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Melville, Roselyn --- "Competitive tendering and NSW community legal centre volunteers: an exploratory study" [2003] AltLawJl 6; (2003) 28(1) Alternative Law Journal 27

  • Competitive tendering and NSW community legal centre volunteers: an exploratory study
  • Competitive tendering and NSW community legal centre volunteers: an exploratory study

    Roselyn Melville[*]

    The voice and needs of volunteers must be taken into account when implementing policy changes in CLCs.

    This article discusses the major empirical findings of an exploratory study of volunteers (n=208), conducted in 34 NSW community legal centres (CLCs) in 2000. The aim of the study was to explore the activities, motivations and attitudes of legal volunteers. The main results indicate that volunteers are concerned about the ramifications of the introduction of policies, such as charging fees for services, merit testing and centralised casework. They also are fearful that competitive tendering will result in significant changes to the philosophy and structure of community legal centres. Approximately 20% of volunteers indicated they would withdraw their labour if policies of privatisation and competitive tendering were pursued in CLCs.

    The study was instigated in response to a proposed Commonwealth Government review of NSW CLCs, due to take place that year. (For reasons not pertinent to this discussion, the NSW CLC review was deferred to 2002–2003). The review raised important questions for CLCs regarding their funding, management, structural and organisational character and service delivery issues, as well as the role and retention rate of volunteers in a post-competitive era. Volunteers have played a central role in CLCs since their inception in the 1970s and they continue to provide assistance and support to paid staff in three main areas:

    • legal advice and information/referral assistance to clients;

    • policy-related reform work;

    • as members of management committees, which oversee the administrative and governance functions of centres.

    Anecdotal evidence in NSW and in other states indicated that volunteers were opposed to the competitive tendering policies and would withdraw their labour. Centres could not afford to lose a large number of volunteers. To test some of these assertions, the Combined Community Legal Centres’ Group (NSW) Inc, commissioned a research project to examine the role and motivations of volunteers as well as their attitudes to competitive tendering policies.[1]

    Contracting and volunteers — Australian and overseas experience

    There is very little empirical research on the impact of the ‘contract culture’, which could be used to inform the research. The main issues identified in previous studies are summarised below.

    There is often an increase in accountability and efficiency requirements. Staff members (both paid and voluntary) are monitored more closely, not just in financial and administrative activities, but also in the way they undertake direct service delivery tasks. Consequently, this leads to a much higher attrition rate than previously existed amongst volunteers.[2] In a contracting regime, the workload of management committee members increases more than for direct service delivery volunteers. Several studies noted a higher attrition rate amongst management committee members than for those in direct service delivery.[3] Volunteer managers gradually are replaced by paid staff as their jobs become more complex due to the imposition of new reporting and professional accreditation standards. Voluntary management committees are frequently replaced with professionals or people with specific expertise. It is more difficult to recruit volunteers in a contracting culture. Additional training of volunteers is necessary but there is often little or no organisational support for this task.[4] Major structural organizational change is forced upon non-hierarchical and non-traditional agencies so that they can comply iwht new accountability requirements. Consequently, community organisations once characterised by open-democratic organisational structures and decision-making processes become more bureaucratic and ‘formal’.[5] Volunteers express considerable fears about the loss of advocacy and educational roles in a contracting culture. Inability to undertake advocacy and lobbying work acts as a strong deterrent to some volunteers, especially those working in organisations with a social change perspective.[6] The financial burden of providing support to volunteers is not costed into tender specifications. Consequently, volunteers become a financial burden to organisations. This can place more pressure on agencies to replace them with paid staff or scale-back their volunteer programs. Government authorities and voluntary agencies do not know how to work out the costs of recruiting, training and maintaining volunteers, and how to incorporate these costs into the tender.[7]

    These studies provide insight into the kinds of management and organisation change, which often accompanies the introduction of contracting and tendering, as well as the effect on the retention and recruitment rates of volunteers. It was anticipated that similar findings would emerge in the Australian study.

