Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde

Former Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

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A Conservative vision for strengthening civil society

What’s in it for charities?

25 September 2020

Danny Kruger, MP has released the findings of his recent consultation with civil society on the role it can play in recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

Kruger, a former No. 10 political advisor who was instrumental in developing the Government’s 2018 Civil Society Strategy, was tasked with the review by Prime Minister Boris Johnson back in June. 

Government has decided not to publish this review, but the Prime Minister has responded positively to the report and many remain hopeful that the Government will take heed of the recommendations, which could help drive forward the “levelling up” agenda.

Kruger lays out his vision for a deal between government and communities called ‘the social covenant’ which is a ‘mutual commitment by citizens, civil society and the state, each to fulfil their discrete responsibilities and to work together for the common good’.

This covenant is based on four principles – embedding social and environmental purpose more into government policy and business activity; subsidiarity and inclusion; building on the strengths of communities; and renewed investment in social infrastructure.

We took a closer look at the report, which offers some interesting proposals on how to support and partner with civil society in tackling the pandemic crisis and rebuilding for the future.

The need for new infrastructure to harness informal volunteering & mutual aid

The report takes note of the immense outpouring of volunteering in the early days of the pandemic and beyond, with over 4000 mutual aid groups springing up in local communities during lockdown. It recognises the need to maintain support for this effort through the recovery phase, while observing that the type of support people need will change in nature and become more complex than in the initial response phase.

We have recently explored the role of mutual aid during the pandemic here at CAF, and highlighted a range of key issues we need to consider: for instance whether the recent surge of activity has been contingent on the unique context of the pandemic (e.g. that fact that large numbers of people were on furlough) or if represents a more fundamental shift, and whether new mutual aid groups will lead to the overall scale of social action increasing or whether they are at least in part doing work that otherwise would have been done by more traditional charities and voluntary groups.

The Kruger report highlights how a sense of connection and neighbourliness is essential for mutual aid and informal volunteering to emerge in the first place. Public authorities were able to harness some of it in the surge in activity during lockdown by reacting in more flexible and agile ways across service delivery and procurement, with what is being called ‘ethical rule-breaking’ in  light of the crisis. But there is also acknowledgement that we need better interfaces with functioning public services if this is to bring benefits over the longer term.

The report cites examples of hubs set up by councils that worked as an intermediary with civil society, as well as findings that ‘contact tracing is more successful, especially in vulnerable and marginalised communities, when public health professionals on the ground work in close partnership with local civil society.’

Danny Kruger MBE
Member of Parliament for Devizes

The role of technology and data for a better enabling environment for community action

Kruger makes some noteworthy recommendations around developing new official measures for the economic and social contribution of civil society and recognising the importance of cross-sectoral and comparable data on where funding goes and what it delivers. The work of existing sector efforts such as 360Giving is referenced, and there is a call for the ONS and NAO either to apply UN standards for measuring the value of non-profit and non-statutory activity, or to develop their own. There is also an ambition to deliver a cross-government data architecture that is fit for purpose and can account for civil society activity across the board (and to enable organisations that receive public funds to publish data along common standards in the same way).

There are also calls for new partnerships between tech companies and community infrastructure bodies to drive the digital transformation of civil society, and for big tech to support the digital infrastructure on which civil society increasingly relies by providing free open-source platforms and products and committing not to harvest data. It is good to see recognition of the growing dangers of platform dependency for CSOs (something we explored in a recent Alliance blog), but positing a solution that relies exclusively on the goodwill and “benevolence” of big tech companies, with little suggestion of how this would be achieved, will concern many. There is certainly room for the tech industry to work more closely with civil society and to help ensure that CSOs have a seat at the table when it comes to shaping the development of new technologies so that they benefit society and do not cause harm (something we have repeatedly called for here at CAF). However, it is increasingly clear that this cannot be seen as a replacement for appropriate legislation and regulation of the tech industry.The clear unequal power dynamics between CSOs and tech companies mean that in practice the ability of the former to influence the latter is  limited.

A renewed focus on place and investment in communities

There is a strong emphasis on place as a lens for policy-making in Kruger’s paper. This is perhaps unsurprising, as place was one of the core themes of the 2018 Government Civil Society Strategy (as we explored in a blog and podcast at the time) and has been an important part of Conservative thinking about the charity sector going back at least as far as the Big Society agenda of David Cameron’s government. Given that the importance of local connections has been highlighted more strongly than ever before during the response to the pandemic, it is good to see this front and centre in the Government’s approach and it resonates with the work CAF has been doing for a number of years looking at the potential for place-based giving and civic philanthropy.

