The National Citizens Service under scrutiny: past – and future?

A preamble for Coronavirus times

This piece has been in the drafting through most of March and now into April – some six weeks in which everyday life as we have long taken it for granted has changed in many unexpected and uncomfortable ways. At one point this left me asking myself: why am I spending time discussing something as petty as the National Citizens Service when, across the world, macro events are affecting – damaging – so many lives? 

And then I thought: why not? By the time we come out of this crisis, our perspectives – on young people, on the services they want and need, on social policy and the crucial importance of the state as an expression of our collective responsibility for each other – all of these will hopefully have changed in numerous post-neo-liberal ways. In the process, with new learning perhaps more personally internalised through direct and often painful experience, even something as marginal as NCS might have become more open to, and even more in need of, critique and rethinking.

So – somewhat arrogantly perhaps – I’ve decided to risk throwing this into the mix.

NCS: the new ‘national youth service’?  

If my anecdotal evidence is any guide the National Citizens Service (NCS), at least in England, has become an embedded component of our ‘youth services [1]. This was brought home to me, if rather late, on a Saturday afternoon some weeks ago when I was pressed by a group of young people proudly wearing their NCS T-shirts to join a ‘game’ they were running in the town centre. Very visible, too, in a local community centre a few days later were the left-overs of a junior youth club project carried out the previous evening by a different NCS group. 

Evidence from more objective sources is suggesting that, at national policy level also, NCS has achieved a taken-for-granted status. By 2018, for example, it was receiving ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government funding for ‘youth services’. And despite the shadow civil society minister’s highly critical comments on how it operates in a recent Parliamentary debate [2], all Labour could manage on NCS in its otherwise radical pre-election ‘Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services’ was a passing reference to a ‘national programme’ whose ‘accredited youth social action’ activities it promised to support [3].

Two developments over the last few months, however, suggest that this consensus around NCS might be starting to fracture a little. One is a legal challenge for breach of contract by one of its voluntary sector ‘suppliers’; the other the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) announcement that it is to review NCS’s use of public money [4]. Though focusing largely on operational matters, both of these nonetheless offer an opportunity to reopen a wider debate not just on NCS’s now priority status within our overall youth provision but also on its rationale and the on-the-ground content and methodology of its practice. 

From a prime ministerial vision to a statutory provision

I say ‘reopen’ here because as always history carries some strong and relevant previous messages for the present. A particularly crucial one is how dependent NCS has been for its rise and rise on privileged and powerful promoters and patrons. It was after all David Cameron who in 2005, as recently elected leader of the Conservative Party, first spelt out his vision for what at that stage he was describing as ‘a school leaver programme lasting a few months’. Envisaged as ‘a new national movement’ – a ‘national framework for youth engagement and volunteering’ – this, Cameron asserted, would ‘prepare… young people for their responsibilities as adult citizens’ [5]. The Conservative Party’s 2010 election manifesto then extended these aspirations to include offering 16 year olds opportunities ‘to … mix with people of different backgrounds, and starting to get involved in their communities’ [6].

Though over time NCS understandably came to be personalised as Cameron’s ‘vanity project’[7], it has always had, and still has, a much wider neo-liberal rationale. Not only does this assume a requirement to be competitive – illustrated by NCS’s procedures for awarding and evaluating its contracts. It has also embedded notions of the resilient and aspiring though compliant citizen and how they can be – must be – moulded as they grow into adulthood. Though here NCS and its precursors have made much of the importance of ‘teamwork’, also central to its promotion has been a strong emphasis on individualistic achievement – demonstrated for example by its current reminder to potential participants that when assessing university applicants ‘UCAS look for more than just points’ [8]. In addition, for Cameron as for previous Conservative and indeed New Labour governments [9], there has been a broader policy prompt: their deep distrust of much of existing leisure-time provision for young people – especially those local authority youth work facilities which sought proactively to work with and through the very peer groups which for many national policy-makers were at the root of society’s ‘youth problems’. 

By the time Cameron actually launched the scheme – only two months after becoming Prime Minister – it was therefore not surprising that he was explicitly locating it within his high profile and highly ambitious ‘Big Society’ strategy. This was ‘urgently’ needed, he claimed, to help repair the ‘social fabric’ of Britain’s ‘broken society’ by shifting power downwards from the centre, particularly by encouraging and supporting locally-based forms of volunteering [10]. For the NCS programme, this was quickly relabelled ‘social action’ – a term which, in sharp contrast to its past radical focus, was redefined by the DCMS as: …about people coming together to help improve their lives and solve the problems that are important in their communities. It can include volunteering, giving money community action or simple neighbourly acts [11].

