The Office for Civil Society is moving

Following a few days of rumour and confusion in the Westminster bubble, it has finally been announced that the Office for Civil Society and Innovation (to give it its full name) will be moving from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). In doing so, it is following the Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, who in effect remains in post, albeit now in a different department. I thought it might be useful to jot down a few reflections.

Moving House licensed under Creative Commons from Fletcher6

The move is hardly setting a precedent

These so-called ‘machinery of government’ changes are surprisingly common (and for the Institute for Government, unhelpfully so). What is now known as OCS has, in my working life, been the Office of the Third Sector, the Active Communities Unit and the Voluntary Services Unit. Before my time it was the Voluntary and Community Unit. We’ve also had the Social Enterprise Unit (merged with the ACU to form the OTS).

Home departments have included Cabinet Office, Department of Trade and Industry, DCMS (and its forerunner, the Department of National Heritage) and of course the Home Office. I also seem to remember some turf wars with a unit in the Department for Communities and Local Government, who wanted to take over OTS.

I remember upon joining NCVO the observation that when entering the Home Office, those compelled to serve the community took the door on the left (where community service was a punishment), those wanting to serve the community took the door on the right (volunteering).

Stuart Etherington says he told one minister that they should have costs for a removals van in the annual budget, as they shifted departments so often. The same was often the case for ministers, who probably should have budgeted for a revolving door. I’m not sure the ebb and flow of influence has necessarily correlated with departmental location.

What are the implications of moving?

First up, it’s probably useful to highlight the stability that comes from the same minister staying in the role. All Ministers take time to learn the ropes; at a time when most others are learning theirs, hopefully Rob Wilson will hit the ground running. The minister will now report directly to the secretary of state, not a minister in between. And OCS staff will be equivalent to about 25% of the DCMS workforce – large enough for the secretary of state to take notice.

The move to DCMS of the OCS wasn’t anticipated by anyone. It’s worth noting that this includes responsibility for the Big Lottery Fund, of which more later. It has a number of positive attractions.

The new DCMS secretary of state Karen Bradley is close to the prime minister, as a former Home Office minister. The DCMS permanent secretary (who we have worked with, pictured below with Rob Wilson) has a positive view of the sector. And there are some policy alignments: charitable giving and volunteering, the role of the National Lottery, and overlaps in policy issues between the arts and cultural sector and the wider voluntary sector. It may also be a chance to move on from policies or ideas that many would wish to be quietly forgotten.

Official DCMS twitter account photo
Minister for Civil Society Rob Wilson at DCMS | Photo taken from official DCMS Twitter account

However, there are legitimate causes for concern. Firstly, DCMS is relatively peripheral compared to the Cabinet Office’s central role within Whitehall. That’s not a criticism of DCMS per se – it’s just that there are only two departments (the Cabinet Office, the Treasury) that tell others what to do. It is hard to imagine DCMS driving forward substantive reforms to public services across Whitehall, for example.

It is also less comfortable ‘home’ for interventions like the Commissioning Academy or social investment, public sector mutuals and youth policy, let alone open government and transparency. The social enterprise lobby are calling for OCS to be split into its former component parts (ACU and SEU), with social enterprise, mutuals and social investment in the newly formed Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

I understand the reasoning, but I worry that this would divide our sector in the eyes of policy makers and weaken it. It is a finely balanced argument. Finally, we will need to keep a watchful eye on the Big Lottery Fund’s share of National Lottery Proceeds given that the Cabinet Office will no longer be batting for BIG.

On balance, the risk is clearly that civil society in its broadest sense – charities, social enterprises, mutuals, volunteering and social action – is seen simply as activity that generates social rather economic outcomes, is less relevant to public service reform and is less a solution to the concerns of the electorate: decent jobs and houses, for example. But we’ve also been here many times before.

I’m sure at every machinery of government change or ministerial reshuffle we in the commentariat will have discerned some depletion of influence or negative change of direction. Others might still be asking what on earth is a minister for civil society. I think we need to wait before passing judgement and work with the minister to make the move a success.

Meanwhile back at the ranch

We should also not get too fixated on the shift of the OCS because there are some other important things happening. Undoubtedly the most significant decisions that affect the voluntary sector will be made at the Treasury over the next couple of years. How an economic slowdown is handled – especially public spending decisions – will have the greatest impact on our beneficiaries and affect charities’ own funding and levels of demand placed upon them.

The new Chancellor Philip Hammond has already indicated that he will eschew George Osborne’s previous austerity targets. On charity-specific issues, such as Gift Aid, we had previously worked closely with Exchequer secretary Damian Hinds on charity specific issues such as Gift Aid. That portfolio has now been given to the new Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jane Ellison.

Changes in other departments are also important, not least of which is the move of Priti Patel to DfID. Our quarterly political round-up, the Inside Track has more on the political situation (so turbulent that it’s already out of date in a couple of places), and we’ll have some more analysis on what the make-up of Theresa May’s new government means for charities in the coming days.


Images: Official DCMS Twitter account; Moving House licensed under Creative Commons from Fletcher6


I wasn’t fully correct about OCS current responsibilities:

And is this an example of how the OCS public services reform agenda might thrive in DCMS?


Read a blog post from the director of Office for Civil Society, Mark Fisher, on the changes.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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