Unleashing a tornado of young talent on a complacent county


Celebrating the achievements of some of Cambridgeshire’s 16-17 year olds on a flagship Government-backed scheme – the National Citizen Service (NCS), and challenging local councils and politicians to get involved.

Note for regular readers, I’ve written parts of this blogpost for an audience not familiar with Puffles, Whitehall and local government

I took Puffles the Dragon Fairy along to The Junction for a celebration evening with well over a hundred teenagers who had completed a four-week course with the East of England’s National Citizen Service. If you are or know someone who is in their mid-teens, please point them here.

Over a decade ago, after finishing university I did something similar with the Prince’s Trust – their much-praised Team programme. (See here). The difference between the two programmes is that the latter lasts over a longer period of time, is aimed at a wider age-range and is focussed on both the unemployed and those without basic skills or qualifications.

“What did the participants achieve?”

Lots – far better put in their own words rather than mine. Have a look at the video clips to the right of this page.

The energy in the room spoke for itself, as did the variety of presentations. The Huntingdon team wrote their own song and made their own digital video about their time on the NCS programme. If anyone from Cabinet Office or the NCS national programme is reading this, I recommend getting in touch with the NCS East team and get hold of the digital video – it’s excellent. (If I get a copy, I’ll post it here too).

The variety of what the young people did was also striking – reflecting the diversity of the county. Teams in Cambridge were active along Mill Road, helping in charity shops. Teams in more rural areas such as the team in East Cambridgeshire worked closely with a local charity, Community Carts. The total amount the teams raised over the summer reached the thousands – through things like a sponsored 24-hour 3-legged walk around Grafham Water and a sponsored 24-hour ‘bounce’ on trampolines. Restoring community facilities was also a noticeable feature – Waterbeach Primary School now being the beneficiary of a made-over community orchard. A community orchard is one of the ideas being discussed in South Cambridge. This group of young people simply went out and did it – bypassing the bureaucracy.

So ***Well done*** everyone who took part, and thank you too to those that worked with the young people over the summer! You can all be proud of what you’ve achieved.

Furthermore, NCS East is running a new set of programmes in the autumn. So if this sounds like something for someone you know, get in touch with them! If you’re not in East Anglia but are in England or Northern Ireland, click here to find your local provider. (I’m not aware of Wales running a similar scheme – see here, though am happy to be corrected by Welsh readers if there is one. Scotland has the Saltire Awards as the closest similar programme).

“What is ‘National Citizen Service’? Is it like conscription for misbehaving hoodlums?”

Definitely not. I first blogged about NCS back in 2011 – see here. It was something that was being discussed in civil service circles a few years before, and something that I hoped would emerge from what was Hazel Blears’ Communities in Control White Paper. But it never did, the entire White Paper disappearing with the former Secretary of State’s resignation back in 2009.

Despite my issues with the Coalition, the one thing they have got right is the programme of NCS. Nyika Suttie, one of the young people that made one of my social media video guides (see here) was one of the first instructors on the pilot for NCS. She blogged about it here. I’m also delighted that she has now joined the world of local government in environmental planning too.

Improving NCS for the next group of participants

I had a number of conversations with both the course leaders and with some of the young participants themselves on their experiences of NCS. They all said they thoroughly enjoyed the summer. I then asked them to name one or two things they would like to see improved on the scheme for future participants.

For the young people, clear communications prior to the start of the course is something that could be improved. Also, they said they would have preferred the week to have started locally rather than with the residential – thus a sequencing issue for course organisers to consider. Generally, I’d be interested to see what sort of feedback course organisers are getting, and how this is being collated and fed back to policy teams in Cabinet Office in London.

First Parliamentary Counsel and Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office asks Puffles for advice on managing Cabinet Office Twitter accounts
First Parliamentary Counsel and Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office asks Puffles for advice on managing Cabinet Office Twitter accounts

Yes, new readers – that cuddly toy some of you may have spotted at this evening’s event is on first-name terms with the civil servant who is ultimately accountable for the national budget of NCS! (Mr Heaton is the Permanent Secretary & the most senior civil servant at the Cabinet Office, a major government department)

(Don’t worry Richard, Puffles won’t bombard you with lots of extra work!)

