National Citizen Service has missed key targets and needs to reduce its costs by almost 30 per cent, the National Audit Office said in a report last week.
The NCS is the government's flagship youth volunteering programme, and is projected to have an annual budget of more than £400m by the end of this Parliament. Theresa May renewed the government commitment to the NCS last week in the launch of her "shared society" vision.
In the its evaluation of National Citizen Service, NAO said the government was spending too much per participant, was not recruiting nearly enough people to hit its targets, and had spent over £10m paying for places which went unfilled. It said there was also no evidence that the NCS provided enduring benefits to attendees, and that "significant and critical" policy changes were now needed.
It said the OCS and the trust need to focus on reducing costs to be able to reach its ambitious participation targets.
“The cost per participant needs to fall by 29 per cent to £1,314 in 2019 for the Trust to provide 300,000 places and stay within the funding envelope,” the report said.
NAO said that at its current rate of growth it is unlikely to reach its participation target of 360,000 by 2021 and said controlling costs had been a low priority so far.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “NCS is now at a critical stage. The OCS and the trust have shown that NCS can attract large numbers of participants, and participation has a positive effect on young people.
“These are no small achievements, but it remains unclear whether these effects are enduring and whether NCS can grow to become 'a rite of passage' available to all 16- to 17-year-olds.The OCS and the trust now need to think radically about the aspects of the current programme that work and how best to achieve NCS's aims at a more affordable cost to the taxpayer.”
The report said it: “OCS and the trust now need to show they can grow NCS as intended and run it at more affordable cost to the taxpayer. As currently constituted, it is not clear how the programme will do this. Weaknesses in governance and cost control need to be addressed.”
'Costs too much'
After looking at the NCS Trust’s board minutes NAO concluded that it had “not focused on understanding and controlling costs”.
OCS and the trust expect to spend £1,853 on each participant, which is £300 more per participant that the 2015 Spending Review implied. The NCS Trust spent a total £175m last year.
The trust has secured £7m in corporate support for this year, falling £3m short of a £10m target.
During 2016 the trust paid an estimated £10m “for places not filled”. For the first time it has commissioned auditors to try and recover the funding.
It also spent £2.7m on media campaigns.
NAO said the trust did this because of the emphasis on participation targets.
“It told us that without such high targets it could have shifted resources towards other levers to grow NCS, which may have been cheaper and more sustainable.”
In 2016/17 NCS is expected to cost £187m.
By 2019/20 it is expected to cost £424m – though HM Treasury has “not yet confirmed funding” to support the growth outlined for this year, according to NAO.
‘Participation has not grown as quickly as desired’
In 2016 OCS again missed its participation target. Around 93,000 young people took part, filling 75 per cent of the 124,000 places available.
NAO said “significant and critical policy changes” are needed if it is to meet its target for 2010.
NAO also warns that participation targets are ambitious. It said that to reach 360,000 participants by 2020 it would need an average growth rate of 40 per cent over four years “exceeding the 2015 and 2016 growth rate of 31 per cent and 23 per cent respectively”.
If participation grows as 23 per cent over four years it would reach 213,000 in 2020/21.
The report highlighted that OCS and the trust had been hoping for more support from the Department for Education.
At the moment the DfE’s “commitments do not included placing a formal duty on schools or considering NCS in Ofsted inspections”, which the trust had hoped for.
When plans to put the programme on a statutory footing were announced in the Queen’s speech, it included placing a formal duty on local authorities and schools to promote the NCS. However this was not included in the bill when it was introduced to Parliament.
NAO said: “Without these policy changes, alongside operational improvements, it is unlikely the OCS will meet its aim for 360,000 young people undertaking NCS in 2020.
“The OCS and the trust are now rethinking their long term aspirations and updating their implementation plans.”