    The research project

    The main research instrument was a survey. The questionnaire was adapted from one used by the Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres in 1998. This was modified to include some of the proposed changes, which were being discussed amongst NSW CLCs at the time.[8] The survey instrument contains open and close-ended questions. The questionnaire was distributed to volunteers at the 36 community legal centres during February to March 2000 by various methods depending on the centre. Some were handed to volunteers as they arrived to do their rosters, some were left for volunteers at the centres to collect and others were mailed out to them. The method of distribution depended on the resources available and the way in which different centres interacted with their volunteers. Volunteers at 24 of the 36 centres completed and returned questionnaires (n=208), representing a response rate of 66%. This is a good response rate given the geographically dispersed nature of a relatively literate target group, asked to complete a questionnaire of intrinsic interest. The quantitative data was coded and entered into File maker Pro V 3. The qualitative data was coded thematically.

    Volunteer survey results

    Mobility of volunteers

    The willingness of volunteers to move to other centres to volunteer is an important issue for CLCs; especially if existing centres are amalgamated or closed down because of competitive policies. Approximately 20% of respondents were not willing to volunteer at another centre. They cited distance and time constraints as well as lack of transferable skills as the main reasons. Interestingly, 40% of volunteers indicated that they were prepared to volunteer at another centre, whereas, a similar number of volunteers (39.7%) had not decided what they would do in if this scenario occurred.

    Changes to nature and function of centre

    Volunteers indicated that major change to the nature and function of CLCs would act as a possible deterrent to continued volunteering. Approximately 16% indicated that they would no longer volunteer at their local centre. Interestingly, 23% said they would continue to volunteer despite any changes. The remaining 61.2% of volunteers indicated that they had not decided whether they would continue to do voluntary work if the nature and/or function of their centre changed. Respondents provided some useful insights into the kinds of factors, which would influence their decision to volunteer. Some said their decision would depend on the types of changes that legal centres underwent, such as modification in philosophy, issues of access and the nature of services provided by CLCs. Others provided quite specific reasons, which included the loss of focus on consumer credit, lack of skills and expertise, loss of special qualities of legal centres (for example, focus on disadvantaged peoples and community), and distance and time.

    Introduction of fees, merit testing and centrally determined casework guidelines

    Some of the policy changes foreshadowed included the introduction of fees, means/merit testing and centrally determined casework guidelines. Respondents were asked whether the introduction of these sorts of policies would deter them from volunteering. A majority of people indicated that the introduction of fees for service would certainly be a deterrent and a significant number were opposed to means/merit testing and centralised casework guidelines as indicated in Table 1. Between 20% and 30% of respondents have not yet decided whether the introduction of the above policies would cause them to reconsider volunteering.

    Volunteers were concerned about the potential impact of such policies on the autonomy, unique characteristics and local community focus of legal centres. Some mentioned that it would increase bureaucratic control of centres as indicated by the comment below:

    I would be extremely hesitant about continuing my involvement with … Centre if its autonomy was to be undermined and/or it fell prey to increasing bureaucratic intervention. [Respondent 79]

    Another person said that profit-motivated and bureaucratic organisations had no role for volunteers. One person argued that government had an obligation to provide services to the disadvantaged. Several people suggested that these changes would seriously erode the access of quality legal services to certain groups in the community.

    If centres make a profit why should they need volunteers? [Respondent 189]
    I would not want to see the autonomy and scope of legal centres limited, nor should access be limited for the public who need these services. I believe access to justice is an important right for all, not just the rich. [Respondent 128]

    The data provides important information about the characteristics about CLCs that motivate volunteers. These include their non-bureaucratic structure, community-based focus, free service and specialised services delivered within a social justice framework.

    Volunteer retention rates — if centre turned into a semi-government office

    Respondents were asked if they would continue to volunteer if the centre were changed and run as a semi-government office. About one-third of people (35%) indicated that they would not stay, another third (32%) said they would continue to volunteer, and about one-third (33%) said they had not made up their minds. Some mentioned that it would increase bureaucratic control of centres. Others indicated that their decision to withdraw their voluntary labour would depend on the kinds of structural changes that could take place in CLCs.

    It would depend on the nature of the changes involved. Would not volunteer if place became bureaucratic (overtly). [Respondent 96]
    Depends on how the changes would affect the nature of its services. I want to help people rather than subject them to further bureaucracy. [Respondent 128]
    Some volunteers expressed concern that the government’s view of voluntary labour was exploitative and clearly lacking in appreciation.
    Government must not rely on unpaid work — as it is, people work in excess of wage value so NO exploitation of willing committed community members. [Respondent 122]
    Firstly, I would then not be a volunteer. What I do with my time, I decide, it is not a gift to government (how many times has government not understood this — let me count the ways?). [Respondent 81]

    A recurring theme in the empirical findings is the centrality of ‘community’ and ‘community participation’ to the functioning of community legal centres. Many respondents see this as a defining characteristic of CLCs.

