The civil society strategy: What you need to know

Today the government has published its long-awaited civil society strategy.

With parliament in recess and right in the middle of the summer holidays, it seems an odd time to launch something that will inform government’s relationship with civil society for the next decade.

I doubt there are many holidaymakers who will want to use their data allowance to download a document that is over 120 pages long, so we have read it for you, and summarised the key things you need to know.

What does the civil society strategy say?

Before delving into the specifics, it’s important to recognise that the initiative itself, setting out a long-term vision for government’s work with civil society, is a really positive one. For too long, we have been missing a unifying thread across all government departments in their approach to civil society.

The starting point of the strategy – and one that runs throughout the whole document – is also important: recognising the role that civil society has in tackling some of today’s greatest challenges, and the need to make sure it is involved in developing new solutions.

It may get lost in the length of the document, but there is a message here: charities can be confident in their right to speak in public debates, and not shy away from having a role in shaping policy and speaking up on behalf of those they support.

Key themes and announcements

The civil society strategy aims to create ‘thriving communities’ through strengthening ‘five foundations of social value’.

People

The aim here is to give people a sense of control over their future and their community, and to support them in taking action on the issues they care about.

  • There are a number of initiatives already happening to this end, such as the Place Based Social Action programme, the training of Community Organisers and the #iwill campaign.
  • In addition, the strategy will look at how to further embed and scale up people taking action as a core part of public services, starting with a commitment by NHS England to strengthen volunteering and providing more opportunities within the NHS.

This is a good thing, and something we called for in NCVO’s Manifesto. We have always said that public services are better when charities and volunteers are involved. Charities are already involving people who use public services in running those services, helping to improve them, so it’s important that we build on this.

Places

The strategy aims to create places where local communities are empowered and take responsibility for where they live. As well as enhancing existing opportunities such as community rights, there are some interesting new commitments:

  • The launch of a new ‘Innovation in Democracy’ programme that will pilot creative ways for people to take a more direct role in decisions that affect them. This could include citizens’ juries or mass participation in decision-making on community issues online polls.
  • An additional £35m of funding from dormant accounts to Big Society Capital and the Access Foundation to develop new models of community funding. Although the risk here is that the excessive emphasis on ‘social investment type’ models will continue.

The social sector

That’s charities and social enterprises to you and me. The strategy’s focus is to ensure charities and social enterprises are confident about their right to speak up, and have a strong role in shaping policy.

The government will:

  • renew its commitment to the principles of the Compact
  • convene a cross-government group to work with civil society to establish the principles of effective involvement in policy-making
  • work with the Electoral Commission and the Charity Commission to send a strong message about charities’ right to campaign. This means we can probably expect some reviewed and hopefully improved Electoral Commission guidance on the non-party campaigning rules.

This is probably the strongest set of commitments, showing how there is a real desire to improve engagement and dialogue in public debate, and sending a strong message about the importance of organisations using their voice to inform policy.

The private sector

The strategy seeks to build further initiatives and support for responsible businesses, those which put social and environmental responsibility at the heart of what they do.

Much of this is already happening, for example through the Inclusive Economy Partnership and the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Financial Inclusion Programme’, but the strategy will give it a boost by:

  • Establishing a responsible business leadership group.
  • Setting up a new, independent organisation which will work with partners across the private and social sectors to tackle financial exclusion (using £55m from dormant accounts funding).

The government’s intention to set up a new body – even if it is meant to be independent – is likely to be met with a certain degree of scepticism by the many organisations that are already doing great work to improve financial inclusion. We will need to see the details of what the role and remit of this new body is, to allay any concerns that it isn’t just going to replicate existing activities.

The public sector

The aim here is to ensure collaborative commissioning, so local players are involved in a meaningful way in creating and delivering public services:

  • An increase in social value commissioning across all levels of government, and an extension of the principles of the Social Value Act to goods and works as well as services.
  • A revival of grant making, also referred to as ‘Grants 2.0’. By re-evaluating and promoting the use of grant funding, government is reflecting the fact that grants form part of a healthy funding mix, and can often ensure best value for money.

So, is there anything new?

The announcements about recommitting to the Compact, establishing a new cross-government group to ensure better involvement in policy-making, and the revival of grants are all new initiatives to be welcomed. But it would be fair to say that the majority of the strategy repeats existing commitments or, at most, builds on work that is already under way.

Even the initially exciting statements about funding from dormant accounts, after a memory refresh (or a quick Google search) turn out to be old news. The £135m to invest in providing homes for vulnerable people and support local charities, the £55m to allocate to a new independent organisation to tackle problem debt, and the £90m youth initiative to help the most disadvantaged transition into work all date back to earlier this year.

We would like to have seen more detail in some areas: in particular how the government intends to approach dormant assets and the role that community endowments can play in providing a long-term sustainable funding source. There is an estimated £2bn in dormant assets, and a growing consensus within charities that the resulting funding should be used to start a real revolution in community ownership and participation. Yet three years have passed with limited progress, and the absence of any mention in the Strategy is somewhat disappointing.

Is it a strategy, or is it a plan?

‘Is there a difference?’ I hear you ask. Well, at the risk of being pedantic, yes there is. And unfortunately this ‘strategy’ lacks the long-term commitments and principled approach that upgrade it from being merely a plan.

As we said when the strategy was first announced, it should be a blueprint for government to achieve its vision. As such, it should be based on some fundamental principles that will inform the government’s long-term approach, and we suggested what some of those principles should be.

That overarching vision is currently lost in the list of things that government says it wants to do, most of which are achievable in the short and medium term. Longer term challenges have not been addressed, raising the question of whether the 10-year timeframe has been quietly dropped.

The ‘strategy’ is therefore probably best seen as a good first step, the start of a programme of work that hopefully will inform policy across all departments, and will gradually build a strong relationship between government and civil society.

 

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Elizabeth Chamberlain Elizabeth is head of policy and public services at NCVO. She has been part of the policy team since 2008, as the expert on charity law and regulation. Her policy interests also include charity campaigning, the sector’s independence, transparency, and accountability.

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