Posted: 13 September, 2011 by Caroline Millar
On Friday I shelled out £50 to a local student for looking after my daughters so I could spend the day sitting in a room full of health professionals, local authority workers and people from the salaried bit of the voluntary sector who, if not all highly paid, were certainly being paid quite a bit to be there. I was there as the unpaid vice chair of the patient group of one of the Royal Medical Colleges and almost certainly the only person out of the 70 delegates not being paid that day. Ironically, the whole afternoon was spent discussing the challenges of engaging with patients. Mine was the last of nine groups to report back on its recommendations and the only one to suggest that one way to get more people involved would be to give something back or, at the very least not expect them to subsidise your organisation. I am hoping they will refund my childcare costs but I am not counting on it. There wasn’t a box for childcare on their claim form.
Must be on the make
The next morning, I went to a meeting of my local park user group which I have been chairing for the last six months. For the avoidance of doubt, this role is unpaid. We are just a bunch of local people with a common local interest and I am Chair because that was the outcome of an election at our AGM. There are many changes afoot in our park because we are nearing the end of a massive £9m restoration project which has been going on for the last eighteen months. As is usually the case at our meetings these days, amongst the many issues on the agenda there was one which had caught the attention of one particular interest group in the park. Before the meeting began I was told by the person who is our “rep” on this topic that some of the people who would be turning up believed that I was taking back-handers or some other form of financial incentive from the Council. Perhaps it was not really their fault that they thought this. Some of them had had no previous contact with the user group and had been told it as a fact by others who perhaps should have known better. Some just seemed to want to believe that the proposals which we were discussing were part of a wider conspiracy by the Council to deprive them of their rights. My apparent willingness to work with the Council to help them gauge the views of users must surely be the consequence of some sort of corruption. There is, after all, a lot of it about these days.
Up for Corruption?
I am not in favour of corruption but would I neccesarily become corrupt if I did not always have to give up my time and expertise for nothing? For most of the last year my involvement in the park has taken between one and two days a week at least: attending our regular user group meetings; liaising with the Council’s project team; going to meetings with other stakeholders; walking round the park with the project managers; chatting to the landscape architects when I meet them in the park; trying to keep on top of the project timetable so I can answer the endless questions other park users fire at me; revising the text on our website; keeping the Facebook page up to date; answering emails and jumping through the tortuous hoops of a byzantine bidding process with a local charity to get a tiny sum of money to pay for a room for our regular meetings and cover the costs of our website. I have spent more hours than I care to calculate in rooms full of paid Council employees, some of whom have remained entirely silent for start to finish. I have not received a penny but have spend many hundreds of pounds on childcare for my younger children.
On a Hiding to Nothing while Getting Nothing
I don’t mind not being paid for the things I do. That’s my choice and I am lucky enough at the moment to be in the position where I can (sort of) afford to pay for childcare from time to time and spend part of my time working for nothing. But it’s hard when some of the very people you are trying to represent wilfully refuse to accept that you are not somehow on the make. There is something wrong with the equation which says that either you get some money from an organisation for helping them to do their job better and thereby immediately lose your independence and credibility or you have to keep your hands clean by relying on private means (which most people do not have) or someone else to support you (in my case my hard working and long suffering husband).
I know from speaking to the other people I meet when I am wearing my various “public involvement” hats that I am not the only person who feels like this. In fact, I have just put the phone down on a friend who is thinking of resigning from her role as Chair of a national user group. In her working life she is paid by the hour by several different employers on part-time contracts and on pretty low public sector rates. Each time she attends a meeting she has a stark choice between using her minimal annual leave or losing pay – and this is not just about the time she is actually in the meeting but also the hour and a half each way it takes her to travel between her home and Central London. A half day meeting is a full day of not earning. Her employers are grumpy at her for constantly asking to swap her hours with others and she cannot afford to give up whole days of pay. Previously she had been very actively involved in the BMA who paid her £230 for every day she contributed. Not so with her current involvement work despite its importance and the repeated declarations about its value to the organisation. I guess they think a free lunch should be enough to keep her going.
I am so bored of hearing professionals in the public sector complain that the only people who are actively, consistently and effectively involved in their organisations are all middle class and/or retired. Of course they are. They are the only people who can afford to do it. It’s the economics stupid!
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