Citizens Information Board assault on volunteers is madness

Drive to replace Mabs and CIS with 16 regional structures must be stopped

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service was founded by volunteers to address poverty and crippling indebtedness. Along with the Citizens Information Services, it is at risk .  Photograph: Aidan Crawley

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service was founded by volunteers to address poverty and crippling indebtedness. Along with the Citizens Information Services, it is at risk . Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

The Citizens Information Board (CIB) wants to disband the governance structures of two highly effective and well-regarded locally based organisations, and create 16 regional structures to replace them.

These organisations are the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs), which was first founded by volunteers to address issues of poverty and crippling indebtedness. Similarly, the aim of the Citizens Information Services (CIS) was to help people to access their rights by providing them with information and advice.

Because these organisations grew organically, there are over 90 small companies with local boards of directors (all voluntary) who give their time and expertise to help people, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

In addition to voluntary boards, CIS also has over 1,000 volunteers.

There is immense local opposition to the proposal right across Ireland and a high degree of consensus among TDs, who refer people constantly to both services, that replacing these local companies with far more remote regional structures is profoundly unwise.

But the CIB was unmoved by a Dáil motion carried by 90 to 51, which said the restructuring should be halted.

Both Mabs and CIS are open to intelligent restructuring, but the two organisations would be insane to agree to something that will lose the very thing that makes them so effective.

You would have to wonder whether the CIB has any appreciation of the value of voluntary work, of local networks and of social capital built up over decades.

Cost/benefit analysis

This week, John Curran TD, who is chair of the Social Protection Committee, expressed considerable frustration and annoyance when the CIB declined to come before the committee.

This was not a decision made on a point of principle, or an objection to the balance or modus operandi of the committee.

It was simply a refusal to discuss a recently published cost/benefit analysis regarding the CIB’s restructuring proposals for Mabs and CIS.

Declining to appear and submit to democratic oversight is very rare, particularly for a statutory body. For example, Curran was previously chair of a committee on homelessness, and the 40 organisations invited to participate did so willingly.

CIB planned to restructure without the benefit of a cost/benefit analysis. When CIB last appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee, it was politely but firmly told that the very least it could do was to find out what it would cost.

For starters, KHSK, the firm carrying out the analysis, did not speak to Mabs or CIS, presumably because the terms of reference set for it did not permit that to happen.

I ploughed through the 44-page cost/benefit analysis and, as expected, there was no attempt to address the issue of the loss of local knowledge and volunteers, presumably because that was also outside the terms of reference.

KHSK decided to value the time of volunteers according to average earnings in Ireland. That cannot capture the intangible benefits of voluntary work.

But let’s accept valuing volunteers in simply monetary terms. KSHK estimates that the restructuring will result in a reduction of 36,960 hours of volunteering per annum that are worth €4.92 million over the eight years it will take to restructure.

Savings calculation

To me, admittedly with no particular financial expertise, it seems to be a major loss to no longer have access to these thousands of hours given for nothing, and to have to replace them, at least in part, by 16 regional managers earning the same salary as an assistant principal in the Civil Service.

However, the report says that, “This would mean a saving in volunteering allocated to running the local boards with an annual value of €822,360 and a present value in 2017 for the full period of operation up to 2025 of €4.92 million.”

KHSK read the loss of €4.92 million in volunteer work as a saving “that provides a socioeconomic benefit as these resources are freed up for alternative uses in the economy”. These people are not paid but getting rid of them represents a saving?

I felt reminded of the kind of thing that happens in Yes, Minister, where Sir Humphrey blandly tries to explain to Jim Hacker how losing millions is actually a good thing.

Nor do I think it plausible that we can presume that volunteer board members who have worked, perhaps for decades, for Mabs and CIS, will automatically simply volunteer elsewhere.

Would it not be more likely that volunteers who get turfed out by a body that wants to replace their freely given work with 16 paid regional managers will experience surprise and anger, rather than a burning urge to work instead with the scouts?

In addition, this restructuring is going to cost far more than the original estimates, some €4.55 million over eight years.

Sometimes it is worth spending money to save money, but until the CIB is willing to undergo proper scrutiny we will never know.

At the very least, it should be halted until other alternatives are explored that would preserve valuable local expertise. The proposed restructuring is eerily reminiscent of the way the Health Service Executive was created, except that Mabs and CIS actually work at the moment. Can no one stop this madness?

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