Digital technology fuels high-quality volunteer service

BY MA LONGJUN | 06-08-2023
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A volunteer helps two seniors consult doctors using a telemedicine system at a community service center in Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province, on Dec. 14, 2022. Photo: CFP

Volunteer service is an important way in the new era for individuals to carry forward the traditional virtues of the Chinese nation, practice core socialist values, serve the public, and promote social development. As stated in the 20th CPC National Congress report, going forward, we need to develop a high-quality volunteer service by improving the “system and working mechanisms for volunteer services.” In March, the CPC Central Committee unveiled a new Social Work Department was launched, which will carry out overall planning, coordination, guidance, supervision and inspection for China’s national volunteer services, aiming to further promote its quality by optimizing the institutional setup and functional allocation.

Deep integration

Since the 18th CPC National Congress, China has attached great importance to voluntary services, constantly strengthened the top-level design, and introduced a series of policies and regulations which have actively developed volunteer services. According to the China Volunteer Service website, as of May 25, 2023, 231 million volunteers were registered, segmented into 1.35 million volunteer service teams, 10.96 million volunteer service projects, and had accumulated 5318.14 million hours of volunteer service. 

In the new era, voluntary services uphold the spirit of “dedication, friendship, mutual assistance, and progress,” constantly enrich the content and innovate the forms of service, and play an important role in serving the national strategy, enhancing people’s livelihoods, and promoting the construction of a social governance pattern featuring collaboration, participation, and shared benefits.

China’s new era has witnessed a new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation. The rapid development of data-intensive technology has triggered profound changes in the methods of production, in lifestyles, and in governance, and has become an important driving force for high-quality economic and social development. 

The CPC Central Committee recognized this trend and saw a historic opportunity. They made a series of major decisions and official plans for a Digital China, China as an Internet Power, and a Smart Society. This means that volunteer service, in the new era, needs to work in concert with digitization. Specifically, it is necessary to accelerate the deep integration of volunteer services with the internet, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and other digital technologies, so that multi-faceted integrated services for volunteer service tools, volunteers, voluntary organizations, government regulators, and stakeholders can be provided through a more flexible, open, convenient, and intelligent way. In the ideal state, volunteer services can be accessed in just one click, fully cover demand integration, have zero delay in service response, an ample service supply, and complete service supervision.

To implement all the decisions and arrangements from the CPC Central Committee, civil affairs departments at all levels, the Communist Youth League, the Office of Civilization, and other departments in charge of voluntary services have made great efforts to promote the digitization of voluntary services. For example, a three-year “Internet + Social Organizations (social work and voluntary services)” campaign was launched by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2018, which has upgraded the national voluntary service information system and basically completed the construction of a big data database for voluntary services. 

At present, the digitization of voluntary services has achieved positive results through cooperation with several departments, coordination on multiple levels, and linkage among different sectors. However, there are still problems with weak digital infrastructure and imbalanced or inadequate integration of digital technologies such as the internet, IoT, big data, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence. Therefore, it is safe to say that there is great potential to improve the quality of voluntary services through digitization.

Using a “system-process” theory, the high-quality development of voluntary services through increased digitization should focus on two major aspects: a static voluntary service system and a dynamic voluntary service process.

Volunteer service system

 The volunteer service system is an organic whole composed of different elements, which can be divided into physical elements and abstract elements. Physical elements include: human resources, property, and voluntary service sites. Abstract elements include: values, goals, systems, information, power, responsibility, and interests. From the perspective of systems theory, the digitization of China’s volunteer service system refers to the digitization of the previously listed physical and abstract elements.

First, based on the defined roles of volunteers in the system, digital training can be conducted for key service tools, volunteers, voluntary organization managers, government regulators, and so on. Digital literacy and technical skills for a range of personnel in the voluntary service system should be improved in a targeted way, especially their ability to skillfully use the volunteer service digital system. 

In terms of digital payments and reimbursement, a digital financial management system for volunteer services should be established, to supervise the scale, flow, progress, and efficiency of volunteer service funds in real-time.