    I would object strongly to such a change. A semi-government organisation is not a community organisation. [Respondent 41]
    The centre currently has a high level of community ownership — this would be lost if the centre changed into a semi-government agency. [Respondent 197]

    Several volunteers mentioned that increased bureaucratic control would compromise the ability of CLCs to be both critical and independent of government policies.

    The value of the centre is its independence and commitment to social justice. There is no such thing as a ‘semi’ government organisation. It is either government affiliated, or it is free and independent. [Respondent 124]
    I volunteer as a person interested in access and equity principles and actually having an opportunity to do something about it, even if it means criticising, for example, the police. [Respondent 107]
    The independence of a community organisation promotes the empowerment of the community volunteer. [Respondent 195]

    A number of people were concerned about the loss of autonomy and identity of CLCs and the effect on the quality of services provided to clients, as well as certain types of activities undertaken by CLCs.

    … Centre needs to remain an autonomous centre run on CLC principles in order to maintain its integrity and the quality of its services. [Respondent 83]
     CLCs must be independent of government. To do otherwise would be to compromise the integrity of CLCs both in the impact on their work on law reform and in its perception within the wider community. [Respondent 70]

    Some respondents would no longer find it appealing to do voluntary work if it became too similar to their current place of employment. Previous research indicates that people like to do voluntary work in an organisational setting that is not the same as where they work for wages, and in a place that appeals to them.[9]

    In my day job I already work for the government, so if my centre became a semi-government agency there would be little point [in volunteering]. [Respondent 152]
    I am an employed solicitor and if the centre became a government agency. I would see no need to provide a free service. [Respondent 155]

    Volunteer in a private or for-profit organisation

    Respondents were asked if they would continue to volunteer if CLCs became a private or for-profit enterprise (see Table 2). At least half of the volunteers (57%) said that it would definitely affect their motivation to volunteer. Forty-four volunteers (21%) said that it would not affect their motivation to volunteer and an equal number (21%) were undecided.

    Table 2: Volunteer in a private for-profit organisation

    Yes — will affect motivation to volunteer
    No — will not affect motivation to volunteer

    A number of people provided additional comments to this question. Respondents expressed concern and criticism of policies to privatise community legal organisations.

    Private organisations are more than likely operated on a market driven philosophy and goals and maximising profit rather than human/community needs. [Respondent 108]
    I have already seen the commitment of service providers become skewed where private service providers have been introduced in other areas to the great detriment of consumers. [Respondent 143]

    A number of people stated that they would withdraw their labour from a ‘for-profit-organisation’. They provided a range of reasons for this decision.

    I will not do voluntary work for anything other than a not-for-profit organisation. [Respondent 138]
    I cannot think of anything that would put me off more. If I wanted to be involved in a private situation, I would work for a private law firm. [Respondent 124]

    Several people mentioned that such a change would affect the internal financial and administrative operation of CLCs, as well as the kinds of services they provide. Centres would change to focus on budgetary performance; run on numbers/results outcomes and casework would dominate centre activities.

    Would be concerned that centres will run on a results/numbers line rather than focusing on client needs. [Respondent 104]
    Probably withdraw my services — it may as well be legal and at best and a private firm at worst — budgetary performance would become the essential determinants to action taken. [Respondent 17]

    Community legal centres are viewed as public interest focused, in danger of losing their autonomy and having to compromise in a contractual environment. Community involvement is an essential ingredient of the continued success and legitimacy of community legal centres.

    I do not know whether I would volunteer. It is supposed to be a community centre. [Respondent 178]
    Again, the independence from government or from the process of competitive tendering ensures community involvement is regarded as valuable for its own sake. [Respondent 195]

    The issue of privatisation and the introduction of profit- operating legal centres came across as one of the most important for volunteers in this exploratory study. A number of people emphasised how this would change their willingness to volunteer.

    I would never volunteer to work for a private organisation that is profit-oriented. [Respondent 58]
    I would question a possible profit motive in comparison to a service run only to meet community needs (not to make $). [Respondent 73]
    I assume it would change the culture for the worse — I’m not interested in volunteering my time so that someone else can make a big profit. That’s why I don’t work for a private law firm in the first place. [Respondent 90]

    Other respondents thought that profit-oriented organisations had enormous potential to alter the focus of CLCs. In addition, some suggested that certain types of services could be compromised, making it pointless to participate in such an organisation.

