To bust the deficit, Britain tries a revolution in volunteerism

The 16-nation euro currency zone is beset by fissures between strong economies such as Germany and weaker ones such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which risk being engulfed by historic levels of government debt.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 6:26 PM

LONDON - In his crisp black uniform punctuated by the dome-shaped helmet of London bobbies, there are few clues to what separates Peter Whitney from other constables at Scotland Yard.

In eight months on the beat, the 23-year-old rookie has scored 10 arrests, run down shoplifters and come to the aid of office workers panicked by the release of chemical toxins.

The difference, however, becomes clear on payday, when Whitney, one of a surging number of "special constables" working London beats for free, goes home empty-handed. He is part of what some here are calling an audacious solution to a massive problem: the budget deficit.

The new Conservative-led government here is embracing an extreme experiment in deficit-busting as it prepares to cut public spending by $131 billion over the next four years. At the same time, it envisions the creation of an army of volunteers and charities to pitch in for queen and country, a notion Prime Minister David Cameron calls part of his vision for a "Big Society."

One of Europe's most indebted nations, Britain is becoming a testing ground for fiscal cures just as the United States is poised to embark on its own effort to tackle the deficit. On this side of the Atlantic, Cameron's Big Society movement is hoping to enlist a new class of citizen activists to take on roles as varied as postal clerk and librarian, park ranger and police officer to help fill the gap.

As the nation begins to absorb just how deep and fast the cuts will come, the Big Society has come under intense fire here. The government, critics say, is being a Pollyanna if it thinks the goodwill of the citizenry can make up for draconian state cuts.

But the government is calling a revolution in volunteerism at least part of the answer. In some cases, job hopefuls will have little choice. Cash-strapped Scotland Yard, for instance, has instituted a policy mandating that most recruits spend a minimum of one year on the job for free, as it increasingly relies on unpaid special constables like Whitney to help keep London's streets safe.

After undergoing 23 days of training, the special constables are vested with many of the same powers as their salaried counterparts, with only a small lettering change on their uniforms distinguishing them as volunteers. With the force moving to dramatically boost its number of special constables to almost 7,000 by the 2012 Summer Olympics, one in every six officers at Scotland Yard will soon be unpaid.

The ranks are swelling with the likes of Whitney, a strapping young swimming instructor who has long dreamed of working for storied Scotland Yard. When not giving swimming lessons to pay his bills, he dedicates 10 to 30 hours a week to patrolling the shopping district around Oxford Circus, all in the hopes of landing a hard-won salaried slot.

"I suppose the job might not have been a good fit for me," he said. "At least this way, I've found out for sure that this is what I want."

Fierce opposition

Cameron's Big Society also aims to transfer power to local governments and cut bureaucratic red tape. Wherever possible, the government is seeking to find alternatives to the state. In recent months, it has moved to grant parents and teachers the right to set up their own schools, and to establish a Big Society Bank to help "social entrepreneurs" fund civil projects on their own.

But the pushback has become increasingly fierce, with the government's entire plan now appearing in jeopardy and disarray. Amid massive public opposition, the government abandoned a plan to sell 15 percent of Britain's publicly owned forests to charities and other groups, which could have theoretically staffed them in part with volunteer rangers and maintenance workers to cut costs.

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