With IoT technology as the core, the digitization of volunteer service materials, venues, and other elements should be accelerated to realize intelligent identification, positioning, tracking, and supervision of volunteer service materials. 

The key to the digitization of physical elements of the volunteer service system lies in the research, development, and construction of digital infrastructure. At the same time, the digitization of abstract elements of the volunteer service system should also be prioritized. On the surface, the digitization of abstract elements of the volunteer service system means that the values, objectives, institutions, information, power, responsibility, and interests of the volunteer service system are transferred from traditional documents to electronic forms, which changes the means of information storage and communication. On a deeper level, abstract elements of volunteer service are visualized through digital means such as cinematography, digital modeling, and virtualization, so that people can feel these abstract elements more directly.

From a dialectical perspective, the distinction between the physical elements and the abstract elements of the volunteer service system is relatively clear in theory, but in reality they are unified. The physical components implement the abstract, while the abstract directs the physical. In this sense, the digitization of the voluntary service system is a result of coordinated development and organic integration of the physical and abstract.

Service process digitization

 The volunteer service process is composed of different links, including demand expression, demand integration, service response, service supply, and service supervision. Digitization of the volunteer service process digitally transforms and seamlessly connects these specific links in real-life scenarios.

Demand expression is where service starts. To digitally express volunteer service demands,   digital literacy must be improved along with volunteer service skills, and the key is to construct a convenient digital system for volunteer services. This requires a targeted, practical, and convenient digital system design, with user friendly principles. For users with high digital literacy, a mobile service system can be used, and demand expressions can be guided by artificial intelligence. However, for users with low digital literacy, such as the elderly, a simple interface that combines digital and manual services, such as “one-click voicemail” and “one-button videos,” should be designed to record their needs.

Next, we need to improve the national big data platform and accelerate the convergence and integration of fragmented data “on demand” for volunteer services. Big data, cloud computing, and other digital technologies can be used to process and integrate the expressed volunteer service needs according to regions, fields, or objects, forming a complete volunteer service demand network. In a dynamic and transparent system, a variety of volunteer service needs can be recognized more comprehensively, clearly, and intuitively to digitally support volunteers, voluntary organizations, and government regulators as they interpret the demand dynamics of volunteer services, conveniently participate in volunteer services, and supervise volunteers.

Third, it is crucial to optimize mobile terminal volunteer service system functions, simplify the operation process, and support volunteer service teams as they run their service projects, recruit volunteers, help them register, collect service information, and sign up for service activities on mobile terminals anytime and anywhere. Through digital technologies such as big data and cloud computing, we can compare the professional skills, leisure time, regional distribution, and other specific volunteer data alongside service demand data, volunteer projects, and volunteer service teams to improve volunteer service responses and accurately match supply and demand.

Fourth, for volunteer teams, digital technologies can be used in team planning, organization, training, and coordination. For example, virtual simulation technology is used for organizational structure design and volunteer service process simulation. With the help of digital collaboration platforms, the management and efficiency of voluntary service activities are improved to ensure full volunteer participation. A platform which connects volunteers, voluntary organizations, and volunteer service objects should also be put in place to provide online service channels for individuals or groups in need. When running volunteer activities, mobile terminals are easy to sign in to, sign out of, and they track volunteer hours online, so that the volunteer service points system can be quantified, stored, and regulated.

Fifth, based on the big data volunteer service platform, a dynamic regulatory system with real-time communication, discussion, and feedback among volunteer service objects, volunteers, managers, relevant regulatory departments, news media, and other stakeholders can be established. Supervision is thus integrated into all links of volunteer service and is strengthened during and after events. 

Meanwhile, data security needs to be strengthened. From the dimensions of legality, fairness, economy, efficiency, and volunteer safety, comprehensive evaluation and supervision should be carried out on the volunteer service process. Also, rewards and incentives should be given to those with excellent performance, while training and supervision should be provided to those with average performance, whereas dismissal and even accountability should be assigned to those with poor performance. Through accurate digital supervision, evaluation, incentives, and with restraint, we can achieve high-quality development of our volunteer services.

Ma Longjun is from the College of Social Development and Public Administration at Northwest Normal University. 

Edited by YANG XUE