The civil society strategy: What it says about digital

Earlier this month the government published its new civil society strategy, which set out its long-term plans to work with civil society to build stronger communities and create a fairer society. NCVO has produced a series of blog posts looking at specific aspects of the strategy such as funding, volunteering, public services, campaigning, regulation and impact. This blog looks at what the strategy says about digital solutions, technologies and data.

Celebrating digital

The civil society strategy celebrates the opportunities brought by digital technologies throughout: In the 122 page long document, digital is mentioned 139 times, in comparison volunteer(ing) is mentioned 48 times and public service(s) 70 times. In particular, the strategy recognises the potential of digital technologies to “enable strong communities”, “transform society for the better” and “help solve some of the most pressing social challenges”. Improving the use of digital technologies and ‘tech for good’ are two of the missions outlined in the strategy.

The strategy acknowledges that the sector already frequently demonstrates good practice in this area and presents some examples where charities are successfully using digital apps, tools and campaigning to improve their reach and impact. Despite those success stories, the strategy states that there is a lot more that can be done to increase the use of digital technology by civil society. Unsurprisingly, many tech for good leaders welcomed the government’s recognition and plans around digital.

Government’s plans to strengthen the use of digital

Supporting and investing in voluntary organisations

Some of government’s major plans for improving the use of digital in civil society are outlined in Mission 9: A social sector confident with digital. While acknowledging issues around digital exclusion and the skills gap in the sector, government firstly commits to implement measures from the Digital Economy Act to ensure communities are connected and have access to high quality, fast, digital services. The strategy also sets out various plans to invest in digital skills and leadership, including

  • continuing to work through the Digital Skills Partnership
  • continuing to support the establishment of Local Digital Skills Partnerships
  • supporting the development of a for charity leaders and trustees
  • working with the sector to deliver a #DigitalTrustees campaign.

It further wants to support the cultural sector by creating a digital culture network and developing a digital maturity index for cultural organisations.

Growing the tech for good sector

The government outlines the importance of the private sector, as well as the voluntary sector, in developing technology solutions to tackle some of the social and environmental issues society is facing. The strategy points out the various ways in which government has already supported the tech for good sector, including the funding of social tech venture accelerators, the launch of a Fintech For All Competition and the setup of a £20m GovTech Catalyst Fund.

The strategy outlines how the government is committed to facilitating partnerships between technology experts and civil society, enhancing growth of innovations to tackle society’s challenges, improving and simplifying access to funding for social tech ventures, including government procurement and private investments. However, most of the future activities are not well defined, and are more akin to exploring and reviewing exercises.

Promoting open grants data

The government acknowledges access to open data “will be an important part of developing the ecosystem”. As a result, government plans to increase transparency of public sector grant making by publishing its grants data in an open, standardised format in line with the 360 Giving Standard and to integrate a further commitment to this into the next National Action Plan. To date, the 360 Giving Standard is used by 85 funders including government bodies, local councils, community foundations, corporate foundations and grant makers. The government is also committed to encouraging other funders to publish their grant data, and to hosting a ministerial event with key sector partners to discuss how to work more strategically together on this.

What it doesn’t say about digital

Although it is great to see that government wants to support charities in becoming more confident in using digital technologies and to help grow the tech for good sector, it feels a bit like a missed opportunity to not acknowledge and seek to address the potentially negative uses and impacts of digital technology. In light of the spread of  ‘fake news’ online, claims around election manipulations and the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, to name just a few, questions around the ethical use of data and technology have become more pressing than ever. This was highlighted in NCVO’s Road Ahead publication earlier this year.

The last budget saw the UK government announce the creation of the Centre for Data Ethics and is currently inviting consultation responses. Despite the role of civil society in addressing the societal impacts and unintended consequences of digital innovations, nothing of this gets mentioned in the strategy.

Government could have used the strategy to promote and grow the representation of civil society organisations in the digital technology sector, for example in expert and advisory groups in which they are currently under represented.

NCVO offers a range of digital support to charities, for example we took over responsibility for the Digital Maturity Matrix earlier this year, and it is available to any charity that wants to use it. We also share our expertise via the Know How Non Profit website and offer members a number of discounts for digital services from our trusted suppliers.

 

 

 

 

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Lisa Hornung Lisa Hornung is a senior data and research analyst in the research team at NCVO. She leads on the data collection, analysis and communication of the UK Civil Society Almanac. More widely, she helps to ensure that NCVO remains at the forefront of voluntary sector data collection and analysis.

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