Even before its official launch, the scheme had in effect been piloted by a new organisation, The Challenge. This had strong links with other influential Big Society enthusiasts and also with large private corporations such as Poundland and McKinsey Management Consultancy [12]. The 670 young people recruited to its 2009-10 programme were offered ‘intensive’ training … in leadership, management and communication skills’ with a view, it was explicitly suggested, ‘…to testing potential models for (the) National Citizens Service’ [13]When the actual piloting schemes were announced for 2011, The Challenge had to deny it was ‘prospering as a result of friends in high places’ when it emerged as by far ‘the lead provider’ with a £7 million contract to offer 30 per cent (3240) of that year’s planned 11,000 places [14].

Initially comprising a school summer holiday residential followed by a local ‘social action’ project, by 2014 shorter autumn and spring half-term programmes were also being offered. In 2016 the Cameron government announced that its budget to 2020-21 would be £1.2 billion, with the scheme’s actual spend between 2014-15 and 2017 totalling £475 million [15]. As one of its strategic goals was to increase the number of participants year-on-year, recruitment efforts by then included emailing and texting school-leavers to addresses provided by their schools, and plans, announced in 2018, to mount a four-year £75 million ‘marketing campaign’ [16].

As the amounts of public money going into the scheme grew, pressures built for it to become – or at least to be seen to be – less dependent on government. In 2014, responsibility for running it was passed to a community interest company which, constituted as a trust, was subsequently given a Royal Charter [17].When the Trust was put on a ‘permanent statutory footing’ in 2016, a legal duty to promote the programme was placed on schools, sixth-form colleges and local authorities [18].

Impacts and achievements: positive – and not so positive 

Independent evaluations of the scheme in these years reported a range of positive ‘impacts’ and ‘outcomes’ for the young people – in relation to, for example, their ‘improved teamwork’, their ‘transitions to adulthood’, their ‘social mixing; and their ‘community involvement’ [19]. The evaluations often also claimed significant ‘monetised’ gains – such as in 2016, for every pound spent, £1.79-worth of economic and volunteering ‘benefits’ from the summer programme and £2.21 from the autumn programme [20].

By 2017, however, reports by the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee and the National Audit Office (NAO) [21] were raising questions about NCS’s transparency and governance as an organisation and about a lack of data on the scheme’s longer-term effects on young people’s lives. Though in 2018-19 NCS did finally meet its recruitment targets [22], seven years after its launch the NAO was reporting that only 36 per cent of the 333,000 young people who that year had expressed an interest in the programme had then registered and only 28 per cent (92,700) had actually joined – 38 per cent below its recruitment target. This, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), amounted nationally to only 12 per cent of the eligible age group, with the rate in some areas as low as 4 per cent [23]. With eight thousand five hundred (8.6 per cent) of those who did join not completing [24], by 2018 the government was acknowledging that the scheme had failed to recoup from providers £9.8 million for unfilled places [25].By then (in 2017) NCS had reduced its recruitment target for 2020-21 from 360,000 to 247,000 – though without at that stage indicating any reduction in its allocated budget [26].

2020: new questions; new criticisms 

Though post-Cameron governments have been less gung-ho about the scheme, until recently their support for NCS has, at least in public, remained largely unquestioned. In 2018 for example, Theresa May’s ‘youth’ minister rejected a Labour Party demand that NCS’s performance be evaluated against the provision of local authority Youth Services [27] – the ones, that is, that although also nominally ‘statutory’ had had their budgets in England and Wales cut between 2010/11 and 2018/19 by over £1 billion. [28]Support clearly continues, too, from the wider ‘youth sector’ with organisations as varied as the Jewish Lads Brigade, Young People Cornwall and Bolton Lads and Girls Club acting as programme ‘deliverers’ [29].

Renewed scrutiny of NCS, its role and ways of operating is thus now long-overdue – and important.

Removing The Challenge

The first prompt for this occurred in August last year when NCS’s Chief Executive Michael Lynas suddenly announced that it would not be renewing its estimated £60-million-a-year contract with The Challenge. This was the organisation which, by ‘pre-piloting’ NCS-type schemes in 2009, had, in its own words, ‘played a critical and founding role in NCS for over 10 years from initial design of the programme to directly supporting over 242,000 young people…’. Its programmes in London, the South East and the West Midlands made it, still, NCS’s largest ‘provider’ [30]. 

