To bust the deficit, Britain tries a revolution in volunteerism

By Anthony Faiola
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.

One problem is that most charities in Britain still derive most of their budgets not from philanthropy, but from the national government, which often provides funding for nonprofits via annual allotments to town and city councils.

For instance, the city of Manchester may be forced to close all of its 30 youth centers and cut back on programs aiding the elderly and disabled. At the same time, city officials say they are being forced to cut funding to charities that could have picked up the slack.

In Liverpool, the City Council became so enraged last week by what amounts to a 22 percent cut in national funding over the next two years that officials there withdrew from a Big Society pilot program. Among other things, Liverpool could have seen unemployed workers volunteering on construction projects to the boost the energy efficiency of buildings, in exchange for their state benefits.

"It is a fraud to tell people that you can create a Big Society through big, savage cuts," said Paul Brant, a City Council member from the opposition Labor Party. "If we can't afford the volunteer support or funding for charities, they cannot step in to help."

The government has tried, however, to reassure the public that its plan is not to cut public services and expect an army of volunteers to pick up the slack. Officials cite plans already underway to use volunteers in museums and libraries to expand hours, not replace current staff.

"This isn't just the government stepping back and expecting flowers to bloom," said Nick Hurd, Cameron's undersecretary for civil society. "There is a real transferring of power into the hands of citizens going on, giving them the right to challenge the way services are provided."

But volunteering, government officials say, is part of the solution, with many pointing to the special constables of Scotland Yard.

The notion of unpaid bobbies dates to the era of Sherlock Holmes, with the first special constables joining the force in the 19th century. But the program has taken off in recent months. In September - after the coalition government unveiled plans to bring 50,000 more volunteer officers onto police forces nationwide - the Yard's top brass instituted the policy that most recruits serve as volunteers first. Amid a recruiting blitz on subways and buses, the number of special constables now stands at nearly 4,200, a 64 percent increase in just the past 12 months.

Scotland Yard Chief Superintendent George Clarke said the force is saving nearly $20 million a year with the new program, enough to fund up to 300 new paid slots annually. The recruits themselves come from vastly different backgrounds - from lawyers and bankers looking for a bit of weekend adventure, to those like Whitney, a university-trained criminologist.

At first, the special constables were the butt of jokes, scorned by salaried veterans. But given the tight budgetary times, even the police unions have toned down their criticism.

"Initially, we weren't keen at all on this. However, given the current budget situation, we recognize this is saving a substantial amount of money and have become more relaxed about it," said Peter Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, Scotland Yard's police union.

But, he added, hesitations remain.

"You've got to give a year of your life to this [program] while maintaining another kind of employment to keep your body, mind and soul together, and that's going to limit the pool of people willing to join," Smyth said. "And my general view is that if a job is worth doing, it's worth paying someone to do it."

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