300,000 16- to 17-year-olds have taken part since 2011
Work is required if National Citizen Service is to become a sustainable investment in young people, the Public Accounts Committee report says.
In the report, the Committee concludes "now is the time to think radically" about what can be learned from the programme's achievements to date in order to fulfil its ambitions.
Since 2011 more than 300,000 16- to 17-year-olds have taken part in National Citizen Service (NCS), which usually takes place over four consecutive weeks and involves groups undertaking residential courses and community projects.
The Government intends it to become a 'rite of passage' for young people and lead to a more cohesive, responsible and engaged society.
Lacking data to measure long-term outcomes
However, the Committee concludes the programme "may no longer be justifiable" if it is unable to meet its targets for increasing the number of participants, or achieve its long-term societal aims—both at a cheaper cost per head.
The Committee finds the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), which has overall responsibility for NCS, lacks the data to measure long-term outcomes of the programme or understand what works.
It also concludes the NCS Trust (the Trust) and DCMS cannot justify the "seemingly high" cost per participant.
For 2016 this is expected to be £1,863 of taxpayers' money, which the Committee compares to The Scout Association estimates of £550 to create a place in the Scouts that lasts at least four years.
£10 million paid for places in 2016 that were not filled
The Committee highlights that the Trust paid providers some £10 million in 2016 for places that were not filled and expresses disappointment at the Trust's "relaxed attitude about the non-recovery of these funds".
It raises concerns about the transparency and governance of the Trust, and finds it is "unclear" whether the Trust has the skills and experience necessary to oversee growth of the NCS programme.
The Committee's recommendations set out measures to address these and other concerns.
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said:
"There are considerable long-term ambitions for National Citizen Service, a legacy of David Cameron's vision of a 'big society'.
But in our view it has already reached a critical juncture.
The Government intends to push on with plans to grow participation, citing evidence that NCS has had a positive impact on young people who have taken part.
However, this does not in itself justify the level of public spending on the programme, nor demonstrate that NCS in its current form will deliver the proposed benefits to wider society.
The NCS Trust has received some £475 million of public money—99% of its income—since 2014–15.
This and future commitments are significant sums yet it is not at all clear why NCS participation costs should be so much higher than those for a voluntary sector organisation such as the Scouts.
Nor is it clear why the Trust, as the recipient of this public money, should apparently be so reluctant to voluntarily disclose financial information such as the salaries of directors.
This attitude does nothing to build public confidence in an organisation that has lacked discipline in recovering overpayments of taxpayers' money, while running a programme for which there is still no clear evaluation plan.
If a Bill currently before Parliament becomes law then the Trust will become a Royal Chartered public body and will therefore be obliged to comply with basic principles of governance, accountability and transparency.
But this is no barrier to action. As a body primarily funded by taxpayers, the Trust can and should comply now.
Beyond that, we urge the Trust and central government to review fundamentally the way NCS is delivered and its benefits measured before more public money is committed in the programme's next commissioning round."
Early indications, from the Office for Civil Society's (OCS) evaluations, suggest that the National Citizen Service (NCS), a programme bringing together groups of 16- to 17-year-olds to undertake activities, has had a real impact on those participating.
It has improved their confidence, developed team-building and life skills, and increased their awareness of the local community.
However, what remains to be seen is whether NCS will become a 'rite of passage' and meet its ambitious targets for increasing the number of participants or achieve its long-term societal aims.
Cost per participant must be lower to be justifiable
Without achieving both these, at a cheaper cost per participant, NCS may no longer be justifiable and the future of the programme could be called into doubt.
Now is the time to think radically about what can be learnt from achievements to date and outline what is needed to grow NCS, bring costs under control and ensure NCS becomes a real and sustainable investment in our young people.
Upcoming Bill provides opportunity to revisit Trust's governance
The National Citizen Service Bill also provides an opportunity to revisit the Trust's governance and management arrangements.
The Cabinet Office set up the NCS Trust (the Trust) as a community interest company almost wholly funded by government, but it has not adopted the transparency and robust governance arrangements we would expect to see.
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