Michael Lynas

According to Lynas, NCS had been forced to take this action because of The Challenge’s refusal to adopt a shared IT system – later described by The Challenge as ‘unfit for purpose’ [31]. This, he said – perhaps reflecting sensitivity to some past criticisms – ‘ensures value for money, improves customer experience and protects young people’s data’. He also claimed that that summer The Challenge had ‘let down’ 4,000 young people by failing to allocate them places on the programme [32].

As in its view a new contract was still being negotiated, The Challenge initially expressed surprise at the NCS decision to end its ‘principal funding source’ and said it remained committed to resolving the dispute [33] However, by October, claiming that the technical failures of the NCS’s IT system had prevented thousands of young people completing the first day of that summer’s programme, it had started a £22 million legal action against NCS for breach of contract and loss of earnings and posted a separate claim for defamation. It also lodged a complaint with the DCMS which the then Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said the Department would investigate. This not only talked of ‘the continued poor behaviour of the NCS’s leadership’ and of ‘urgent concerns regarding the mismanagement of the NCS programme by the trust’. It also accused the DCMS of a ‘worrying’ lack of scrutiny of the NCS [34].  

A month later, just as NCS was rebranding itself with a £3 million advertising campaign and a new logo [35], The Challenge went into administration, putting the jobs of its 400 staff at risk [36]. Its Chair issued a public statement bluntly accusing NCS of having ‘jeopardised many thousands of opportunities for young people’ and calling the whole episode ‘a national scandal’ [37] – claims the NCS strongly rejected [38].

The NCS Chief Executive: letting go – or not?

Interweaving with these developments have been repercussions of Lynas’s decision to resign as NCS’s Chief Executive, announced in September 2019. As this took effect at the beginning of March [39] it emerged that his exit package included £15,000 to help him train for a new job and retention as a paid consultant. Declaring the package ‘unacceptable’, the DCMS said it had ‘taken swift action to stop this’ and that it was undertaking ‘a thorough review’ to investigate ‘wider issues around governance’. NCS immediately withdrew its offer to Lynas and also sought to reassure its supporters – including no doubt the many other groups and organisations which had become reliant on its funding – that ‘DCMS had reiterated its support for the trust’ [40].

A ‘national programme’ fit for the times?

In April, NCS announced that, with its summer programme for a predicted 95,000 young people cancelled because of the coronavirus lockdown, it was in discussions with the DCMS and its ‘suppliers’ on providing a free digital programme focused on ‘the skills and life lessons not learned in the classroom’ as well as a possible role for the scheme ‘to help get the country back on its feet by mobilising young people as volunteers [41].

However, other than the DCMS revealing that it has now had a complaint from another of NCS’s small delivery partners [42], no updates seem to be available on either its review of the Trust or The Challenge’s legal action. Given their strong echoes of past criticisms of how NCS operates and uses public money, these developments again point to the need to for a wider and more fundamental debate on the programme. Such as: why is it still being treated as the priority provision for young people both by the government and – via a stance of critical neutrality – by so many ‘youth sector’ interests? And amid the growing evidence of the financial, mental health, exam and other pressures which teenagers overall are facing [43], what justifies focusing so many scarce public resources on just the 16/17 year old age group? 

Nor for me have these concerns been allayed by the organisational priorities indicated by NCS’s appointment as Chief Executive (Mark Gifford) of someone who is a newcomer not only to the national voluntary youth sector but also, it seems, to the wider field of leisure-time informal educational provision for young people. Here, according to its Chair, what it judged to be ‘invaluable to NCS as it moves into its second decade, a new delivery network and as exciting new partners come on board’ was Gifford’s 20 years of high-level private sector managerial experience with Waitrose as Director of Shop Trade and of Retail Operations (North)[44].

The question which all this leaves me with, therefore, is: how can this commercialising version of NCS aimed at such a limited age-cohort be an alternative to a provision which, in 2013, was being used by 630,000 8-16 year olds via locally accessible year-round youth facilities and projects? [45] Indeed, as I was writing this piece, that question became even more pressing with the news that one of the most high-profile of the much vaunted forms of replacement for those lost local authority services – Kensington and Chelsea’s employee-led ‘youth mutual’ EPIC – had been forced to close because of the reduction in just the last fifteen months ‘in the overall level of funding for youth services’ [46].

