What should the government’s new civil society strategy look like?

Government is asking us to help shape a new civil society strategy

A common complaint that we get at NCVO is that government ignores the voluntary sector. And when it does do something that has an impact upon what we do, it’s probably negative. Stuart Etherington is fond of saying that no government ever sets out to damage the voluntary sector or get in the way of people volunteering. But in racing to solve whatever is the problem of the day, an awful lot of voluntary action gets trampled underfoot along the way. A good example was the cap on gift aid relief – probably a decision taken at 2am on the night before what subsequently became the ‘omnishambles’ budget.

Critics of the much (and rightly so) maligned lobbying act might differ on intent, but the problem remains either way. Maybe things would be better if government – and us, whilst we’re at it – were a bit clearer about how it sees its relationship with voluntary organisations or people who get involved to help others in society. The sort of thing you might lay out in a strategy.

Strategy: a day between Friday and Sunday?

Not everyone thinks this is the right thing to do. When Geoff Mulgan was head of the government’s strategy unit, he is reputed to have argued that it was a bad idea for government to have a strategy for civil society (or third sector, as was). Any attempt to shape and direct the ‘loose and baggy monster’ might be setting government up to fail. And there are of course those who argue that developing a strategy is the typical response of any organisation that might otherwise have to take action. However, our colleagues in the world of sport and recreation, where the current Civil Society Minister also led the development of a sector-wide strategy, report a generally positive experience.

So, we think it is a good thing that government, led by the Minister for Civil Society, is developing a strategy for civil society. If you haven’t heard by now, the process kicked off a few days ago with a digital consultation engagement exercise, with the Minister’s team at OCS equally keen for us all to host our own conversations on what a strategy might look like. We’ve got 12 weeks to respond – a time period that when I was a young lad used to be called ‘Compact compliant’. I think we should help government make this the best strategy that it can be, so please do engage, whether with the exercise or us at NCVO.

I’ll have a P please, Bob

These days, politicians campaign in poetry and govern in alliteration. So the engagement questions ask us to focus on people, place and partnerships. I’m not going to delve into the topics right now – that’s for another time – as I have my own P at this point: purpose. What is the purpose of a civil society strategy? And whose strategy is it anyway? Is it for civil society or government?

I’ll deal with the second point first. If I understand Geoff Mulgan’s thinking correctly, this has got to be a strategy for government and how it works with civil society. It is not a strategy for civil society. That’s a small but important distinction: as a matter of principle (another P), it’s not for government and therefore the purpose of any strategy to tell civil society what to do. The purpose is to guide government thinking and action about how it relates to and works with civil society. And note my seemingly rather bland use of the word ‘government’: this is not intended to be an OCS, DCMS or even central government strategy. The Minister intends this to be a whole of government strategy – ambitious, no doubt, but an aspiration that would rightly put paid to doubts that civil society was sidelined when it moved out of the Cabinet Office.

If strategy is the art of making choices, of deciding what to do and not to do, it then follows that a useful strategy would have as its purpose the establishment of guiding principles so that government can more consistently and easily work with civil society. It currently does not. It is a source of ongoing frustration, for example, that the Department of Health thinks that grants are a good thing, but some other departments think only contracts provide value for money. Or that DfID thinks involving civil society in policy development is good, but others see charities as the usual suspects.

These principles could help us think about how government could approach whatever the issue of the day is, be that funding of charities or its views on governance and trustees, and engage with civil society more effectively, based upon a shared understanding of each other’s role and purpose. And just as importantly, a strategy might help government think what it shouldn’t do, when it needs to get out of the way. Government still too often fails the first requirement of its role, not harming those that it is trying to help.

So, what is government for?

For us, a strategy needs to think about the role of the state in relation to civil society and ask ‘What is government for?’. For example, is it the role of government to encourage people to give their time and money? If civil society is a space where people come together to discuss what a good society should look like, is it the role of government to encourage and protect that space, in all its manifestations? Does government want people and communities to do more for themselves rather than rely upon government for traditional public services? Does government want voluntary organisations to shoulder more of the responsibility of helping others? And is it the role of government – and its agencies – to improve and develop how civil society operates, not just stepping in when things go wrong?

I think if we answer these questions in a strategy, we can then more coherently and consistently tackle the what, why and how questions that come up on a day-to-day basis. For example, whether government should use unclaimed assets to support good causes, or mandate or encourage employers to give people time off to serve as trustees.

Government also needs to decide what it means by civil society – just who and what are the institutions, people and groups that contribute to the common good? The engagement exercise proposes a very wide definition that includes businesses.  I can’t but help think that a bit more clarity and focus is needed here if government is genuinely going to make choices about what it does and doesn’t do.

Civil society is a good thing. Period.

In talking to Stuart Etherington and others about the strategy, the thing that is particularly clear for me is that a strategy needs to start from the point that civil society is a good thing in and of itself. That a strategy should enable government to support and encourage civil society, in the full knowledge that at times the people and organisations that make up civil society will be in fundamental opposition to what the government of the day is doing. Or just angry. Yes, government will always try and direct aspects of civil society to achieve a particular purpose. But a civilised and mature state should want to support and encourage the activities that form civil society – such as through tax reliefs – because it is a good thing.

After the last couple of weeks in the news, some might question that view. We have almost certainly got to fix that. We will. Government too has a role. Making the case for why government believes in a strong and vibrant civil society, in all its forms, will be an excellent start to the new strategy


Image credits: Strategy as Action; Civil Society; This Way; Volunteering is Mandatory; Angry Women,

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

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