Central to debates about the impact of the third sector in British public policy in recent decades has been the assumption that the level of citizen engagement can be increased. In political rhetoric, voluntary action has served as an important symbol of a new direction in policy – its renewal being a token of governmental attempts to reduce state expenditure, or to distinguish political parties from their right- or left-wing predecessors.

How realistic are the expectations that levels of volunteering can be increased? Which groups and communities are most likely to engage and to benefit from such an increase? And what happens when governments seek such additional engagement? Are citizens committed to increasing their engagement, cynical about the motivations of those who ask them to do so, or constrained by material circumstances from becoming more involved? Questions like this are exlored in this paper by TSI member John Mohan, beginning with a review of the ways in which voluntary action has been measured. The paper then summarises the results of a number of surveys covering the past three decades, including both cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses.

The British evidence points to relative stability over time. At the same time there is evidence that economic conditions have adversely affected citizen engagement. The effect seems to have been greatest upon informal volunteering, rather than on formal engagement, which tends to be dominated by groups experiencing greater
economic security. In conclusion: voluntarism has been presented as a policy to which there is no alternative – if voluntary action does not take up the slack of funding reductions, there is no other game in town. A more positive message is surely needed.