Breaking new ground or digging up the past?

I’ve been watching the Channel 4 programme ‘Secret Millions’. The programme is a step on from the popular C4 format ‘Secret Millionaire’ where wealthy people give some of their money away to shocked recipients and the good causes they have been working with. The new show is about the distribution of Big Lottery Fund funding to voluntary organisations for ‘innovative and ground-breaking projects’. It uses a line-up of well-known C4 personalities looking to tackle some of Britain’s most pressing issues, working on pilot projects with voluntary organisations, with the prospect of the Lottery windfall hidden until the end.

The first episode featured C4 regular George Clarke tacking the issue of youth unemployment and empty homes. He worked with a local London youth club and the organisation London Youth getting young unemployed involved in renovating a disused house with the help of retired mentors from various areas of the building trade. The programme followed the young people on trips, highlighted some of the social problems they face and showed them working on a house to get it renovated within two weeks. At the end the big announcement was made that they had been awarded funding by the Big Lottery Fund, £1.7 million over two years, aiming to help 1500 young people into work. I really enjoyed the show. It was a really interesting way to look at the work of small voluntary organisations, raises several social issues and came with a big feel-good factor at the end.

However, the historian and critic in me was not quite sure how new, big and bold, the innovative idea being tested was. Surely this was just reality television gloss? Then today in the archives (my research looks at youth voluntary organisations in post-war Britain) I discovered the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs working with the Manpower Services Commission and the Job Creation Programme on a scheme where unemployed youth were trained up in the trades, in 1974. Admittedly these youngsters were renovating youth facilities and George Clarke has long campaigned about empty homes, but I was still struck by the similarities in the scheme: Both used youth clubs to target vulnerable youths, both looked at practical work experience, both projects took place during times of high youth unemployment, where many young people lack opportunities to get into work, neither set of youngsters appear to have been paid for their work. Of course it is unlikely that C4 undertook extensive archival research prior to recording and I am sure all involved thought they were on to something new.

The innovation role of voluntary organisations has often been praised and it’s been an important justification for their place in the contemporary welfare system. But how many other examples are out there of ‘innovations’ that have merely been forgotten and rediscovered? How new does an idea really have to be? And if it works, does it matter? What do you think?

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8 Responses to Breaking new ground or digging up the past?

  1. Eleanor says:

    Great post! ‘Of course it is unlikely that C4 undertook extensive archival research prior to recording’ – sterling. And the high youth unemployment/low (no) remuneration combination seen in both of your examples is a troubling duo…

  2. ASFinnegan says:

    This is really interesting and very relevant to my research at the moment – so thanks!

    I have a hunch that history does repeat itself – at least in terms of initiatives to help unemployed people back into work during time economic uncertainty. I am currently working on a chapter of my thesis which looks at government volunteering schemes during economic downturns and it is surprising how similar the programmes set up under Thatcher in the 80s and early 90s and Brown in 2008/09 were. Specifically in terms of the kinds of people that they wanted to support (e.g. long term unemployed) and what the government expected participants to get out of it (e.g. employability).

    Can I just clarify, did the young people on the project get a paid job from this £1.7m from the Big Lottery Fund?

    • Charlotte Clements says:

      There was no mention of paid jobs, but they were all made official ambassadors for the scheme which was interesting. So there was not proof in the show that the project actually worked in a measurable way but there was an emphasis on the benefits to the young people in terms of confidence, skills etc. This is something I find really interesting – how to measure what works? I know the evidence linking volunteering and employability is interesting here, but don’t know enough about it to comment further. Do you know what it says?

  3. Vicki Bolton says:

    There is nothing new under the sun. Thanks for blogging this – I’d missed it. Agree with Anjelica – I’m interested to know what the benefits were to the individuals.

  4. Lindsey Metcalf says:

    Very interesting post. I haven’t yet watched the programme, but will look out for it now.

    It strikes me as worrying that funders prioritise investing in ‘innovative’ schemes – what about continuing investment for well-tested projects so that they can deliver ongoing benefits on a secure footing? Particularly given the challenging financial climate for the voluntary sector at the moment, money is needed to sustain valuable work – rather than an obsession with searching for the ‘new’.

    • Charlotte Clements says:

      That is a good point. I suspect much well-tested ongoing work is in prime position to fall victim to spending cuts. Uncertainty in terms of funding etc has long been an issue for many smaller scale providers. Again I think it comes back to the issue of measurable impact – I still think part of the problem is proving benefits without making complicated lives into statistics.

      Perhaps there is some hidden meaning in ‘innovative’. Maybe it means ‘cheaper/better value than we have funded before’, or ‘more likely to get on the telly’. It has got us talking about it, and around some of the issues raised in the programme. Maybe that is supposed to be part of the innovation. Or maybe I am being too cynical.

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