The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport this month published the Civil Society Strategy. The Strategy, the first in fifteen years, details the Government’s vision for how Government can support and develop civil society in the UK to grow and tackle the issues society faces today, such as homelessness, healthy ageing and online safety.
The Government defines Civil Society as ‘individuals and organisations when they act with the primary purpose of creating social value, independent of state control. By social value we mean enriched lives and a fairer society for all.’
The strategy states that social value comes from communities, and from five foundations of social value:
- The Social Sector
- The Private Sector
- The Public Sector
Each ‘foundation’ has a dedicated chapter in the strategy.
The Government states that it does not believe the Strategy should work as a final or fixed statement on their policies, and should be seen instead as an ‘evolving work programme’. As such, there aren’t any strong policy commitments in the document.
One of the larger announcements from the strategy is the promise of £165m in funds taken from dormant bank accounts and charitable trusts to support community foundations, set up organisations to get disadvantaged people into employment, and tackle financial exclusion.
Tasks the Government commits itself to include: support for volunteering and community action, investment and empowerment of people in places, a new model of commissioning public services including a focus on services delivered locally by organisations owned by staff, the community or service users, catalysing more social impact investment and developing new community investment models, and supporting the spread of digital tools for connectivity.
A return to big society thinking?
A big theme of the Strategy is that ‘the complex challenges facing society cannot be solved by the Government alone, but by bringing together the energy and resources available across society.’ Many commentators noted the return of Cameron-esque ‘Big Society’ thinking, whereby charities and the private sector play a heavier role in communities and solving social problems.
The document suggests that Government sees its role in Civil Society as one of a coordinator: ‘the convenor of the emerging coalition of people and organisations which, together, have the answers to the challenges of our times. This means leading the debate about the future social model our country needs, coordinating investment, tracking data on what works, and most of all, ensuring people themselves are at the heart of the system we are building together.’
Despite the length of the strategy and the breadth of subjects discussed, the Government purposefully does not strongly commit to any substantial policy change. For this reason, reaction to the strategy in the third sector has been muted. Whilst there is a welcome recognition that this strategy marks the first time in a long time there has been a comprehensive look at civil society strategy, arguably the lack of clear commitments and a preference instead for a ‘living and breathing document’ has disappointed some.
For instance, ACEVO said: ‘We look forward to continuing to work with government and our members to make sure this “living and breathing” document helps us build a stronger civil society’, but they also mention that there are some areas which they would like the Government to review again, namely reform of the Lobbying Act.
Elizabeth Chamberlain, Head of Public Policy and Services at NCVO said: ‘With parliament in recess and right in the middle of the summer holidays, it seems an odd time to launch something that will inform government’s relationship with civil society for the next decade.’
‘Even the initially exciting statements about funding from dormant accounts, after a memory refresh (or a quick Google search) turn out to be old news.’
‘We would like to have seen more detail in some areas: in particular how the government intends to approach dormant assets and the role that community endowments can play in providing a long-term sustainable funding source… unfortunately this ‘strategy’ lacks the long-term commitments and principled approach that upgrade it from being merely a plan.’
The Chief Executive of the Charity Finance Group, Caron Bradshaw, said that whilst there are some positives in the strategy, she was ‘disappointed that it doesn’t go further’ and that there is a need to see cross-government support for the sector.
Claire Godfrey, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Bond shared ACEVO’s concerns about the failure to reform the Lobbying Act. She said: ‘We welcome the offer to work with civil society, regulators and other government departments to determine how to support advocacy and campaigning in the UK, but this is not enough’. 
The Civil Society Strategy can be accessed here.
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