    Volunteer in an externally controlled organisation

    Respondents were asked if they would continue to volunteer in organisations whose policies and guidelines were made by external authorities and not local committees (see Table 3). Thirty-seven percent (37%) said they would cease volunteering if policies and work guidelines are not made by local committees, 28% said they would continue to volunteer, and 34.8% said they were undecided.

    Respondents provided additional comments. The themes identified were similar to those expressed above. They included the need to maintain local control and autonomy; government was out of touch with the local community; or government already had sufficient control over the way legal centres operated. Volunteers expressed strong opinions about the need for community legal centres to be able to respond to local needs and be accountable to the local community. It is clear that the loss of autonomy would obviously influence people’s decisions to remain as volunteers.

    Table 3: Volunteer in an externally controlled organisation

    Law reform and CLC volunteers

    Law reform, social action and test case work have long been a core part of CLCs’ activities. Thirty percent (30%) said they would continue to volunteer and 23.2% said they were undecided. Forty-six percent said they would not continue to volunteer if centres were not involved in these activities. The proposition evoked some strong reactions from some people as demonstrated by the following comments.

    Law reform, social action is intrinsic in the characteristic of CLCs. To divorce law reform from CLCs is like taking the ‘sausage out of the hotdog;’ there is no hot dog at all! [Respondent 70]
    An essential feature of CLCs is the law reform work, etc. [Respondent 28]
    It is critical that the people at the point of contact with the public are involved in this kind of work [law reform]. Otherwise, grassroots experience is only about processing people and not attempting to change the law according to the needs of the public. [Respondent 56]
    Without law reform work and social action, CLC work would just be band-aiding. [Respondent 64]

    One respondent commented that they did very little of this work in their legal centre, so it would mean little or any change. However, the majority of respondents emphasised the importance of law reform to CLCs.

    Major issues impacting on volunteer retention rates

    A major concern to volunteers is that centres would undergo fundamental changes in their client focus, accessibility, community and social justice orientation. They also feared that they would lack skills and expertise in this new voluntary work environment. Twenty-three percent of people said they would continue to volunteer if the functions of their legal centre changed, 15.92% said they would not volunteer and over 60% said they were still undecided.

    When it came to the introduction of fees for service, merit testing and centralised casework, the results are mixed. Nearly half of the volunteers (49.5%) said they would not volunteer if a fee for service were introduced. Thirty-eight percent (38.7%) indicated that they were opposed to the introduction of centralised casework guidelines and less than a third (31%) of volunteers were opposed to merit testing in legal centres. Again, a significant number of people indicated that they had not formed any definite opinions about the proposed changes. Yet, it became clear in analysing the qualitative data that many people were opposed to the introduction of these policies. Many of the volunteers in the ‘undecided category’ did hold strong beliefs and expectations of CLCs. The qualitative data indicates that any major transgression of these expectations and beliefs would deter them from volunteering.

    Volunteers were very concerned about possible changes to the auspice and structure of CLCs. About one-third said they would stop volunteering if the agency became a semi-government organisation, one-third said they would continue and one-third said they were undecided. However, when one examines the qualitative data, any attempt to alter the fundamental nature of CLCs would evoke a strong reaction amongst volunteers. The current cohort of volunteers are committed to the philosophy and current structure of CLCs, their community focus, and independence from government and their ability to be critical and advocate on behalf of people. These findings concur with an important study conducted on volunteers in social change oriented organisations. This study found that certain groups of volunteers gravitate to social justice and social change organisations. The main motivation for volunteering comes from identification with the organisational structure and philosophy. This motivation dropped when the organisational context for volunteers is changed.

    Respondents expressed their strongest reactions to the suggestion that CLCs be privatised. A majority of respondents (57.4%) said this would deter them from volunteering. Twenty-one percent (21.3 %) were undecided and 21.3 % said they would continue to volunteer. The finding that 21% would continue to volunteer in a private for-profit organisation is not surprising given that a lot of voluntary work occurs in private corporations. So some people would see no conflict with this proposition.