Certainly nothing that the current government is offering comes close to reinstating those closed youth centre buildings and disbanded detached youth worker teams – provision which, far from starting from the perceptions and prescriptions of a powerful largely Oxbridge elite, sought to take their lead from the interests, concerns and needs of the young people who, by choice, actually engaged. For filling the huge ‘austerity’ gaps which remain in local authority and indeed many voluntary organisation revenue budgets, the best we have again been offered are what I call ‘gesture policies’. Such as, in October 2019, as a little election sweetener, a new Youth Investment Fund of £500 million to be used – over five years, it is important to remind ourselves – for building and refurbishing youth centres and for mobile facilities. And the DCMS’s ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’, announced last January, with its allocation of £7 million for ‘extra youth club sessions’. 

Some of the realities of such offers were laid bare last month in a UK Youth announcement that, to support what it called ‘positive activities for young people’, it had distributed £1.16 million of the ‘accelerator’ money in grants ranging from £360 to £20,000 to 168 organisations and community groups. However, not only did the statement make clear that many of those receiving the money were not ‘open’ youth work facilities but ‘sports clubs, counselling services (and) creative writing workshops’. In revealing that in just a two-week window it had received over 1400 applications totalling £15 million, it also spoke volumes about the current financial state of even this wider ‘youth’ field [47].

Meanwhile, even before the virus struck, what had we had by way of follow-up to the government review of the statutory Youth Service guidance to local authorities, initiated in the run-up to December’s election? 

Silence.

Afterword 

Just as this piece was about to be posted it emerged that the NCS Trust had agreed a settlement of their dispute with The Challenge. With DCMS and Treasury approval, it has agreed to pay £2.8m for costs incurred by The Challenge for unfilled places during 2019. NCS, however, said it accepted no liability for two other elements of The Challenge’s legal claim. 

The Challenge is still facing claims of £8 million from some local providers.(Darren Hayes, 2020, ‘Collapsed charity settles legal dispute with NCS Trust’, CYPN, 16 April) 

References

1, Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“NCS found to account for 95 per cent of Government Youth Service Spend”’, CYPN, 22 June

2. Kirsty Weakly, 2019, ‘Shadow minister criticises DCMS for withholding data on NCS Trust funding’, Civil Society News, 23 October

 3. Labour Party, 2019, Only Young Once: The Labour Party’s Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services, Pp 11, 14.

4. Nina Jacobs, 2019a, ‘“Charity launches legal action over NCS dispute”’, CYPN, 15 October; Neil Puffett, 2020a, ‘DCMS launches review into NCS 4. governance’, CYPN, 2 March

5. David Cameron, 2005, ‘Speech to the Foreign Policy Centre’, 24 August

6. Conservative Party, 2010, An Invitation to join the Government of Britain: The Conservative Party Manifesto 2010, https://www.conservatives.com/~/media/Files/Manifesto2010

7. Sean Murphy, 2017, ‘The National Citizen Service and The ‘Magic Money Tree’”, Youth and Policy, 9 Oct, http://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/ncs-money-tree/

8. NCS, 2020, ‘Frequently asked questions’, https://wearencs.com/faqs, accessed 8 April 

9. See for example my blog post ‘A ‘curriculum’ for youth work? Why now? Why at all?’, Feb 2020, https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2020/02/27/a-curriculum-for-youth-work-why-now-why-at-all/

10. Conservatives, 2007, ‘It’s time to inspire Britain’s teenagers: National citizen service for the 21st century: A six-week programme for every school leaver’, http://conservativehome.blogs.com/interviews/files/timetoinspire.pdf, p. 3; Gov.UK, 2010, ‘PM to launch National Citizen Service pilots for young people’, 22 July, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-to-launch-national-citizen-service-pilots-for-young-people

11. Gov.UK, 2016, ‘Policy Paper: Social Action’, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/centre-for-social-action/centre-for-social-action, 13 July

12. Tania de St Croix, 2015, ‘Volunteers and entrepreneurs? Youth work and the Big Society’, in Graham Bright (ed), Youth Work: Histories, Policy and Contexts, London, Palgrave, pp 58-79

13. Janaki Mahadevan, 2009, ‘“Charity to test concept of National Citizen Service”’, CYPN, 31 March

14. Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘National citizen servant’, CYPN, 15 May; Gabriella Jozwiak, 2010, ‘The Challenge Network announced as lead provider of National Citizen Service’, CYPN, 10 November

15. Neil Puffett, 2016, ‘“Queen’s Speech: £1.2bn set aside for NCS expansion”’, CYPN, 18 May; Neil Puffett, 2017, ‘“MPs question future of NCS amid concerns over cost”’, CYPN, 14 March   

