Governmentalities of volunteering: A study of regional Western Australia

By David Pick, Kirsten Holmes and Martin Brueckner, Voluntas, September 2010

This is a fascinating article which examines the applicability of the concept of governmentality to the volunteer sector. Governmentality can be understood in terms referred to by Foucault (1991) as ‘the conduct of conduct’; specifically it is about controlling or guiding the relationship between individuals and social institutions and communities. In light of Australia’s considerable dependence on the work of volunteers, particularly in rural areas, the exploration of the volunteer sector according to this concept is of importance.

Through interviews held with 25 volunteers and volunteer coordinators, and the analysis of policy documents, the authors conclude that “advanced liberalism” appears dominant in regional Western Australia. Advanced liberalism describes the role of government as more about ‘steering’ than ‘rowing’. As such, volunteer organisations provide many of the services which previously were the domain of government and do so with government support. The other role of volunteer organisations is to allow people to become desirable “active citizens”.

The Western Australian Government perceives volunteering as central to the idea of ‘community’ and legislates various aspects of volunteering, but the major concern seems to be managing risk, focusing on issues of background checks and insurance. Whilst the Federal government does not have any direct policy responsibility for volunteering activities, in early 2010 it launched a national compact between the government and the third sector which connects closely to advanced liberalism in that market-based solutions are the preferred option within which people are involved as individuals.

By contrast, voluntary service organisations and local community-based interest groups that rely on donations and fund-raising activities bear the characteristics of “classic liberalism”. They are independent organisations that operate according to a set of norms and ethics developed to suit their own purposes. However they often must work, to varying degrees, within government regulations and so are affected by government policy framing of volunteering as ‘active citizenship’ and sometimes have difficulty in recruiting volunteers.

The question arises as to what this research means for the delivery of community-based programs. The findings suggest that vital elements of the volunteer sector are being missed as a result of the occasional adoption of an inappropriate one-size-fits-all model of governing, leading to policies and practices that exclude some people. What may be needed is a wider approach that goes beyond ‘managing’ volunteering, one that encourages and supports those organisations that do not fit the contemporary advanced liberal model.

To read the full article see here

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