    For many volunteers the opportunity to be involved in law reform, social action and test casework is a crucial component of CLC work. Nearly half the respondents (46.3%) said they would not volunteer if these activities were no longer part of CLCs. Surprisingly, only a small number of people are actually engaged in this work. However, the finding is extremely important because it means that one of the strongest attractions for volunteers is the possibility that this work exists. If this opportunity does not exist then the motivation for some volunteers falters, if not fades completely.

    Some volunteers indicated they are adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach prior to making any firm decisions, as no policy changes have been put into practice as yet. At the same time, many of the ‘undecided categories’ stated that there was a point – at which, if passed — they would withdraw their labour. If a high proportion of the ‘undecided category’[10] become disillusioned then the attrition rate of volunteers in CLCs could be quite high. However, it is the group of current volunteers, who are indicating that they would withdraw their labour (20%), which is of major concern to CLCs and to policy makers.


    This exploratory study of NSW CLC volunteers attempts to assess the impact of competitive tendering on volunteer retention rates. It is the first empirical study to examine this issue in Australia. Further research is required to see if the findings of this study can be generalised to a wider group of legal volunteers. Given these limitations, this study raises several important issues. First, the voice and needs of volunteers must be taken into account when implementing policy changes. Second, there is not an endless supply of volunteers who will work in CLCs. Volunteers are motivated by their own intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Their support and continued loyalty cannot be taken for granted. Third, to ignore their concerns about competitive tendering will have serious repercussions on volunteer rates. Unfortunately, governments often implement policy decisions without examining their impact on these kinds of people.

    [*] Roselyn Melville teaches in the Sociology Program at the University of© 2003 Roselyn Melville (text)

    [1] Melville, R. ‘My Time is Not A Gift to Government: An Exploratory Study of NSW Community Legal Centre Volunteers’, ISCCI, Arts Faculty, University of Wollongong, NSW, 2002.

    [2] Baldcock-Vellenkoop, C., ‘Government Policies and Volunteers: Privatisation and its Discontents’, Paper presented to 4th National Conference of Volunteering, 1992, p.11; Hedley, R. and Davis, J., Volunteers and the Contract Culture, Voluntary Action Research, Third Series Paper, 1994; Leat, D., ‘Are Voluntary Organisations Accountable? in D. Billis, and M. Harris (eds), Voluntary Agencies: Challenges of Organisation and Management, Macmillan, 1996; Lewis, J., ‘What Does Contracting do to Voluntary Agencies?’ in Billis and Harris, above, ref 2, p 101-5; Russell, L. and Scott, D., Very Active Citizens? The Impact of Contracts on Volunteers, University of Manchester, 1997.

    [3] Hedley and Smith, above, ref 2, p.18; Russell and Scott, above, ref 2, pp.20, 26-27, 46.

    [4] Baldcock-Vellenkoop, above, ref 2, pp.11-12; Nowland-Foreman, G., ‘Purchase-of-Service Contracting, Voluntary Organisations, and Civil Society’, (1998), 42(1) American Behavioural Scientist, 108-16; Russell and Scott, above, ref 2, pp.8, 28.

    [5] Baldock-Vellenkook, above, ref 2, p.15; Nowland-Foreman, above, ref 4.

    [6] Common, R. and Flynn, N., Contracting for Care, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, New York, 1992; Russell and Scott, above, ref 2; Stewart, E. and Weinstein, R.S., ‘Volunteer Participation in Context: Motivations and Political Efficacy within Three Aids Organisations’, (1997) 25(6) American Journal of Community Psychology 809-29; Hedley and Davis, above, ref 2; Lewis, above, ref 2.

    [7] Russell and Scott, above, ref 2, p.9.

    [8] Combined Community Legal Centres’ Group (NSW) Inc, ‘Current Issues in Legal Aid’, Some Thoughts from NSW Community Legal Centres, April 2000, unpublished document; Combined Community Legal Centres Group (NSW) Inc, CLC Program Bulletin No 1, ‘Review of NSW CLCs’, June 2002, unpublished document.

    [9] ACOSS, Volunteering in Australia, ACOSS Paper No 74, ACOSS, Sydney, 1996; Pusey, M., ‘Middle Australians in the Grip of Economic Reform … Will they Volunteer?’ in Warburton, J. and Oppenheimer, M. (eds), Volunteers and Volunteering, The Federation Press, Sydney, 2000; Stewart and Weinstein, above, ref 6.

    [10] Between 40% and 60% of respondents indicated that they were undecided depending on the question.

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