Public Services Management: Volunteering advice: Help is at hand for the active citizen. Paul Gosling examines the options

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The Independent Online
THIS is the age of the active citizen. Parents are needed as school governors. Business leaders and professionals are in heavy demand as directors of training and enterprise councils, hospital trusts, city challenge boards and as governors. Charities need trustees. Management committee members are wanted by a host of voluntary groups, such as residents' associations, tenants' associations and organisations providing care in the community.

As far too many volunteers have found, though, it is not enough just to sit at a committee meeting and start making decisions. Things can go disastrously wrong if aims and objectives are not agreed and shared; legal responsibilities recognised; and relationships with employees and services users clarified. All this can be aided by good quality training for the volunteer.

One organisation aiming to train a new cadre of volunteers is the Centre for Active Citizenship. The centre was established in 1989 at Fircroft College, in Selly Oak in the West Midlands, itself established in 1919 to assist adults in taking 'a full and active part in their communities'. Keith Jackson, founder and joint director, explains why the centre was set up: 'We were conscious of the fundamental shift in the way public services are provided, but citizens have not changed the way they express themselves. Citizenship has a set of rights associated with it, and we want people to understand those.'

Mr Jackson believes that the changes in public services management enable community groups to increase their influence. This is true, he says, with the city challenge consultation for church groups and women's groups but most obviously with tenants' associations. 'We are running a citizens' training programme for tenants of Birmingham council and the council's housing officers so they understand each others' perspectives. The council is now in the process of setting up 57 de-centralised committees, called housing liaison boards. These were suggested by students on a course at Fircroft, tenants of Birmingham council who designed a new form of participation. It has been a fascinating experience, seeing tenants and housing staff understand what they can do together, without compromising each other.

'There is still a fantastic commitment to council housing by tenants in Birmingham. What they need is a new relationship, which has been made possible by this government. The housing department needs them more than ever before. The housing training course has led to a shift in policy, and the council has had the courage to run with it. It is one of the few examples where providers and users have met as equals.'

In the last three years the centre has run 35 courses, with 608 participants. It also provides an 'active citizenship' option for Fircroft's full-time residential students. A new course is to be led by community activists hoping to pass on their enthusiasm. 'It is partly a matter of training to trainers - we want it to be self-generating,' Mr Hallett explains. There is also a federation of women's groups in the Black Country, Women Acting in Today's Society, launched last year by the Labour MP Glenda Jackson, supported by the centre.

'We are asking how can people be active in their own organisations, and represent accurately the needs of other citizens. There is a need for new forms of organisation now,' Mr Hallett says. 'Our experience is that housing departments are having to be more responsive or there will be no state housing left in this country. Tenants and landlords are having to come together for mutual interest. The process is for people to see what influence they can have. They have to value their own ideas and see their own needs as important.'

The growth of what Professor John Stewart, of the Institute of Local Government, has called the 'new magistry' of quangos and other non- elected bodies has led to a fierce debate about the role of unelected representatives within a democratic society. Mr Hallett says that it is for the committee members to ensure they properly represent the broader community.

'There are a number of ways that a (parent) school governor can be accountable. In their election they can talk to other parents, and they can make sure they keep in touch with them in the ways that councillors and MPs do, by running surgeries for other parents - as I did when I was a governor.' The same questions arise, he says, with community groups. 'It is a fundamental issue to be accountable to the people you represent; how to make sure that decisions are taken by a group's membership, not by a self-selecting committee, allowing the community to feel that it is making the running. People don't join organisations without a reason - whether it is a new roof for their house, or better education for their kids, they want something out of it.'

What is also important is for members of groups to be aware of their legal, financial and managerial responsibilities. Kate Kirkland is head of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations' Trustee Services Unit, and herself a trustee with Oxfam. The unit was established after a survey found that 60 per cent of the country's one million trustees had no idea of their legal responsibilities. Two out of three trustees were unaware they were trustees.

She says: 'What I'm trying to say to people is you have serious responsibilities, but providing you have adequate support you can do it. We started with a concern that the publicity for the survey and the demand for governors could dry up the supply of trustees. The Charities Act has also increased responsibilities, and it has woken people up. Trustees should be aware that they are taking on serious legal, financial and managerial responsibilities, and they can be personally liable without limit to compensate their charity if they allow money to be lost by, for example, spending the charity's money on activities that are outside the charity's legal objects - its aims or purpose - or on activities that are not permissible under charity law.'

Similar problems can arise where a voluntary group spends money contrary to the limits set out by a local authority or other funding body. School governors can face potential liabilities if undertaking additional activities, for example to raise funds.

It is wise for volunteers to ensure they fully understand the range of their potential liabilities. They may also wish to suggest that the committee takes out insurance. The Educational Protection and Insurance Consultants (Epic) offer a policy to protect school governors from the potential consequences of their mistakes. John Greatrex, managing director of Epic, says: 'School governors are essentially covered under their county councils' policies, but there are certain gaps. Our policy is designed for governors of schools and colleges, but it is also open to other active citizens.'

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