Monday 5 May 2014

Why time banks imply a different kind of public service

Ever since I invited the time banks pioneer Edgar Cahn over to the UK in 1997, I have been fascinated by the growth of the idea across Europe.

Then, last year, I had the huge opportunity of writing a report about their growth and potential for the European Commission, which has just been published.

What I found was a hugely diverse movement, from the Scandinavian time banks (more about local barter, which is why it is being taxed) to the Spanish banca del tiempo (an offshoot of the feminist movement, developed increasingly by local government).

The Italian banca de tempo claim descent from the UK ones, but actually predate them by at least five years, modelled more closely on LETS currencies.

The UK movement is probably closest to the time banks in the USA, and are increasingly about reforming public services by encouraging people who are usually volunteered unto to find ways of supporting each other.

The basic effectiveness of time banks in building supportive neighbourhoods, especially for older people, people with health difficulties and in poorer or immigrant communities, seems to be confirmed in a range of different projects.  So is their ability to save money, both for their members and for their partners in the public services, by increasing the effectiveness of services (though not necessarily by allowing them to cut services). 

Their big challenge is how to use these successes for time banks to build a sustainable future for themselves, perhaps partly inside a range of different host organisations – which require mutual social networks around them if they are going to be more effective.  The future of time banks may be as a technique for institutions, more than as standalone projects, though this debate continues across Europe and the outcome is not yet clear.

In any case, to achieve that, public service professionals need to understand more about the potential of time banking.  There also needs to be more understanding of how best to balance the technological needs and the need for a human being at the heart of time banks if they are to reach their target markets.  Those issues remain unresolved. 

What I said in the report is that these key ideas also stand out: 
  • Time banks and complementary currencies are a growing phenomenon, not only in number of experiences but also in their variety. The diversity of welfare system not only implies different welfare rules but also different social needs as well as work and time use patterns that influence the objectives,  membership and use of time banks.
  • Time bank and complementary currencies have potential to improve well-being and mental health, to enhance the effectiveness of public services, and to promote entrepreneurship and self-employed business ventures.
  • The high rate of women promoting and participating in these initiatives is an opportunity, but also a question: do they really make the most of this participation?

This reflects the Radio 4 discussion I took part in last month.  But the report also talks about the fascinating border area between social exchange (time banks) and new kinds of money (local currencies), and both ends of this innovation are powering ahead.  There’s still a long way to go, but – if you want to see how time banking can take a major role in social care in the UK – just have a look at the time bank that’s now at the heart of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, probably the biggest social care organisation of its kind.

What makes this revolutionary is not just that it is cost effective, and begins to put right one of the major flaws in the Beveridge welfare state – the gulf between exhausted professionals and the service users who are supposed to stay passive to make them easier to process.  It is also about making the most vulnerable services users more powerful and effective in the system.

This isn’t about empowerment – a weasel word if ever there was one – but it can have the effect of giving people more confidence in the system.  

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