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National Citizen Service – value for money?

In this week’s blog, Gill Millar reflects on the news that the National Audit Office will study the value for money offered by the National Citizen Service (NCS) and explores whether in a time of massive local authority cuts the money could be shared more evenly.

It’s been a big week for NCS – the NCS Bill was introduced to Parliament, ex-Prime Minister David Cameron was announced as the Chair of the Board of Patrons for the NCS Trust, and now the National Audit Office has launched a study into whether its delivery can be seen as ‘value for money’.

The Bill will effectively make the NCS Trust an arms-length government body – I think we used to call them QUANGOs and Conservative governments have never liked them – and further funding will be committed to expand its reach so that ultimately all eligible young people will be offered places on it. However, the statutory obligations to promote the scheme for local authorities and schools, which was one of the aspirations in the lead up to the Bill, have not materialised, probably because local authorities and schools pointed out the inappropriateness of using statute to promote a particular programme.

For anyone who has missed it so far, NCS is a short-term programme aimed at 16 and 17 year olds, mainly in the summer after GCSEs, with shorter programmes available in Spring and Autumn. The model was developed in the lead up to the 2010 election as part of the Big Society concept. It works with young people in teams of 12 to 15 over a three/four-week period. Week one is an outdoor activities-type residential which aims to build relationships and get young people functioning as a team. Week two is a second residential, this time near young people’s home base, where they are introduced to the idea of social action and plan for a team social action project that benefits people in communities. Weeks three and four are when the young people carry out the social action project, after which they ‘graduate’ from NCS and hopefully start a journey in active citizenship that takes them into adulthood. Does this sounds familiar? Condensed Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award maybe?

In 2011, NCS was piloted in the South West, through a consortium of youth organisations led by Young Devon. Aside from the inevitable teething problems (getting young people to commit for three full-time weeks at a key transition point; finding enough qualified and experienced staff to complete multiple programmes over a short period, finding sufficient residential accommodation at an already busy time of year, amongst others), the programme went well, and young people who completed it found it an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

NCS has since been massively scaled up, through multi-million pound regional contracts and complicated sub-contracting arrangements. Cabinet Office wanted to test different delivery arrangements, and seemed also to be keen to bring commercial organisations into the supply chain. The scale of the prime contracts meant that youth organisations were not able to operate as prime contractors, playing either support roles or acting as sub-contractors. Because of the overall scale of the contract, Cabinet Office then set up the NCS Trust to manage and promote the scheme nationally, further complicating the accountability trail.

NCS contracts hold some serious risks for both prime and sub-contractors. The targets to engage young people are very ambitious, and payment by results mean that actual income can be substantially less than anticipated. Only organisations with deep reserves are able to take on the risks associated with delivering NCS, and in the South West we have seen a decline in the proportion of youth organisations involved in delivery, while, for example, football clubs have become more active providers. Recruitment remains challenging, and delivery organisations find themselves spending heavily on contact chasing to ensure that young people who agree to join the programme do actually show up.

The most baffling element of the Government’s determination to invest well over £1billion in this positive but short term programme is that it is happening alongside such huge cuts in youth work provision through local authorities and via grants to voluntary organisations. If half the money invested in NCS were to be invested in year-round youth work provision how much more could be achieved? And how much more effectively targeted on young people in areas where they are less likely to get the kind of opportunities NCS offers?

The National Audit Office study is welcome, and timely. This study will set out whether the Cabinet Office is achieving value for money in its delivery of NCS. It will examine early evidence on whether the programme is working; challenges meeting the ambitious 2020 participation and growth targets set out in the 2015 Spending Review; and whether the system is set up in a way to support the level of continual growth required.

If you would like to provide evidence for the study you should email the study team on, putting the study title in the subject line. NAO are likely to dig deeper into the value of the scheme than has been the case so far, and the outcome of the study will be awaited with interest.

Gill Millar Youth sector trainer and consultant

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