descriptions of the value of volunteering, and both pieces make the point that volunteering carries costs. Etherington says ‘it is time for the sector to renew its commitment to volunteering’. I’m not sure the sector ever disavowed itself, but it is worth considering why some of the same battles are going on, what new ones are being fought, and how we can keep on fighting in the right places.

I’m still exploring some of these issues – would appreciate any challenges, contradictions or other comments!