The OCS should champion the things charities do better than the state

Earlier this week Sir Stephen Bubb of Acevo said the Office for Civil Society had lost its way. Asheem Singh,  director of public policy at Acevo, outlines what he believes the OCS should be concentrating on.

Of what use is the Office for Civil Society? This was a question begged in these pages on Monday. It’s a very good question. What does it do? The government itself appears to be confused. 

On the one hand the headcount at the OCS is being cut – to what level finally we do not know but it’ll certainly be considerably fewer than the 50 people it used to have. 

Yet this at the same time as it has been awarded several £100s of millions to extend social income bonds and National Citizen Service. No bad thing you might say. But it doesn’t stack up. More money – fewer staff. So what money and commitment is there from government to support the rest of the sector, outside its current limited remit of social investment and youth volunteering?

There’s not an obvious answer to this question. And that’s disappointing because the OCS was meant to be the champion of the entire sector’s interest, crossing departmental divides and placing charities at the heart of delivering a range of public services.

In response to the question begged by our chief executive, here on Civil Society News, the minster, Rob Wilson, retorted: “Some people have been saying very recently that the Office for Civil Society is ‘hollowed out’. All I can say is that those people are going to look very silly in a few weeks’ time when we announce our forthcoming plans.”

Well, I hope these forthcoming plans include a new contract between the government, charities and the people they both serve. A contract which can deliver hundreds of billions of savings but deliver services which would transform people’s lives.

And there is a roadmap. The charity leaders’ network Acevo recently published its keynote policy report ‘Remaking the State’. This was delivered by Acevo’s Commission into Delivering Public Services, co-chaired by journalist and academic Will Hutton and the chief executive of the St Giles Trust Rob Owen.

‘Remaking the State’ contains real solutions to key challenges. At its heart is the principle of placing people rather than process at the heart of service delivery. And within a framework which would leave the nation’s finances in a far healthier condition.

Achieving a more robust exchequer does not require the dynamiting of Whitehall or County Hall, rather the simple application of what sensible families have known forever – that prevention is better than cure. 

Rob Owen’s own organisation, the St Giles Trust, showed how much better when it was commissioned by the Ministry of Justice to participate in the ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ programme. The work done by the St Giles Trust has been independently audited by Frontier Economics which established that for every pound spent by the St Giles Trust, ten pounds was saved further down the line in, say, future court or prison costs.

This is why Remaking the State calls for government to reverse its policy of recent years over which it has slashed spending on preventative services by up to 45 per cent. Rather government should adopt a ‘Five for the Future’ policy – five per cent of the government’s overall spending should be allocated to preventative services.  

Five per cent spent now – around £45bn – would save hundreds of billions in future in welfare, education, justice and health costs. And as those savings become more and more evident that allocation should rise to ten per cent of Government spending.

Remaking the State further calls for a Public Services Constitution. This would be a contract between the state and its citizens. It would detail the expectations that individuals would have, both in the delivery of their services and their involvement in the construction of those services. This would rebalance the relationship between the state and citizen. Currently the balance is state–heavy – the state dictates to people rather than working with them.

This constitution would have teeth. It would enable people who collectively have been failed by the state to take out a super-complaint against the policy-makers and/or service deliverers and an independent adjudication would issue the means of redress. 

The Work Programme springs to mind as an example of myopic policy failure – particularly for those on Employment and Support Allowance. People who have been parked in a system where universal solutions are applied to a kaleidoscope of needs. A Work Programme which gets only 5 per cent of people into sustainable employment needs to be reborn.

Those furthest from the labour market need help from those best placed to help them. But as things stand the third sector organisations which have the closest understanding of local and individual circumstances are effectively barred from providing public services. Only the monolithic private sector companies have the means to bid for public service contracts geared towards one-size fits all, target-driven mass economies of scale.

These are false economies of scale when compared to the prevention route. Take health – NHS England believe that £30 billion a year is lost through lack of patients’ engagement with their own health and Action for Children say £486 billion would be saved over 20 years with a wider programme of early intervention.

So with questions hanging over the efficacy of the Office for Civil Society, I submit now is the time for the government to revisit David Cameron’s original vision of a Big Society, a vision he can retrieve if he adopts the blueprint set out in Remaking the State. A blueprint which frees us from the crippling observance of imperatives driven by a medium-term electoral cycle and allows the strategic and compassionate delivery of services to replace impersonal crisis-led delivery.

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