The civil society strategy: One year on

Today marks the first anniversary of the government’s civil society strategy.

Since its publication last summer, we’ve seen changes in the ministers in charge of civil society policy, as well as a necessary focus on all the departments’ resources and capacity on preparing for Brexit, most urgently for the event of no deal. And politically, as of last month we have a new government in charge.

All this has inevitably meant that the impetus that was initially behind the strategy, as well as its ambitions of setting a roadmap for the future of civil society, has somewhat been lost along the way.

But has this really been noticed? Are charities up and down the country asking themselves ‘what is happening with the civil society strategy?’.

Why a civil society strategy was needed

Let’s first take a step back in time and remind ourselves of why, when the then government announced its intention to develop a strategy for civil society, it was generally welcomed as a good thing.

The relationship between the voluntary sector and the government had been strained for a number of years. Some thought that the government was intent on silencing civil society, seeing developments such as the Lobbying Act and the anti-advocacy clause as direct and deliberate attacks on their campaigning role. Others felt that the government was simply ignoring them, or didn’t properly understand or consider civil society in its decision making. Either way, many firmly believed that there was a lack of real dialogue or engagement between government and civil society.

Against this background, a new civil society strategy that made clear to charities that they could 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, was a very positive announcement.

The progress so far

But from the start we were clear that, such positive announcements aside, implementation would be key. The real test would be embedding the strategy’s aspirations across government, ensuring expert charities are truly involved in policy-making, and that procurement processes work as well for smaller charities as they do for big outsourcing companies.

On some of the commitments in the strategy there has been some progress:

  • Funding has been made available to encourage more people to get involved in local issues, building on the promise to make it easier for people give back at a local level.
  • A new youth voice project has been launched, aimed at enabling young people aged 10-25 to shape national policy.
  • It has also been announced that a new youth charter is going to be developed, setting out a vision on how government will give young people a strong voice on the issues they care about.
  • Funding has been made available to expand training programmes for charities to improve digital skills, following the commitment to support charities to build their digital confidence.
  • A new £5m fund has been set up to create new places in groups such as police cadets, Scouts, Guides and faith-based organisations, building on the promise to work with uniformed youth groups to reach vulnerable young people and allow for expansion in deprived areas.

What still needs to happen

Despite the importance of these initiatives, they feel a bit piecemeal and fail to deliver the message that there is still a strategy that is being driven by the Office for Civil Society across all government departments, ensuring that civil society organisations are properly considered and engaged in policy making.

Some of the key commitments that would have helped enable this have not progressed. In particular, government is yet to renew its commitment to the principles of the Compact, as the strategy said it would. Nor has it convened a cross-government group to work with civil society to establish the principles of effective involvement in the policy-making process.

And it is disappointing to see that even the DCMS single department plan, the document that sets out a department’s priorities, has no mention of the civil society strategy.

As I said, it’s important to note with all of this that we are at the beginning of a new government and that means some things will inevitably be somewhat in limbo.

But it’s not unfair to say therefore that the ambition of setting out a long-term vision for the government’s work with civil society has not yet been realised. We are still missing a unifying thread across all government departments in their approach to civil society.

Is a civil society strategy still needed?

On the other hand, I would like to go back to my initial question: are civil society organisations on the ground missing these?

Or to put it differently: is the civil society strategy still what our organisations most need from their relationship with government?

So much has changed over the past year: the world around us seems much more uncertain and challenging. Communities across the country are facing unprecedented uncertainty and difficulties. They will be turning to charities and their local civil society organisations for help and support. Charities, which already play such an important role in helping individuals – including the hard to reach and the left behind – are likely to be needed more than ever.

So we need to recalibrate and ask ourselves if the civil society strategy is still fit for this greater purpose. My suspicion is that more needs to be done to support civil society in tackling some of the greatest challenges ahead, and enable it to develop new solutions.

 

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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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