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The distinction between volunteering and co-production is not clear cut. One aspect of co-production is certainly volunteering by service users and other citizens to improve public services or outcomes for others. However, if volunteering is done without any input of the public sector, then we would normally class this as ‘self-organising activity’ in civil society, rather than co-production of public services..

The key question to be asked is whether the volunteering involves contributions from BOTH citizens AND the public sector. For example, if local people volunteer to spend some time in their local library helping housebound library users by selecting and delivering books they might be interested in, or helping people to use the internet on library computers, or reading stories to groups of children, then each of these would be considered co-production of public services, as each makes use of the experience of citizens to improve delivery of part of the library service. However, if volunteers were visiting housebound people to read them stories, or to help them use the internet, without any contact with the public sector, then this would normally be considered a valuable example of self-organising in civil society but not of co-production of public services.

It is important not to equate volunteering with the ‘voluntary’ sector (now often called the ‘third’ sector, to differentiate it from the public and private sectors). Traditionally associated with people giving a few hours a week to ‘good causes’, the ‘voluntary sector’ in the UK is now often highly professionalised, typically employing paid staff to deliver a range of services on behalf of the state, with only limited use of volunteers. This new service-delivery role of the ‘voluntary sector’ is reflected in the fact that many such organisations now refer to themselves as ‘social enterprises’. Many so-called ‘community organisations’ still conform to the traditional  ‘voluntary’ model but many also use professional paid staff for some service delivery – the picture is therefore quite complicated and no tidy definitions are available. 



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Click here to read our case study of the Stuttgart Market Place where businesses and voluntary groups come together. This allows business to show they are socially responsible and gives volunteers resources to run beneficial projects.

For more information on volunteering in the UK click here to go to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations website

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