The British Empire Medal is a bit of an insult

Volunteer recognition.  It is a tricky thing to get right.

As I wrote last month, well intentioned long service awards for volunteering increasingly risk alienating those who can only give time in shorter bursts.

Woe betide anyone who actually listens to volunteers when they say they don’t want any recognition for what they do.  Fail to at least thank them and watch them leave in droves.

So it was a cautious welcome many volunteer managers gave the coalition government when, quite a while back now, they asked for more ‘regular’ people to be put forward for the honours system.  Then the government shot themselves in the foot by announcing that these same volunteers would be recognised with the re-introduced British Empire Medal (BEM) not the usual, OBEs, MBEs and CBEs and the like.

British Empire Medal

The first round of these new BEMs were dished out in the Queen’s birthday honours earlier this month.  While not wanting to take anything away from the achievements of those receiving the awards, I was personally disgusted at the move.

Why?  Three reasons.

First, it creates a two tier honours system.  The usual, well known honours seem to now be reserved for celebrities, civil servants, sector chief executives, politicians, sports people and the like. These people, who are in the public eye, get a well known honour presented to them by the Queen or another available royal.

Volunteers, however, get a BEM, an honour revived from obscurity after having been deemed outdated and irrelevant.  Volunteers don’t get the award from a member of the royal family, though. I assume it comes in the post, probably accompanied by a Royal Mail ‘while you were out’ card. Clearly a fine way to say thank you to the millions who toil selflessly for their communities, arguably making more of a contribution to our society than a handful of celebs and sports stars.

Second, along with a two tier system comes two tier media coverage. Instead of more coverage of the real heroes of our society, we get more dedicated to the ‘names’ who win top tier gongs. It even happened in Third Sector, with the main news article featuring the chief executives – senior managers’ ‘names’ from the sector who got gongs, with but a passing mention to the hard working and undervalued volunteers.

Third, as usual when it comes to valuing volunteers, the sector has been almost entirely silent on the creation of this two tier system. There have been no protests to government of their sidelining of the very same volunteers they so wanted to champion. Instead, sector leaders have kept their heads down and just accepted the changes with apparently ne’er a thought to the volunteers without whom most sector organisations would cease to function. One wonders if it would have been the same if the highest honour a paid manager was likely to get was a BEM.

As I said at the start, volunteer recognition is a tricky thing to get right.

The coalition government have, in my view, managed to demonstrate very well that it is an all to easy thing to get totally wrong.

6 Responses to “The British Empire Medal is a bit of an insult”

  1. John Burton

    I agree with the sentiments expressed, and would also like to point a few other issues with the honours system. I have no inherent objections to honours, but the current government ones have several problems.
    First, they are associated with an Empire and imperialism, which most people I would hope find out of date, at least, and seriously wrong at worst. It is also surely time they were separated from the monarchy. Whether or not you are a monarchist, to have honours, some of which are purely in the gift of the monarch mixed with those awarded on merit, while others are for patronage is confusing.
    Second I have always objected to honours that are awarded on the basis of patronage and lobbying, and it is surely time that the decisions were made by one’s peers. I am fortunate in that I am not in the running, but I would find it quite abhorrent to be vetted by someone who is not conversant with my field of activity. It is hardly an honour in those circumstances.

  2. Mike Wild

    You make a good point that the flaws in the NCS model are there no matter how it’s procured.

    Certainly one of the providers I spoke to last year got sick of the sight of civil servants making all the usual demands for reams of delivery statistics in the hope that adding together lots of numbers would magically translate into meaningful long term outcomes.

    It’s not only that existing provision was closed down, it’s that the expertise of organisations with a track record in youth work was simply dismissed. From what I’ve seen any success NCS has had is really down to the provider organisations largely ignoring the central guidance and just getting on with doing what they know works best.

    Added to the lack of respect for youth work (as all social work is now seen as wet and wasteful) is a focus on scale as the indicator of succes and the usual blunt instrument procurement mechanism…. it’s hard to see how else this could have played out: these kind of relationships were inevitable.

    What I don’t hear is anything substantial from the charities who have chosen to work with Serco: what really is their rationale for doing? I can see that there are arguments for working in partnership with private businesses not just with the aim of increasing delivery but also to influence their corporate behaviour… however, I’m at best highly sceptical of anyone’s ability to influence Serco.

    Perhaps their view is that an organisation like Serco is inevitably going to win contracts like this, so best to work with them where you can put some boundaries around how they deliver and keep an eye on them, with the threat of publicly walking away if Serco doesn’t behave? That may be a realistic tactic – but it’s a huge risk, as those who tried to get in the Work Programme found out, only to have Government wash their hands of any responsiblity for ensuring fair contracting relationships.

  3. Carl Allen

    Alternatively, the sector has painted itself into a corner over period of time.

  4. the observer

    In short, quality infrastructure support to small frontline organisations and others who need it the most is inherently unsustainable and the future of this aspect of the sector is very bleak indeed.

    Infrastructure support requires grant funding as those who most need the help are often by their very definition unable to pay for it. Sadly, infrastructure projects aren’t the most photogenic and will rarely attract donations or be something that gets any wider coverage or support – many outside of the sector don’t even know this kind of thing exists.

    Impact measurement for third sector infrastructure support is at times extremely difficult as the groups who need the support come and go so quickly that it can often be difficult to measure their improvement or do any serious follow-up work.

    At the same time though, infrastructure support organisations have had funding/support from ChangeUp, Capacity Builders, two versions of BASIS, TLI and BIG Assist, and it would be interesting to debate how much better off the sector is as a result.

  5. Peter Stockwell

    I think honours are a good thing for those who deserve them, but the BEM is indeed an insult. An investiture ceremony for all down to and including the MBE is held at a royal palace, usually Buckingham Palace, by a senior member of the royal family. It is a never to be forgotten event and rightly so. The BEM investiture ceremony is held in a county hall with little ceremony and often in poor surroundings. An event best forgotten, which says exactly what our government thinks of hard working people at the lower end of society.

    • Pete Singleton

      I do understand that the BEM could be seen as a little third rate but I still felt extremely honoured to receive my award in 2013. The investiture was conducted by the Lord Lieutenant of the County in the grand surroundings of Peterborough Town Hall and invitations to the Royal Garden Party followed the next year. Of course the OBE or MBE is seen as a higher recognition and John Burton is right to say that some so called celebrities are probably not worthy of such awards.
      Nevertheless, I would certainly not say that my investiture ‘event’ was best forgotten – I will never forget it, and I’m extremely proud to have been recognised.


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