The Kruger report outlines a number of policy ideas centred on place. These include revisiting ideas around community investment, including community-owned assets and social infrastructure that can serve as a connector between people, communities, institutions and businesses around common cause. The report, for example, recommends that Government should consult on strengthening the ‘Right to Bid’ for public assets by community organisations into ‘Right to Buy’. It also recommends bringing forward a £150 million Community Ownership Fund and expanding it with another £150m endowment from the NLCF that could support communities that want to exercise this new right and could also buy and hold community assets currently owned by community businesses if they are at risk due to the crisis.

There are proposals in the paper to further community organising by expanding the network of Social Action Hubs, as well as for Government to work with communities to analyse the need for further hubs and the potential for co-location with existing institutions such as banks and post offices in very remote areas. There are also calls for Government to reinvest into a revived and modernised version of Councils for Voluntary Service (CVS) which have withered away in the recent past.

Boosting giving and philanthropy

The report takes note of the established and strong culture of giving and philanthropy in the UK, but also states that the wealthy could give a lot more. There is acknowledgement of the importance of tax incentives for giving, in particular Gift Aid, although this remains rather vague – mentioning only the hope that ‘HM Treasury will engage seriously with the wealth and philanthropy sectors to see how greater philanthropy could be induced through changes to the tax system.’ CAF is  part of a large coalition of leading voices in UK charities calling for a temporary Gift Aid increase, potentially benefitting over 70,000 charities of all sizes and bringing an additional £450 million in support into the sector. It would have been good to see more support in the paper for practical ideas such as this, crucial as they are to realising the ambition of bringing much-needed additional philanthropic money into the sector at such a challenging time.

There are also further proposals to use levers beyond tax incentives: such as looking towards diaspora philanthropy, making use of match-funding and partnering with the philanthropic sector and academia to design campaigns and opportunities that attract philanthropic investment as well as using public funds to match private efforts. Many of these are positive suggestions that would benefit from further development into policy proposals.  However other ideas put forward in the paper – such as using money from the international development budget to match fund philanthropic donations in order to attract wealthy donors and thereby boost London’s status as a philanthropic hub – are likely to set alarm bells ringing for many who are already concerned that too much aid and development money is already being diverted away from its intended purpose.

The Kruger report makes reference to the idea of a new national civic crowdfunding programme as was proposed by SpaceHive, which could increase community infrastructure investments by pooling private giving and funding from local authorities for projects. This chimes with some of our thinking at CAF on the potential of ‘civic philanthropy’ in regenerating many towns, cities and regions around the UK which have suffered a long-term post-war decline as traditional industry and manufacturing have disappeared. We have recently released as set of reports detailing the findings from the Growing Place-Based Giving Fund, which CAF delivered on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), and will be continuing to explore some of these ideas.

Increasing community investment is also at the heart of the recommendation for Government to establish a £500 million Community Recovery Fund, financed through the defunct National Fund. This echoes a call CAF made in our recent Covid-19 Philanthropy Stimulus Package to explore ways of accessing the resources currently locked up in the National Fund to support civil society in these times of crisis, so we are encouraged to see further momentum behind this idea, albeit with the caveat that there may still be some significant legal hurdles to making this happen.

What’s next?

After the short-lived Big Society project and the more recent Civil Society Strategy, this is another important milestone in terms of articulating the Conservatives’ policy roadmap for communities, social investment, the role of business, philanthropy and the voluntary sector. And the report certainly contains plenty in terms of suggestions for innovative approaches that could drive public and private philanthropic investment, as well as ideas for initiatives that could generate civil society support and engagement with community renewal and self-help, such as a new system that helps to more effectively match volunteer supply and demand; Neighbour Day’ as a new bank holiday for people to engage with local activities; and a new system that makes it easier for community groups to register with the Charity Commission.

However, as with previous iterations of these kinds of “big vision” documents, the real test comes in  filling in the details of broader policy ideas and closing the gap between rhetoric and reality. This means that the ball is now in Government’s court to take these proposals on board and turn them into reality – including providing funding where necessary. Given the scale of the current crisis, this needs to happen sooner.

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