Millions more wasted on Big Society vanity

I mentioned last week that whilst we were on the subject of the government’s role in grants to Big Society Network, we might also want to look at their approach to the National Citizen Service (NCS) programme. The millions of pounds wasted on the NCS makes the grants to Big Society Network look like loose change from the petty cash.

This is the cornerstone of the Cabinet Office’s support for Big Society, with £62m – more than half their annual budget – going to support it in 2012-13. The programme aims to encourage 16 and 17 year olds to “take part in social action projects and build skills for work and life“. There’s nothing wrong with that aim, in fact I think it’s a hugely important part of supporting citizenship among our young adults.

What concerns me, much like the misguided approach to supporting the Big Society Network, is that they have deliberately and knowingly completely disregarded the existing work that’s already going on. Needless to say this fixation to ignore anything ‘not invented here’ is hugely inefficient and ridiculously expensive – at a time when the government have been slashing public spending and calling for increased efficiency in the public sector.

Let’s take a look at the figures from the evaluation of the NCS pilots, which were the basis for massively scaling up the programme:

In 2012 NCS involved 26,000 young people who donated a total of just over 380,000 volunteer hours. If we (generously) disregard the £25.7m which was spent on upfront set-up costs and only concern ourselves with the £36m spend on grants to run the programme, this equates to a cost per participant of over £1,500, or £53.84 per hour of volunteering.

NCS calculate – for simplicity’s sake – the value of this volunteering at minimum wage, giving a total figure of £1.4m of donated time. The Return on Investment is -96.22%. That is to say that almost all of the cost of the programme is unmet by the value of the time donated.

Now that is too simplistic and I do not for one second believe that programmes with social outcomes should be judged solely on the basis of financial return. But lets compare the NCS figures with another programme which, though not exactly the same is broadly comparable. The Giving Nation programme that the Citizenship Foundation have been running for a number of years. Giving Nation works in schools to “get students actively involved in charitable giving and social action”.

Clearly only working in schools is a key difference with NCS, but both programmes have broadly comparable aims.

Giving Nation worked with 76,000 young people in 2012, almost 3 times the number that participated in NCS. And whilst the number of volunteering hours donated through Giving Nation was lower (356,000 compared with 380,435) it cost just over 10% of the NCS budget.

The cost per participant for Giving Nation was just over £5 compared with over £1,500 for NCS. And using exactly the same method to calculate return on investment, Giving Nation comes in at 232% – that is £23 of benefit for every £1 spent. NCS, to remind you, had a net cost of around £1,500 per participant.

Remember that these figures don’t include the development costs – over £25m – that have gone into setting NCS up.

NCS has its place. It works in a different way and in different settings to the Giving Nation and I believe they can both be part of the landscape of supporting citizenship education and practice. What’s completely unacceptable is the imbalance between the levels of funding going into them.

The Citizenship Foundation had been a strategic partner of the Cabinet Office for some years and prior to 2010 public money had already been invested in building the infrastructure that underpins Giving Nation.

But rather than continue investing in them (and many others who have similar track record of delivering this type of activity) the Coalition chose to wipe the slate clean and waste millions and millions of pounds of public money.

As public services are cut left right and centre – not least youth services which have been decimated since 2010 – perhaps a government so fond of increased public sector efficiency should take a long hard look at its own practice. The NCS is yet another example of Ministers willingness to waste millions of pounds of public money on programmes simply so that they can call them their own.

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One thought on “Millions more wasted on Big Society vanity

  1. Pingback: Murky complications of commissioning | arbitrary constant

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