We’ve got the style: now what about the substance?

Like many others, I was off work enjoying time with my family when the Civil Society Strategy was launched. I am a firm believer that only a genuine crisis should interrupt precious holiday time and, somewhat thankfully, the Civil Society Strategy was not crisis inducing. However, it wasn’t particularly inspiring either.

That isn’t to say that the strategy is without strengths. The decision to bring in a former civil society chief executive Danny Kruger as an advisor is to be applauded. His knowledge and respect for the sector is evident throughout the document, and the strategy touches on a lot of issues that are top of mind for charity leaders at the moment: digital, commissioning, diversity, grant funding. The strategy feels relevant and the way in which the strengths, challenges and shortcomings of the sector are described is measured and astute. However, it’s an indictment of the quality of previous government interventions that a document written by people who clearly respect and understand the role of civil society is seen as a refreshing change rather than a basic minimum.

Looking beyond tone and topics to content, what commitments does the strategy contain? The answer is not many. The document is peppered with the terms ‘explore’, ‘consider’ and ‘support’, there are relatively few commitments and even fewer with a timescale or budget attached. This is not unexpected considering that Tracey Crouch, the minister for sport and civil society, has been clear from the outset that there is little money available and no space in the legislative agenda. With this in mind, was a vision document that makes clear the value of civil society, and the government’s support of it, the best we could expect?

Writing in the Huffington Post, John Tizard warned that the strategy will be “as hollow and vacuous” as Big Society without “policy, new money and action.” Taking a more positive approach, David Robinson, CEO of Community Links, wrote that the “strategy sets out a path towards reconfiguring and rebalancing power and responsibility on all sides.” The strategy could be Big Society 2.0 or it could be a genuine first step at reimagining the relationship between government and civil society, but at the moment no-one can say with certainty which way it will go.

The crucial question, and the one that we don’t yet have an answer to, is whether the strategy is just warm words designed to placate, or the beginning of a real shift in the relationship between civil society and government?

I am cautious. The strategy itself says that communities need to be financially stable to thrive, and yet we know that many communities are buckling under the pressure of local authority cuts and increased demand (as the Quiet Crisis report from the Lloyds Bank Foundation highlighted recently). How will communities and the civil society organisations that are a part of them survive without investment? And why is what little investment there is being directed at creating two new organisations to tackle youth unemployment and financial exclusion rather than investing in local communities directly?

The announcement of £145 million of funding for the two organisations is made in a section which also says: ‘A central plank of both strategies is the recognition that the people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them.’ Surely this money would be better spent supporting and growing local, user-led charities rather than investing in the creation of two brand new bodies? As Julia Unwin wrote in Civil Society the “key question for the government is whether they mean what they say: is their interest only in giving people ‘a sense of’ control? Or do they actually mean that they want to give people control?”

There are some other red flags which indicate that significant change is not in the pipeline. There is a welcome focus on the role of charity campaigning, but no commitment to reforming the Lobbying Act or removing gagging clauses from government grants. In fact the strategy doubles down on the line that taxpayers’ money should not be spent on political lobbying. Why the continued distinction between finding a cure for medical ills and social ills? Most taxpayers would agree that money should be spent on treating the symptoms of cancer and working to find a cure. Similarly, the purpose of campaigning is to find cures that can end social harms; this can be done alongside treating the symptoms of an unjust society.

It is reassuring that Tracey Crouch has said that “there is a lot of stuff still to do”, and writing on Twitter Danny Kruger describes the strategy as “the start not end of a process and part of a conversation among equals.” ACEVO hopes to be part of those conversations, and we have identified the following items in the Civil Society Strategy we will seek to be involved with in order to represent our members’ views:

  • The government will convene key civil society stakeholders over the next year to explore the potential for a common vision and mission for strengthening the leadership of social sector organisations.
  • Government will convene a cross-government group to work with civil society to establish the principles of effective engagement in the policy-making process.
  • The government will work with civil society, the Electoral Commission and the Charity Commission to explore what other non-legislative steps could strengthen civil society’s confidence in its campaigning and advocacy role.
  • Government will this year establish a responsible business leadership group … It will comprise senior business leaders, investor leaders and social sector representatives.

Further to this, we will continue to be involved in discussions about the release and deployment of dormant assets, and call for any work on improving diversity in trustee positions to be extended to CEO and senior leadership roles.

The strategy repeatedly defined the role of the government in civil society as that of a convenor. The government must start convening imminently in order to create greater belief and trust in the strategy. Warm words may soothe but they are not enough. It is action that will bring the strategy to life and it is action that we are ready for.

Our policy team has written a briefing covering key topics in the strategy. If there are particular areas members would like to discuss, please contact us.

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