The civil society strategy: What it says about public services

This blog post is one of a series on the civil society strategy. For an overview of the strategy, please see our post on What you need to know


Public service design and delivery is a key theme of the civil society strategy. It has attracted some criticism for being a rehash of David Cameron’s Big Society, particularly when taken in the context of cuts to local services, whereas others have welcomed the recognition of the role of civil society in the services that benefit communities and beneficiaries.

The strategy articulates a desire to reflect the ‘independent origins’ of public service. Whether this can be construed as an ambition to put further distance between the state and public service delivery, or a push for more flexibility and agility in the delivery of services, this blog sets out the strategy’s key commitments to improve the design and delivery of public services.

What is the vision?

The government’s vision for public services is one of collaborative commissioning. In the strategy this means that:

  • Local stakeholders will be involved in commissioning in an ‘equal and meaningful way’, and people will be trusted to co-design the services they use.
  • ‘All the resources of a community’, including but not confined to public funding, will be deployed to tackle the community’s challenges.
  • Local policy-making collaborates across organisational silos and engages mutuals, social enterprises, community-based businesses, and charities.

While this approach is not new (we have already seen it used in the health context by CCGs), it’s welcome to see a focus on collaboration and a recognition that competition has not always resulted in the best outcomes or sustainable services.

How will this be achieved?

Increasing participation

Increasing participation in decision making is a key theme that runs through different strands of the strategy:

  • The government has promised to support the spread of Citizen Commissioners, who are local people supported to make commissioning decisions on behalf of communities. DCMS want to invest in a National Young Commissioners and Inspectors group to involve young people in commissioning, monitoring and evaluation of national programmes affecting young people.
  • The government will also invest in an Innovation in Democracy programme, testing various forms of participatory democracy including e.g. citizen juries.

For these approaches to be successful, the right support needs to be available to ensure that a diversity of people can be involved and have genuine power in decision making. So, government will need to draw upon the experience of local advocacy and user led organisations, who are often experts in coproduction and participation.

Extended public service mutuals 

The strategy wants to extend existing support for community-led and social organisations to deliver services through the ‘public service mutual’ model, which is thought to give a higher level of autonomy and reward to employees. This is not a new idea, as there was a big push for more public service mutuals in 2012, but previously the focus has been on ‘spin outs’ from the public sector.

An action plan on this programme of support will be subject to consultation, to take views especially on issues such as eligibility and national pay deals. The commitment to consult is a good thing, because there is mixed evidence of the success of the public service mutual model, with concerns around its suitability for certain services, and ensuring accountability and standards. For us, it will be important to investigate whether this model is of particular benefit to a variety of voluntary organisations and their beneficiaries.

Revival of grant making

The strategy wants to kick start a new era of grant making, ‘Grants 2.0’. To do this, government will:

  • Focus on promoting and sharing existing guidance, best practice and support for commissioners and civil servants including the Grants Functional Standard, a new learning package for civil servants, and the Grants Centre of Expertise.
  • Develop new guidance for all commissioners on grant-making to small and local charities, updating the DCMS guidance ‘Commissioning for social action’.

We are pleased to see a recognition of the value of grant making, especially because of the flexibility and security they can bring to voluntary organisations. But for public service delivery to be more accessible to a range of organisations, we will also need to see a commitment to move away from large aggregated contracts.

The strategy also makes a push for increased transparency of public sector grant making, with government committing to host a ministerial event to discuss how to get more grant funders committed to greater transparency. As members of the Open Government Civil Society Network, we strongly support these plans.

Strengthening Social Value

Strengthening social value is one of the major aims of the entire strategy, which ultimately wants the principles of the Social Value Act to be applied to the whole of government spending and decision making (goods and works as well as services).

This will be achieved in a number of ways:

  • Government will explore whether the Act could be applied to grant making and other areas of public decision making, such as community asset transfer.
  • All central government departments will be expected to apply terms of the Act to goods and works and to ‘account for’ rather than ‘consider it’ for new procurements.
  • DCMS will lead the way in applying wider remit to big projects.
  • All central government commercial buyers will be required to undertake training on how to take account of social value in commissioning and procurement. However, we would like to see training and support at a more local and devolved level as well to ensure the Act is used to its full potential.

The strategy also recognises that voluntary organisations tend to undersell their social value or the ‘additionality’ they bring, so government will publish a ‘guide to selling’ for voluntary organisations.

Developing new finance models

The strategy sets out government’s commitment to grow the use of Social Impact Bonds in mainstream local public services, and further the evidence base. Government will also work with partners to develop additional financial models for social enterprises which deliver public services.

We have long taken a cautious approach to social investment models, because there is still insufficient evidence on how accessible and helpful they are, especially for smaller organisations. So, the commitment to build the evidence base is welcome.

What else?

There are a number of other commitments that we will want to keep a watchful eye on, such as the Government’s promise to explore flexibility in contracts law and the underuse of Innovation Partnership Models, the idea of local ‘charters’ to further devolution to a more local level, and local support systems for our sector.

In the meantime, don’t forget all the resources on our Know How Non-Profit website on delivering public services, grants and social investment.

This entry was posted in Policy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Like this? Read more

Avatar photo Rebecca Young is a senior policy officer at NCVO, working primarily on public services and volunteering policy. Before joining NCVO, Rebecca led on mental health, housing and disability policy at the National Union of Students.

Comments are closed.