Lessons on engaged citizenship: People as change agents

This summer, I had the privilege to be part of a US-Government funded exchange programme focused on volunteering, initiated by the #iwill campaign

With a group of like-minded community investment leaders, I spent ten days visiting charities, meeting key individuals in federal and local government and universities in Washington DC, Boston and Miami. We learned about the US approach towards volunteering and how this transforms people into engaged citizens. There are so many lessons for society and particularly the HR profession to learn from volunteerism, as they like to call it in the US.

“I get up at 5am, to make sure I’m early at the school gates to ‘power greet’ pupils, spend the rest of the day helping in class, calling parents and working with at risk pupils – I rarely get home before 9pm” chirps 23 year old Erin in her uniform City Year red jacket, “but I feel lucky to be able to do service for my country.” Erin is part of a team of City Year AmeriCorps members that support schools, helping students to stay in school and on track to graduate. It’s based on the idea that when people are young they ought to spend a year – in exchange for a small stipend – to give back to their country.

Engaged citizens giving back to their country

Sounds terribly clichéd? Too good to be true? Highly unlikely? No, just standard in the US where the idea of service to your country is nothing cheesy or extraordinary but an important part of being a good, engaged citizen. And having lots of engaged citizens is a key pillar of US society, as I learned on my trip.

I know it’s easy to be cynical when looking at the US political system where money and lobbying play such huge role. “I’ve seen Erin Brockovich – I know how it works” was in fact my sceptical response when briefed by a Washington lobbyist on the power of civil society, much to the amusement of my travel companions. I didn’t mean one individual taking on the corporate world like Julia Roberts in the movie, but the private sector yielding so much power in decision making processes. As the days progressed I was struck by how integrated volunteering and leadership development was, how many people lived and breathed the idea of being active leaders in their community, the idea of starting early and the sanguine and pragmatic approach to making service mandatory.

Transformative power of volunteering

I very much believe that if you have the right levers and a compelling purpose you can mobilise people to change their attitudes and behaviours and the world they live in. What fascinated me the most is the transformative power volunteering – or service – is seen to have.

It is broadly accepted in US society that doing something for others and being active in your community can transform people into leaders, change agents, more skilled professionals and all-round better human beings.

So what can we in the UK learn from this, and more importantly, what is the link with HR?

What can we learn from the US concept of an engaged citizen

Of course the US approach to ‘service’ is highly context dependent. American identity is constitutional rather than cultural, and there is a fierce belief that no elite knows best, meaning that populism is actually a good thing. Government’s role in society is limited. It is not meant to initiate policy but rather follow the lead and advice of civil society. That’s a tough concept to grasp for a European used to more interventionist systems. So I asked every charity we met the same question: “don’t you think government has a role to play in tackling the root causes of the problem – homelessness, youth unemployment, literacy – you are working to alleviate?” I was convinced that one of them would eventually ‘crack’ and agree with me. But nobody ever did. It’s engrained in the American psyche that empowered citizens are catalysts and change-makers that are best equipped to tackle problems in their communities.

More engaged citizens = better civil society = better institutions = better laws and policy

Following that logic, investing in youth volunteering creates better citizens and thus a better civil society, and a better civil society results in better institutions and better law. It’s no surprise then that young people are heavily incentivised to provide ‘service’ to their country and volunteer in their communities.

Despite these big conceptual difference there are, however, a number of things that we can learn from the US approach to volunteering and engaged citizens. In fact, it’s almost been two months since I returned from the trip and I still find myself saying in meetings: “well, what they do in the US…”, probably much to the annoyance of my colleagues. There are a number of key things that have changed the way I think about volunteering and what it means to be an engaged HR professional that – true to the CIPD’s purpose – is a change agent that champions better work and working life.

The Future of Work is Human: how to transform HR professionals into change agents

Firstly, there is the idea that once you start volunteering something happens that will move you along the ‘active citizenship continuum’: starting with not being concerned with your role in societal problems, to a volunteer that is well-intentioned, through to a conscientious citizen concerned with discovering the causes of a problem. The Holy Grail on this spectrum is the ‘active citizen’ where community becomes a priority in values and life choices.

Of course the concept of engaged citizens is more relevant in the US. But the idea that actions can turn people into change agents which make them reflect on the wider environment they operate in, is directly applicable to the UK. It is also at the forefront of what we, at CIPD are trying to do with our members and the HR profession more widely.

We’ve recently launched an initiative called the Future of Work is Human, which includes radical ideas about how to create a future that has people issues at its very core. Our organisational purpose is to champion better work and working lives (CBWWL). To achieve this, we need to mobilise and influence HR to become real agents who champion that purpose, underpinned by a strong professionalism, public commitment and ethical sense which means HR professionals lead the debate – and action! – in workplace change. I have applied this concept to the HR profession (see below).

That raises the question as to what our levers are to move someone along the spectrum. The US shows that volunteering is a very strong lever and this is also confirmed by our own experience at CIPD. We have been running a series of volunteering programmes in local communities for the past five years and these programmes see CIPD members use their skills and experiences to help jobseekers into work, schools with the their careers education and small charities with HR advice. When we have examined what these volunteers said about their experience it was surprisingly clear where they were on the ‘change agent’ continuum. They said they were pleased to use their skills to help someone into work (Stage 1) or that it has helped them to “develop new structures for new starters within my own organisation” (Stage 3).

Pre- and post- volunteering reflection: the concept of service learning

How to maximise the impact of volunteering on the individual is another lesson we can learn from the US and that’s the so-called ‘service learning’. This is based on pre-and post-volunteering reflection. “Before you go out to volunteer you need to research who you are and what your values are, essentially where are you coming from and then you look at the root causes of the problem you are trying to tackle,” explains Dr Mercedes Medina, professor at Miami Dade College who developed mentoring service learning projects where students mentor and tutor at-risk youth in foster care and through an after-care programme. “Otherwise it’s just a programme,” she adds. Just as important if not more, is the reflection that takes place after the intervention or as Whitney, who coordinates student volunteering opportunities for the Butler Volunteering Service and Leadership Development Centre at Miami-Dade University, puts it very pragmatically: “If you can’t tell me what you’ve learned and how this has changed you as person, then I’m not going to sign off your community service hours slip”.

Building a volunteering culture from kindergarten to retirement

That pragmatism is another key feature of the success of the US system of volunteerism; a certain number of service hours is often mandatory for students wanting to graduate from high school or get into university.

Many schools have a service element required in their curriculum and the intention is to create a culture of service starting in kindergarten through to retirement.

So the motivation behind the action is less relevant, if you are doing it, it is working is the general US attitude. Then there is the idea of ‘reciprocity’ – for her commitment Erin will receive a financial contribution to her university fees. More importantly though, having a year or two of ‘service’ on their CV generally propels young people’s careers as a clear link with leadership skills is made.

These are just some of the ideas from my trip to the US which have inspired me. I will be working with colleagues across CIPD to integrate those into our strategies around CPD, professionalism and the voice of the HR profession – so watch this space.

Yours – as my US counterparts would say – in service,

Katerina Rudiger, Chief Community Officer
CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development

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