Speaking to some of the course leaders, on the whole they said everything seemed to go well – the main teething problems being paperwork-related, such as sequencing the payment to external suppliers for goods and services. Having spent a fair amount of time working with civil service finance teams in my past policy roles, civil service policy types may want to look again to see if how they sequence payments can be improved to make things less fraught on the front line.

Local government conspicuous by their absence

Only one council was mentioned by name in any of the presentations by the young people – Fenland District Council. Both young people and course leaders mentioned that they found it difficult to engage with local councils across Cambridgeshire. I was particularly disappointed to hear this with both Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council. (Cambridgeshire councils, please note this info piece from Cabinet Office).

Yet the experience of young people reflected my own with local government and the public sector across the county. Unless you are part of an organisation – and ideally have the word ‘manager’ or ‘director’ in your job title, institutions culturally behave in a manner where they don’t want to know you. When I was working in Whitehall, I never had a problem because because they would hear my organisations name, my job title and respond immediately. I shouldn’t have to call in favours from friends in the civil service to get wheels turning locally. Similarly, young people should not have to face similar barriers because they haven’t been shown how local government works, or because adults refuse to take them seriously.

“Haven’t you complained about this before?”

I have – I’m of the view that Cambridge is systematically excluding young people from decisions that will affect them. (See here). The NCS programme has the potential to change all of that. For a start, the NCS programme is one of the core programmes of Government and is unlikely to be dropped by a successive one. If anything, it’ll be expanded further. Note this from the Prime Minister a couple of years ago.

Therefore, the NCS programme is not going to go away. Secondly, the NCS programme and their participants are very social-media-savvy. Given that there are now the numbers of young people, the context of a citizenship programme, the social media tools and the long term sustainability, local councils ignore them at their peril.

“That sounds like a threat”

Or an opportunity. In terms of improving the programme, there is a huge amount local councils can do for minimum effort. Personally I would like to see every NCS team being invited into the town hall of their local council to meet not just the local dignitaries, but also the people whose work impacts their lives. This includes for example members of the uniformed services and community development workers as well as those elected to public office. This is where adults can learn from young people directly about how best to engage with them, about what their challenges are and how they can help solve them.

“But I don’t know who my local councillor is or what my council does!”

The best place to start is with Write to them.com. Then compose your message and sent it. It’s always best to include a couple of questions for them to respond to. In an NCS context it could be: “How are you going to get involved with future NCS programmes in my area?”

My own view is that one councillor from each local authority area should put themselves forward to be the ‘champion’ for the NCS team operating in their area. It doesn’t matter who, but that councillor should be the first port of call should young people on the programme experience difficulties when trying to engage with local public sector bodies. Go to someone who can go straight to the top and get things moving.

Young people: Get campaigning!

You learnt a whole host of skills during your time on NCS – the sort of which they don’t teach you at school. Several of you said so yourselves in your presentations. Is there a local campaign or issue that you feel particularly passionate about? What local groups already exist that you can make a difference with? For example for those of you that cycle, have you heard of the Cambridge Cycle Campaign or the Campaign for Better Transport? For those of you interested in mental health, Centre33 is based in Cambridge and Ely. On the environment generally, Transition Cambridge.

Shaping your place

One of the things you all did in your communities was that you made a real difference with your projects. There is a website backed by Cambridgeshire’s local councils called Shape Your Place. Ashley Whittaker of Cambridgeshire County Council, one of the officials behind the website, is offering free training to young people to become local citizen journalists. (See her post here). You can get in touch with her via Facebook here or on Twitter at @ShapeYourPlace. It would be great to see you writing about your experiences of NCS, and about what you would like to see happen in your local communities.

Good luck!


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