What should we expect from the civil society strategy?

During the week of the consultation deadline, ACEVO CEO Vicky Browning shares her thoughts on what the civil society strategy should mean for our sector.

Earlier this year Tracey Crouch, minister for civil society, announced a consultation on the formation of a civil society strategy, which she hopes will set the strategic direction for government engagement with our sector over the next 10 years. You can read ACEVO’s full response on our website, but for those who don’t fancy 24 pages, I’ve outlined our key messages below.

  1. The definition for civil society should not include for-profit organisations.

The government has asked for feedback on a definition of civil society that included for-profit companies with a social mission. Although I recognise that business can work alongside the more traditional charity sector and the new breed of social enterprises to create and enable more social good, I firmly believe that any organisation that generates income for profit, or for the benefit of shareholders, is fundamentally different to the ethical, moral and mission driven values which underpin not-for-profit organisations.

  1. Supporting and investing in leadership development will strengthen civil society and enable more people to take action on what matters to them.

I am lucky enough to spend a lot of my working life meeting and encouraging passionate civil society leaders with huge amounts of knowledge and expertise. Government support for current and future leaders through capacity building, investment in leadership development opportunities and more assistance with reinforcing leaders’ mental health and resilience would be an effective way of both protecting and increasing the impact of civil society.

  1. The current political and operating environment should enable civil society to fully participate in the process of policy making, legislative development and programme formation.

In other words, civil society must not be prevented from speaking truth to power. We will continue to urge the government to reopen the conversation on amending the Lobbying Act, and implement Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts’ recommendations. We would also like to see a universal ban of anti-advocacy clauses in government grants.

We would hope to see a strategy that is clear about future mechanisms of engagement across all government departments (not just DCMS) and involves civil society at the earliest stages of programme development.

  1. We’re calling for a fairer and more sustainable financing environment.

We’re encouraging the government to continue to provide grants through institutional funding mechanisms rather than commercial contracts. They provide flexibility, encourage innovation and ensure that smaller niche organisations, which have the skills and can offer value for money, are able to apply.

The commissioning model should be reworked so that the focus is on delivering social value and impact. The government should commit to extending the Social Value Act so that local authorities have to account for social value in their procurement.

  1. The strategy must recognise that diverse and inclusive organisations that reflect the communities they serve will be the most successful.

I feel strongly that civil society groups are able to best achieve their mission when they co-create their programmes, campaigns and policies with their supporters and/or beneficiaries. This requires committed teams and strong, generous leadership which focuses on achieving the best outcomes for beneficiaries. These outcomes may not always be the quickest to achieve or the cheapest to run in the short term, but focusing on impact and therefore the people, not the price, has to be the priority, and will in many cases lead to long-term cost-saving.

Should we be optimistic?

The short answer is yes, but with some caution. The engagement process has felt inclusive, but we won’t know how much listening has taken place until we see the strategy.

DCMS has encouraged and sought the views of all sorts of organisations through a variety of channels. And Tracey Crouch, who is leading on the strategy, continues to prove herself to be a friend to the sector, one who is interested in listening to and engaging with the knowledge and expertise it holds. This engagement with the sector should continue in a meaningful and positive way long after the strategy is published. It’s vital that the consultation process not become a box ticking exercise – one which ends up in the back of a filing cabinet.

Civil society is relied on more and more to deliver services that the public sector can’t and the private sector won’t. It advocates for those who sometimes cannot access support on their own. It campaigns to ensure a fairer, more socially just society across our regions, the UK and internationally. And it contributes enormously to positive engagement with arts, sport, faith and communities.

We deserve our own coherent, robust strategy: one that reflects the complexities and nuances of our sector and understands the crucial role that civil society plays in improving lives across society. It’s not enough to be heard; we must be listened to.


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