The Declaration on Government Reform published last year sets out ambitions from the top for a civil service and ministerial team that “work better” in the future. The ambition is for government to become more open and “porous”. To this end, there are pledges to operate more seamlessly with institutions outside of government, to deepen the understanding of citizens in all parts of the country and to continue investing in personal development.
Volunteering within the charity sector is one way to accomplish all three of these goals.
Some parts of the civil service work daily with charity and community groups, such as academy trusts, specialist health charities, organisations vital to the rehabilitation of offenders, or the groups which safeguard our environment. But for many civil servants, the charity sector can feel distant. Indeed, new research by the Law Family Commission on Civil Society found that only one in five civil servants had any contact with charities as part of their job. But that is not down to a lack of interest. In total, 60% thought that there should be more engagement between policymakers and charities, while 40% believed their own department should establish closer links with the sector.
There are good reasons for this. Involvement with the charity sector can be both motivating – fuelling the commitment to public service which brings many civil servants into government – and informative, helping to ground the government’s work in the experiences of people civil servants might not otherwise encounter.
Volunteering itself provides a boost to wellbeing (more necessary than ever in these grey winter months), as well as ample opportunity for self development. For those looking simply to broaden their experience, there is an incredibly wide range of sectors, organisational sizes, geographic ranges and structures to get involved in. And for those who want to demonstrate strengths such as adaptability, strategic thinking, or being a learner, networker or challenger, volunteering can be invaluable.
This was certainly my experience of volunteering for a charity during my 13 years as an economist in the Government Economic Service. I found the two projects I worked on challenging and demanding – requiring me to plan and manage my time carefully – but, ultimately, incredibly rewarding. The opportunity to work on new issues, alongside organisations on the frontline of some of the most difficult social challenges, was both eye-opening and energising. And the rewards of my voluntary efforts were not limited to just the charity and me. The experience helped me to develop stronger communication skills which I brought back into my day job in the civil service.
To start looking for volunteer opportunities, websites such as Reach Volunteering, Do IT and Volunteering Matters are good places to start. Many professional bodies will have links to pro bono organisations that can help you apply your skills in the social sector.
Pro Bono Economics – which counts many members of the Government Economic Service as volunteers – puts economists, accountants and data analysts to work on long-term projects, like cost-benefit analyses, or smaller ones, such as fixing up spreadsheets or putting together data visualisations for community groups. The Media Trust brings volunteers with communication and digital skills together with charities into specialist mentoring roles and into technical ones, as CRM analysts, web developers and social media volunteers. Many charities are crying out for a few hours of HR expertise to help them to get their policies right, or someone to give a bit of advice about their financial systems.
The act of looking for opportunities can be daunting, with many charities looking for long-term, regular commitments. But if you look in the right places, the opportunities are there to fit any lifestyle.
Covid has driven a change in how volunteering is offered, to provide more flexibility for people to fit charity work around busy lives. Far more opportunities are now remote, such as helpline and admin roles. With charities such as Inspiring the Future, volunteers can provide virtual mentoring and call in on Zoom to speak at careers assemblies, as well as offering CV support to school and college students over email.
Charity trusteeships are a tremendous way to develop leadership skills and to get a new perspective on making effective decisions, or on how to deliver change and improvements. And most trustee roles only require a few hours once a quarter – a couple for meeting prep followed by the meeting itself. Those who get really inspired and want deeper involvement can always take up the optional extras, like positions on renumeration, finance or risk committees, or informal roles supporting staff members.
The need in the voluntary sector for civil servants’ skills should not be underestimated: it is not just lawyers who can do pro bono work after all.
A civil service which volunteers more is one with greater skills and motivation, that is better at delivering and more in touch with the citizens it serves. Every department has great examples of team members making excellent use of the volunteering days made available to them. There are opportunities to volunteer even with the most demanding schedules. Have you used your hours yet?
Jon Franklin is a former civil servant and chief economist at Pro Bono Economics