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Are you being served: what next for the voluntary sector?

By Doug Young - Posted on 9 January 2014

PhD student, Doug Young, considers the impact that growing financial pressures facing workers in the voluntary sector.

One of the most instantly recognisable features of the Coalition Government is Big Society, which represents a radical change in attitudes and perceptions regarding social care. It has inspired a great deal of spirited debate, and has significant implications towards the functionality of the sector.

While the voluntary sector has always been subject to significant financial pressure, the current economic climate has seen a markedly increased emphasis in recent years. In order to compete for funding, organisations are forced to become as economical and business-like as possible. This has resulted in providers having to face the unenviable choice of either lowering the standard of care, or reducing costs. Whether it’s intentional or not, this can often disadvantage employees.

Definitions of the Voluntary Sector differ drastically, and of the main misconceptions is that those who work within it ‘volunteer' their time. In fact, the term refers to organisations being not-for-profit, rather than being descriptive of those who work within it. For the vast majority of those who work in the sector, it is a profession in every sense of the word.

It’s widely accepted that social care workers tend to be motivated by factors out-with their salary. This has become known as the Voluntary Sector Ethos (VES) and through factors such as unpaid overtime is vital to the effective running of social care services. However, by trying to provide the most high-standard and cost-effective levels of care, the terms and conditions of employment can suffer in a way that workers can’t accommodate. This manifests itself in a number of ways:

1. Formally – uncompetitive salaries and remuneration packages, loss of statutory sick pay and holiday entitlement, and a failure to keep pace with inflation

2. Informally – decreasing access to training, appraisal and development, which damages employability, professional status, and collective bargaining power

3.  Work intensification – unacceptable levels of stress, verbal and physical abuse, greater chance of physical and emotional ill health, poor work-life balance

In a Scottish context, the approach to financial austerity and funding cuts is unique, and has come to be exemplified by policies which centre on personalisation. Service users are given funds directly in order that they procure for themselves a better standard of care which is specifically suited to their individual needs. So, rather than an elderly person being told what care they require and when, they can determine when they need assistance (e.g. when dressing, meal times, going to bed). The approach is often championed under the banner of choice, inclusivity, and empowerment. Service users aren't given more money than they would be entitled to out with personalisation, therefore it can be concluded that they’re expected to achieve an increased level of care without an increased cost. In other words: more for less.

Personalisation as a subject is worth examining in its own right – it’s a specific, distinct and new approach to the allocation of resources – but it’s more than this; it exemplifies the growing trend of marketisation of the social care sector as a result of external financial pressure, and a pronounced cause-and-effect influence of financial considerations on the delivery of care. Furthermore, while personalisation gives service users more choice, this may not necessarily represent a change from their pre-existing care packages; as a result of comfort, familiarity and past performance, many choose to have services delivered by agencies they used prior to personalisation’s introduction. While personalisation builds a new relationship between purchasers and providers, it does this on foundations which are already in place. In order to accurately understand the development of this phenomenon, in-depth, localised, qualitative analysis is vital. There is comparatively little existing research dedicated to Scotland specifically, and that which there is tends be of a pre credit crunch context. Personalisation is already a prominent feature in the social care landscape in Scotland, and with the upcoming Independence Referendum, it’s possible it could become more important.

In an age characterised by financial austerity, and where economic pressures and funding cuts are predicted to become more regular and increasingly severe, more research is imperative to comprehending the commitment and motivation of voluntary sector employees. This will provide a comprehensive framework from which to understand the interplay between those who fund care, those who deliver it and those who receive it.

What do you think?

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