Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Quality Gifts: Issues in Understanding Quality Volunteering in Human Services

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Quality Gifts: Issues in Understanding Quality Volunteering in Human Services

Article excerpt

As third-sector organisations delivering human services become more dependent on government funding, they are becoming increasingly subject to government demands for accountability (McDonald, 1999; Mulgan, 2001). Such demands can effectively define "quality of service" but not necessarily in a way that service providers and clients agree with. Indeed the wide debates around issues of quality have often highlighted differences between the perspectives of government and organisations engaged in service provision.

Since the 1970s the focus has been on the evaluation of quality outcomes. According to Gibson (1998), the governments' position is that it is "commonsense" to set up accountability and performance monitoring frameworks against desired outcomes. However defining those desired outcomes is particularly difficult in human services. For example, services in aging and disability often cannot be expected to provide an improvement in the life circumstances of the recipients, who nevertheless are very. pleased and comforted by receiving help. Problems include the differentiation of process from outcome, the direction of causality, and difficulties in data collection. The perceived objectives of a program may also influence satisfaction with outcomes. For example the outcome of the small amounts of financial assistance given to those in hardship will be viewed more positively if such handouts are viewed as a temporary measure than if they are seen as necessary supplements to inadequate government benefits (Wearing, 1998). However despite the recognition of difficulties, the "commonsense" of government is prevailing and accountability, requirements in terms of measurable outcomes are increasing. For example the Australian government Department of Health (2004) lists lengthy and exacting requirements for the accreditation of a nursing home or hostel. Ironically, Postle (2002) found that increasing demands for paperwork by government left managers less time for building relationships hence there were increased tensions and staff problems which negatively affect quality of service.

Debates about quality- have also related to the desirability of adopting strategies from the for-profit sector such as benchmarking and quality management. For example, Freeman (2001) recommends a best practice model from the for-profit sector for the management of volunteers. The model focuses on Enablers, including management responsibilities, policies and procedures, documentation, continuous improvement, and Operations including recruitment, training workplace conditions, deployment monitoring and review. These lead to measurable Results. It does not engage with the difficult issues such as difficulties in identifying what constitutes a good result, or different priorities among stakeholders. Even in the for-profit sector where results are more easily measurable Quality Management approaches are contested. Although supporters argue that QM methods empower employees in their immediate work context, they have also been associated with increased control by management and intensification of work practices (Rees, 2001). Certainly such managerialism seems incompatible with the coordination style preferred by volunteers in human services (Leonard, Onyx & Hayward-Brown, 2004).

The present analysis takes a step back from the current debates in the sector to examine the key issues in defining quality as described in evaluation theory, the field within the social sciences where the definition and measurement of quality has been most widely discussed. These issues are used as a frame for examining how quality has been understood in human services. Further, they serve as a way of examining the data in the present study on clients', volunteers' and coordinators' perceptions of quality.

Four dimensions for the identification of quality can be identified from evaluation theory.

1. The Fixed-Contextual dimension. …

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