Britain needs a universal programme of youth civic service, as Prospect argued in a cover essay I wrote with Frank Field earlier this year. Recession-era Britain also needs a massively expensive new public spending programme—whose benefits are difficult to quantify—like a hole in the head. Discuss.
Solving this conundrum is tricky. No one has run the numbers on such a civic service programme for some time. Number 10 did cost a scheme, in secret, in the early 2000s—when they looked at doing something big and bold, and ended up doing “V” instead. While they didn’t publish the result, I seem to remember being told it was “a lot”.
Thankfully, we have think tanks to help out—and so congratulations are due to Prospect’s “one to watch 2010” think tank, Demos, for picking up the ball, and moving it well down the park. They have just produced a paper on how one variant of a civic service scheme might work. And it’s a genuinely strong piece of work.
The authors — Sonia Sodha and Daniel Leighton — have come up with a compelling new model. Their approach is informed by a fair criteria to rank possible policies, and a clear reading of the evidence (full disclosure: I used to work with both Dan and Sonia in different jobs, and admire their work.) Congratulations should also got to the Private Equity Foundation, who supported Demos—and who are currently bringing CityYear—a nonprofit organisation whose primary goal is to build democracy through citizen—service to the UK. That said, the gist of what is interesting here lies in two novelties.
The first frames civic service quietly within a liberal republican tradition, rather than a contemporary communitarian one; a subtle, but important distinction. The second looks critically at the evidence for what a plausible service scheme might do, to find some suitable criteria on which to judge one, and ask, fundamentally, whether it would work.
Between the two, the authors take a playful swipe at that tiny band of us who have argued for the benefits of a broad, compulsory national programme for all young people. “Civic service,” they say, “has been mooted as a solution to social fragmentation, disintegrating civic bonds and a general social malaise. Again, these claims have been over-hyped.”
It is difficult to claim…