16. Adam Offord, 2016, ‘“NCS marketing budget tops £8m in 2015”’, CYPN, 31 August

17. Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Hurd hands NCS over to independent trust’, CYPN, 6 February; GOV.UK, 2016, ‘News story: Government introduces National Citizen Service (NCS) Bill to Parliament’, 12 October 

18. Alison Sherman, 2016, ‘National Citizens Service to have permanent statutory status, Queen’s Speech says’, Civil Society News, 18 May 

19. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017, National Citizens Service 2016 Evaluation, Kantar/LSE, December, p 27; Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘Government hails success of National Citizens Service scheme’, CYPN, 17 May

20. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017

21. National Audit Office, 2017,National Citizens Service, 12 January; www.parliament.uk 2017, National Citizens Service, 10 March

22. NCS Trust, 2020, Annual Report and Accounts 2018 – 2019, February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-citizen-service-annual-report-and-accounts-20182019

23. Peter Walker, 2018, ‘Cameron’s £1.5bn “big society” youth scheme reaching few teenagers’, Guardian 2 August;  

24. National Audit Office, 2017, Summary, para 15; Figure 12, p 34,

25. Joe Lepper, 2018a, ‘“Youth minister prioritises reducing unfilled NCS places”’, CYPN, 19 July

26. Neil Puffett, 2017

27. Joe Lepper, 2018b, ‘”Crouch dismisses call for NCS to be evaluated against traditional youth services”’, CYPN, 26 January  

28. Neil Puffett, 2020b, ‘Youth Services “suffer £1BN funding cut in less than a decade”’, CYPN, 20 January; Derren Hayes, 2020, Areas with deepest council Youth Service spending cuts revealed’, CYPN, 28 January  

29. NCS, 2020, ‘The NCS Delivery Network’, https://wearencs.com/network-providers 

30. David Harris, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service Trust drops major provider”’, CYPN, 1 August; Andy Hillier, 2019, ‘Largest NCS provider loses contract worth estimated £60m a year’, Third Sector, 1 August; Dan Parton, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service provider vows to continue work following split”’, CYPN, 14 August; Joe Lepper, 2019a, ‘Youth charity The Challenge goes into administration’, CYPN, 28 November 

31. Unite for Our Society, 2020a, ‘National Citizens Service accused of “mismanagement and failure of leadership”’, Blog, 23 March, https://www.uniteforoursociety.org/blog/national-citizen-service-accused-of-mismanagement-and-failure-of-leadership/  

32. David Harris, 2019

33. David Harris, 2019

34. Nina Jacobs, 2019a; John Plummer, 2019, ‘Ministers accused of “worrying” lack of scrutiny in NCS case’, Third Sector, 15 October; Unite for Our Society, 2020a 

35. Fiona Simpson, 2020a, ‘NCS Trust names Waitrose director as new chief’”, CYPN, 8 January 

36. Unite for Our Society, 2020b, ‘More trouble ahead for NCS Trust’, 23 March, , https://www.uniteforoursociety.org/blog/more-trouble-ahead-for-ncs-trust/ 

37. Bill Ronald, 2019, ‘Statement from Bill Ronald, Chairman of The Challenge Network’, 27 November 

38. Joe Lepper, 2019a; John Plummer, 2019; Bill Ronald, 2019

39. Joanne Parkes, 2019a, ‘“NCS Trust chief Michael Lynas to step down”’, CYPN, 12 September; Fiona Simpson, 2020a; John Plummer, 2020, ‘Retail expert to take over at top of the NCS Trust, Third Sector,, 8 January;  

40. Neil Puffett, 2020a

41 Neil Puffett, 2020, ‘Coronavirus: NCS considers volunteering role to help national effort’, CYPN, 27 March; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘NCS cancels summer programme amid pandemic’, CYPN, 8 April 

42. Unite for Our Society, 2020b, ‘More trouble ahead for NCS Trust’, 23 March

43. See for example ‘Breaching the social contract with young people’, 20 0ct  2019, at https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2019/10/20/breaching-the-social-contract-with-young-people/

44. Joanne Parkes, 2019a, Fiona Simpson, 2020a; John Plummer, 2020; Linkedin, 2020, ‘Mark Gifford’, https://uk.linkedin.com/in/mark-gifford-1a9a1215, accessed 30 March

45. NCVYS. (2013) ‘Youth Report 2013’

46. Fiona Simpson, 2020b,’Youth mutual EPIC folds due to government cuts’, CYPN, 25 March

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