Investment, independence and trust: hopes for the civil society strategy

What should civil society look like in 2030?

That’s the question we’ve been asked at events run by DCMS/Open Lab and NAVCA as part of the government's civil society strategy consultation.

I have been vocal about the need for good, strong, local voluntary and community sector infrastructure to enable civil society to thrive and build resilient, cohesive communities in an era where we have witnessed the demise of many ‘community anchor’ and infrastructure organisations at neighbourhood, local authority and regional level.

The survivors face increasing challenges to secure resources to fund their core existence, with some forced to go down the ’project and service delivery’ route to keep the ship afloat. This can and has in some cases compromised their ability to support and advocate for communities and to promote social action to strengthen communities.

If there is a drive at both central and local government level to build strong local, place based connections and citizens engaged in supporting their communities moving away from total dependency on the state then there must be a recognition that local VCSE  ‘community anchor’ and infrastructure organisations are a vital player and must be resourced.

I appreciate resources are scarce and this is an even more stark reality since the introduction of austerity, but not to recognise that investment in infrastructure will bring greater gains down the line is a very short sighted view. The civil society strategy provides an ideal opportunity to spell out the need to support local voluntary and community sector anchor and infrastructure organisations who act as connectors, brokers and gateway organisations into communities for the wider public and private sector. They also support positive change in their own communities and build local social action in addition to helping members of the community access vital support, resources and advocacy.

Many of these recommendations are reflected within the recent IPPR North Report Civil Society Support in the North of England part sponsored by VONNE.

As NAVCA’s response to the civil society consultation so clearly states; to build a truly diverse, dynamic, successful and sustainable Britain for the future we need to shift the balance much more towards the by and with citizens and communities and move away from the paternalistic model of the state and its agencies doing things to people and for people.

Infrastructure support for communities from local grassroots voluntary and community organisations is an essential component in shifting the balance. I urge government to heed the warning now otherwise these vital organisations will be gone, and once they are it takes a very long time to rebuild the local trust and ownership they bring.

In terms of partnerships between sectors - we have witnessed a fundamental change in the relationship between voluntary sector organisations and the public sector, in particular local government and health, due to the move towards a commissioning and procurement culture which has created a ‘master - servant’ relationship.

What we need going forward is to develop a more equal relationship, recognising and valuing each other’s strengths and building trust based commissioning and funding between the voluntary and statutory sectors as recommended in A Whole New World – Funding and Commissioning in Complexity.

Many public sector commissioners are keen to move towards a more trust based equal model but are hidebound by a disproportionately bureaucratic and risk averse system that requires radical overall.  Any future civil society strategy should have a clear set of objectives to tackle system barriers and create an environment whereby more trust based and equal relationships can thrive. Whatever happened to the The Public Services Programmed announced by Rob Wilson in 2016 and the plan to develop a placed based Public Service Incubator that helps small charities get commissioned which aimed to 'enable more small charities to access the public service market.’?

At the time we were told that government saw accessing the expertise of smaller charities as a key route to improving public services, enabling local people to solve local problems and ensuring that everyone can access public services that effectively address their needs.  The strategy also needs to set out clearly that the Social Value Act will be enforced and monitored robustly across all public sector commissioning bodies and that local commissioners and procurement teams need a greater understanding of ‘social value’, backed by a compulsory training programme co-produced with the VCSE.

At a wider level, many civil society organisations give a voice to those experiencing the greatest challenges and campaign to create a more equal and fair society. These organisations need to be supported and resourced and not restricted by unhelpful legislation such as the Lobbying Act. It is also essential that the independence of civil society is truly valued, respected and guarded. It is encouraging that Matt Hancock Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said last week:

'The business of civil society is society, and within the limits of charity law, you have the right to campaign, to persuade the public, and to press for change in the systems which affect the life of this country’.

I support ACEVO’s view that at the very least the strategy should seek to support a cross-government agreement stating that if charities are following their obligations under charity law and the Charity Commission’s Campaigning and political activity guidance for charities (CC9), they are unlikely to be in breach of Charity or Electoral Commission regulation. Longer term the Cabinet Office and DCMS should exert further pressure to reopen the conversation on amending the Lobbying Act, in line with Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts’ recommendations.