Towards a national civic service?

Andy Mycock on ideas for a British civic service programme
Andy Mycock
21 January 2010

The Youth Citizenship Commission report published last year highlighted that party politics in the UK often overlooks younger voters and politicians marginalise youth-focused policies in favour of older voters who are seen as more reliable in turning up at the polling booth. At first glance, the forthcoming general election promises a campaign that could prove somewhat different. Concerns over the social and economic impact of youth unemployment and the possibility of another ‘lost’ generation suggest that Labour and the Conservatives are giving greater emphasis to policies that directly relate to young people.

However, though the gloves may not be officially off, there is little to suggest that the election will be defined by a new politics whereby young people are consulted on the policies that will shape their own futures. Instead, political parties appear prepared to outline top-down solutions to provide solutions that seek to placate the concerns of older generations. Youth-focused policies from the two main UK-wide parties reproduce a familiar binary whereby young people are both optimistically lauded as beneficiaries of a new ‘age of aspiration’ and also pilloried as anti-social miscreants who ‘blight’ communities with no fear of ‘real punishments’.

Recent proposals to introduce some form of National Civic Service are indicative of such shortcomings. Although some claim the majority of people back a compulsory scheme, during the Youth Citizenship Commission’s year-long consultations with young people and youth-orientated stakeholder groups across the UK the issue of National Civic Service was not raised once. The introduction of some form of compulsory or voluntary programme has however garnered support from across the political spectrum. Though the Conservatives are keen to suggest that their voluntary National Citizen Service programme was the first such proposal, mooted by David Cameron in 2005, Labour and the Liberal Democrats also support the introduction of some form of provision. Each party appears to believe that such a programme will foster a sense of belonging and community whilst also addressing public concerns about the discipline of young people and their preparedness to meet the responsibilities of citizenship.

As Youth Citizenship Commission Chair, Jon Tonge, and I have noted in an article published in Parliamentary Affairs this month, the belief that National Civic Service is a panacea to such concerns is ill-founded and overlooks a number of pressing issues that proponents appear to overlook. These proponents, such as Frank Field MP and Prospect magazine’s James Crabtree, promote a compulsory paid Citizenship Service of up to a year in length for every British young person aged between 16-25. They fail to acknowledge practical challenges in providing sufficient high-quality and worthwhile placements for young people over such an extended period.

The idea of incentivised or ’paid’ service is similarly problematic, suggesting that citizenship can only be effective and meaningful if rewards are offered. There is little consideration of how participation would be monitored or enforced, or what penalties would be applied to those who refuse to participate. It is highly likely that a prolonged period of compulsory service would be unpopular with many, potentially seen as restricting the political, economic and social rights of younger citizens – and could restrict employment opportunities for young people who are most vulnerable and can least afford to become economically inactive.

Recent proposals by Demos for a ‘lifecycle’ of Civic Service suggested a new national body to coordinate a programme that, it is argued, would ease the burden of young people on public services, boost their employability and help local communities. The higher education minister, David Lammy supported the inclusion of the scheme in the next Labour manifesto (though he does not support proposed plans for funding through the introduction of tax on student loans).

However, as I have argued elsewhere, the Demos proposals are deeply flawed, being compulsory to some and optional to others. They focus on mainly on ‘NEETS’, whose participation is conditional and tied to welfare benefits, being compulsory for some but not those in full-time employment. Such inequality contradicts the universality of the concept of citizenship and highlights the danger of Demos's programme becoming simply shorthand for a "poor corps". Moreover, asking students to fund the programme suggests a form of mass social philanthropy from a group that benefits least.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have outlined their own programmes which share some common features. Neither party has signed up to the longer programmes promoted by others, favouring instead non-compulsory (cheaper) short schemes. Conservatives plans have proven open to change. In 2007, they proposed a six-week programme including a one week residential with input from the Armed Forces (although it was unclear whether they had been consulted on this).

Recently though, Tim Loughton, Shadow Minister for Children, suggested that this ‘flagship’ programme would run for only three weeks over the summer holidays and would not involve a residential or military dimension. It is unclear how many young people would take up opportunities voluntarily during their summer break, particularly if they impinged on holiday or work plans. The proposed scheme also fails to detail how those from disadvantaged backgrounds where levels of social capital are low would be motivated to get involved. There is potential that the Conservatives' scheme would simply provide opportunities for those already active.

In April 2009, Gordon Brown announced proposals for a National Youth Service, whereby every young person under the age of 19 would have to meet a minimum requirement of 50 hours. Though a pilot scheme was to be rolled in September of last year, there has been no further public discussion concerning the development of the programme.

There are a number of drawbacks shared by all the schemes outlined. Such proposals focus on England with scant regard to the implications of devolution on developing a universal UK-wide programme. Access to sufficient good-quality activities is taken as given by proponents, though there is little to suggest that the third sector at present has the capacity to provide enough opportunities to meet such significant increases in demand. The potential is that some young people, particularly those who lack skills, expertise or resources, could have less-rewarding experiences. Failure to define challenging and positive experiences for all could have significant implications with young people who may increasingly view civic service as at best a ‘necessary evil’ and at worse some form of civic penal servitude.

There is a lack of clarity about how civic service would mesh with established volunteering activities. Focus on young people could have implications for long-term volunteering strategies, restricting funding and access for others in society. Moreover, though all the civic service proposals overlook or dismiss citizenship education provision in schools, they could have a detrimental impact on its status and impact. Many schools are already engaging in a range of activities to develop active citizenship. There is no consideration of that their proposals might divert much needed resources from citizenship education. Each proposal is potentially costly, introducing new infrastructures to manage overly-complicated schemes rather than coordinating and developing existing provision. Public resentment would grow quickly if costs were not matched by quantifiable evidence of efficacy.

Crucially, each of the proposals conflates volunteering and citizenship – the civil and the civic. Volunteering is explicitly non-paid, non-compulsory and does not necessarily engage with or promote democratic citizenship. All proposals assume that democratic participation is an organic by-product of community-based activities. But at present there is hard-evidence to confidently support the notion that such schemes are - on their own - effective in increasing lifelong levels of civic participation. Indeed, young people are volunteering in significant numbers but their interest in politics remains lower than other sections of society.

A common feature of all proposals is the perceived benefit in the development of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills to increase employability. Whilst these are positive impacts, they are already associated with volunteering. Though employability is a pressing issue for many young people, such concerns are already directly addressed through education and training programmes. What all the proposals fail to fully embrace is that the civic dimensions of service should be grounded in the explicit aim of building of positive relationships with young people that encourage volunteering and participation in local and national democracy. Civic service might have much to offer but the potential difficulties outlined are significant. On their own, compulsory or voluntary programmes will not address concerns about youth citizenship and will be prove effective if part of a more fundamental reform of British politics. The ideas and proposals outlined in the second part of this article may go some way to beginning this important debate.

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