Building a civil society?

The government launched its Civil Society Strategy in mid August. It’s a welcome refocus on the ideas that underpinned the Big Society and has similarly grand ambitions: enriching lives and creating a fairer society by building thriving communities.

The Third Sector – and big charities in particular – have had a tough time of it recently. Scandals involving safeguarding of staff and beneficiaries, sharing of data and aggressive fundraising tactics have come on top of nearly a decade of government spending cuts and squeezed households budgets. Last year, over £10 billion was given to UK charities but those donations came from fewer people. With the state – and local government in particular – engaged in a hasty retreat from service provision there is a sense of growing need for charities to deliver with less and less resource.

From my perspective, as CEO of a small charity engaged in supporting some of the most marginalised people in Norfolk and Suffolk AND as a County Councillor, I was looking for four things from the government’s new strategy. First, a culture change around the commissioning of services by the state (by local councils and the NHS in particular). The government has the provisions of the Social Value Act to work with here but it needs to push for a real culture change among commissioners so that third sector providers are given positive, pro-active support to bid for work. Secondly, the government needs to provide direct support for innovation and collaboration in the sector. As I said in my submission to the Civil Society Strategy review:

Part of an effective commissioning model has to be an in-built tolerance of failure. In private sector market environments, entrepreneurs set up, enter a market and occasionally fail leaving assets behind them such as the skills and experiences learned that others can benefit from. In a state-funded commissioning environment using VCSE providers there is a double terror of failure. First the VCSE actors are risk averse and mission-driven so they are less willing to enter markets that might carry a high risk of failure. Secondly commissioners are also risk averse and afraid of public criticism of wasted taxpayer money if a supplier or a project goes bust. The most obvious way to solve this is to provide local innovation funds accessible to small charities and social enterprises.

My third priority was to stress that the trend towards Social Prescribing as a way of delivering health care must not become a way of off-loading costs on to charities. As an approach, it has huge potential to transform lives. But it must be backed up with funds to ensure that community groups and the voluntary sector has the capacity to deliver the services that are demanded of it in a sustainable way.

Finally, the government must not lose sight of the needs of rural areas. The experience in Norfolk is that spending cuts have led to a retreat of service provision back on to urban areas. With a growing population of older people and concerns about loneliness and social isolation, there has to be a recognition that we cannot deliver fully accessible services in rural areas without them being backed up with the investment of hard cash.

The new strategy has great potential. It aims to enable people to have a lifetime of contribution and it aims to empower communities. To do that effectively it needs to ensure that local decision makers in councils, the NHS, LEPs etc understand the contribution of the charity sector to the life and economy of their area. And they need to ensure that local and national programmes are geared towards investing in building the capacity of charities and community groups to change people’s lives.