Thriving, independent and diverse: A government strategy for civil society

Building on the strengths of civil society

At NCVO, we think that a thriving, independent and diverse civil society is key to the future success of our country. Civil society isn’t just about the good things in life – it is the basis for a successful economy, and a healthy democracy. So we’re pleased to see the government’s ambition to develop a civil society strategy so that it can better support the actions of millions of people who every day make a difference to the causes that they believe in.

There is much to build on. The British people are incredibly generous. We have a proud tradition of helping others, giving time and money, sharing skills and coming up with new ways to solve problems. Whether it’s helping to look after a local park, providing advice on mental health or helping out with sports for children, we come together through charities and community groups. Together, we work on the issues we care about, pursue the interests we enjoy and help change our communities, country and world for the better. At NCVO, we think people getting involved, whether it is pursuing their interests or helping others, are among our country’s biggest assets. The civil society strategy can help build on this.

There is also much to do. If we want more people to participate more of the time, we need to make it easier to get involved. If we want civil society to play a bigger role in providing the services that people rely upon, we need to find new ways to build sustainability and resilience that bring in new resources and partners. And if we want people to have a greater say in what goes on in their communities, we need to make getting involved more worthwhile and really enable people to make a bigger impact. The Strategy can help to achieve these aspirations.

NCVO’s response

Our response to the engagement exercise that will inform the strategy can be found here. It’s a long document – government has asked a lot of questions! – so if you prefer, you can find our introduction and a summary of our recommendations here.

Principles for working with civil society

We’re mindful that this is informing the development of a strategy: in this case, a guiding template for decisions that government wishes to make over the next decade. To that end, we think that some guiding principles should help to shape and inform how government relates to civil society in the future. Ours are here:

  1. Celebrate and reward civic participation throughout government policy and regulation. Government should always err towards policies that make it easier for people to get involved in their communities, whether that is their interest or where they live. Conversely, it should ask whether policy proposals might inhibit greater participation.
  2. Recognise and uphold the importance of a thriving, independent and diverse civil society. The strategy should enshrine and promote across all government departments the principle that clubs and societies, charities and social enterprises have a right to campaign, regardless of any relationship they have with the state or business.
  3. Practise informed and meaningful engagement with civil society. Civil society can help government make a bigger impact by helping to involve people and communities in the design of policies, programmes and services. The strategy should champion across government the benefits of working with civil society to involve people and communities in policy development, and commit to meaningful consultation and feedback.
  4. Create a legal and tax framework that enhances the sustainability of civil society. The strategy should start from the principle that government can use the legal and tax framework to encourage and support civil society. Giving and philanthropy, volunteering and social action – private action for public benefit – relieves the state and should be encouraged. The strategy should also enshrine the need for proportionate regulation, minimising the burden on small organisations in particular.
  5. Focus the strategy on what government should – and shouldn’t do. Any strategy that seeks to direct or shape civil society is likely not to work. Equally, any strategy that focuses only on the service delivery role is likely to disappoint. The strategy can achieve its purpose if it stands back and recognises that civil society is a good thing in and of itself. It should focus on what government can do to encourage, support and engage civil society: enable people and communities, and their organisations, to make a bigger difference.

We view our response to the strategy consultation as the starting point of a dialogue that all too often has been missing in recent years. We believe government will find organisations across civil society that are ready and eager to help shape the future of our country – sometimes in opposition, sometimes in agreement, always in pursuit of what they believe a good society looks like, always underpinned by a desire to benefit the public. We hope that the strategy provides a framework for engagement and dialogue, and for policy development across government. We look forward to engaging in more detail with regard to more specific policies as the framework shapes government’s thinking in future years.

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