The Government’s highly anticipated Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone sets out a wide range of principles and initiatives that it says will shape the relationship between charities and government and underline the role that the charity sector plays in society. The strategy is full of encouraging statements that recognise the value and contribution of civil society, for example Tracey Crouch, minister for sport and civil society, said:
“I have never seen civil society as a luxury partner, but as an essential partner that can deliver services with much more value than the state can provide.”
Let us hope that behind these warm words there is a real intention to invest, empower and strengthen civil society, including the infrastructure that supports it.
Promising plans include the intention to devote £35 million of dormant accounts funding and develop new models of community funding; commitments to support corporate social responsibility; improve the take-up of the Social Value Act; and renewed commitments to the use of grants and the principles of the Compact.
Crouch graciously acknowledges that the “sector faces enormous challenges” and that working in partnership “across central government, local government and private sector” is key.
The strategy is broken down into 5 pillars: People, Place, the Social Sector, (defined as charities and social enterprises), Private Sector and the Public Sector.
The government’s vision is for all people to be able to thrive, connect with each other, and give back to their communities. It has committed to build on the Place Based Social Action programme and Communities Fund.
There is a commitment to fund the training of 3500 more community organisers. Let us hope that there is recognition that community organisers need to be supported and sustained in order to be effective. Past initiatives have increased capacity in communities in the short term but this is often lost long term due to lack of sustained support and resourcing at local level. I question if training another batch of organisers in an era of austerity and reduced resource for local infrastructure organisations and voluntary groups is a good idea.
To support community action there is emphasis on the value of self-efficacy and DCMS commits to explore how to put it at the heart of programme evaluation. Government will work with funders on the Good Help Programme which aims to ensure that when people have contact with public services this empowers them to take action and increase their sense of control over their lives.
I fear that it will require significantly more than this to drive a culture change in the public sector to play a more enabling role with those they support.
The place based approach is evident within the Strategy and the vision is that in the future the public sector will focus more on the needs of places and take a more collaborative approach.
There is reference to continuing initiatives that will create opportunities for civil society and communities, such as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, Local Industrial Strategies and Local Enterprise Partnerships.
We have yet to see the final shape of the Shared Prosperity Fund but we are hopeful that the work of the NCVO/ERSA post-EU Working Group, the national cross sector group developing a set of design principles for the Shared Prosperity Fund, which includes VONNE, will influence the final form.
- Renewing its commitment to the Compact, which sets out a series of principles and commitments governing the relationship between the sector and government.
- Working with civil society, the Electoral Commission and the Charity Commission to explore what non-legislative steps could strengthen civil society’s confidence in speaking out.
- Establishing a cross-government group to work with civil society on policy-making, as well as working with civil society and the Charity Commission to increase diversity among trustees.
- Releasing at least £20 million from inactive charitable trusts to help community organisations and to continue to explore opportunities, working with sector partners, to make access to funding and finance easier, particularly for the small ‘social sector’ and community organisations. This includes exploring how best to use and embed digital in the sector.
- In response to research identifying the need to invest in key skills for both trustees and leaders in ‘social sector organisations‘, there is a commitment to convene civil society stakeholders to ‘explore the potential for a common vision and mission’ for strengthening leadership of social sector organisations and the potential for specific government interventions. This does not go as far as it could as there is no firm commitment to resourcing any upskilling or leadership development.
The government’s vision for public services is one of collaborative commissioning. This will take the form of expanding alternative commissioning models including the scale of the use of social impact bonds and development of ‘additional financial models’ for social enterprises which include non–repayable capital grants once an enterprise is profitable and equity investment.
Government will also explore whether more can be done to encourage contracting authorities to use the Innovation partnership model and work directly with delivery partners to develop innovative projects and services as this is currently not being used.
There is a responsibility for the Crown Representative for VCSE to champion improvement in commission gig practice and reference to an awareness campaign to encourage use of Contracts Finder and Mystery Shopper services to promote early engagement and co-design and hold authorities to account for poor practice. It will be interesting to see how this pan out in practice and how local authorities are held to account.
However, as NAVCA have identified there is no reference to what Government will do to protect VCSE providers and local communities in the face of system failure as seen recently in Northamptonshire.
In order to broaden the range of funding options for community initiatives and introduce a more proportionate attitude to risk it is encouraging to hear of the planned revival of grant-making, through “Grants 2.0” and the introduction of the Grants Functional Standard to support this, which will set out minimum grant standards for general grants for all public bodies including mandatory training on proportionate grant management for grant managers and annual compliance checks.
The strategy commits to increasing social value commissioning across all levels of government and improving the use of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. There is a move to ensure central government departments apply the terms of the act to goods and works and to ‘account for’ rather than simply ‘consider’ social value of new procurements. Government will explore the use of social value in grants in addition to contracts and whether the act should be extended to planning and asset transfer.
In practical terms, on the issue of commissioning skills and training around social value, the government commits to continue to encourage public authorities to support learning and development of commissioning skills and understanding of social value but it is unclear to what extent they will measure and evaluate social value.
In conclusion there is much to be welcomed in this new strategy but it will be interesting to see how it is received and embedded across government and if it goes beyond ‘exploring’ potential solutions and results in real system change and appropriate investment