Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

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INITIAL THOUGHTS ON THE CIVIL SOCIETY STRATEGY

9 August 2018

Midnight on a Wednesday evening in August doesn’t seem like the obvious time to release a major government document, so it was probably with some surprise that many greeted the news that the Government’s Civil Society Strategy slipped out last night just after pub closing time.

This document is billed as “the first civil society strategy in 15 years”, and has been eagerly awaited by many who had contributed thoughts and ideas through the Civil Society Strategy consultation processes (us included). But does the manner in which it came out suggest cause for concern?

Well, having read through the whole thing a couple times now, the good news is that there is certainly no need to be gloomy. However, anyone in civil society might want to keep the champagne (or more likely supermarket own brand prosecco in these times of frugality) on ice for now.

There is certainly a lot of very positive stuff in the document (and a lot is not an understatement: at 123 pages, this is a hefty beast). However, as one might expect from a strategy, there are plenty of declarations of ambition but in most cases the details of how they will be delivered are less clear. There are also announcements of funding scattered throughout the document - but as is so often the case, many of these are in fact things that have been previously announced, so it is difficult to determine what is actually new.

To that end, here’s an initial overview of some of the key things we picked up in the document, in terms of what’s missing, what’s new, what’s good, and what might be a cause for concern. (We’ll come back and analyse some of the specifics in more detail over the next few weeks).

1 IT IS GOOD TO HAVE A STRATEGY

It is important to say up front that simply having a published government civil society strategy of this kind is a good thing, regardless (up to a point) of the details. The mere existence of the document, and the fact it is liberally sprinkled with comment pieces from ministers across government, sends out a strong positive message about the value that the government places in civil society. While there are many tangible things government can do to support charities and civil society organisations in the form of funding, legislation and so on; the tone government sets through its messaging is a vital element of ensuring that the environment for civil society is positive and healthy. So a big tick for this one.

2 CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AND YOUNG PEOPLE

The first of the five key themes identified in the strategy is “People”, and a big part of this section focuses on new ways of helping people and communities to address their own needs and engage with public services and the democratic process. Given the challenges we have seen in recent times in terms of societal division and the erosion of democratic norms, this is hugely important. Civil society has a major role to play in addressing these challenges (its always worthwhile to hark back to The Nathan Committee of 1952 on this point, which stated that voluntary organisations were “the nursery school of democracy”). It is good to see this role recognised by government.

The other key focus of the ‘People’ section is on engaging young people. It’s sometimes easy to dismiss this kind of thing as just an easy “the children are our future” sort of truism, but that would be a mistake. Given the concerns highlighted above about social division and the erosion of civic space, and the evidence that younger people may not identify with traditional organisations and institutions in the same way that previous generations did, it is vital to understand these trends and to engage with young people if we are to overcome these challenges in the longer term.

3 CIVIC PHILANTHROPY AND PLACE-BASED FUNDING

The second key theme in the strategy is “Place”. This has been a strong area of focus in civil society and the public sector in recent times, as place-based approaches in funding, philanthropy and public service delivery have become all the rage. We are particularly pleased to see specific acknowledgment of the potential for a new wave of civic philanthropy in the UK, as this reflects the thinking behind our Giving for the City project (and indeed, if you will allow a brief moment of professional pride, our submission to the Civil Society Strategy consultation is directly quoted in support of this point. Ahem.) This section also contains one of the few genuinely new funding announcements: over £750K to support the growth of place-based giving schemes, which - if targeted effectively – could play a vital catalytic role.

In addition to philanthropy, there is also a lot on the role of new funding models for local areas; such as social investment or crowdfunding. we have, for the last 20 years, supported many innovative local models such as Community Land Trusts through our social investment arm, CAF Venturesome, so we definitely recognise the power and potential that these approaches have to transform local areas. Any efforts to make them more accessible for a wider range of organisations and communities are to be welcomed.

4 ADVOCACY AND CAMPAIGNING

One of the most positive things about the strategy is the clear statement it makes about the value and importance of the voice of civil society, expressed through campaigning and advocacy. This is something that CAF has long championed. We spoke out strongly about the dangers of the Lobbying Act, and one of the key themes of my book Public Good by Private Means a few years ago was the fact that the campaigning role of civil society has throughout history been at least as important as its service delivery role (if not more so), and that it must be protected as a vital element of a healthy democracy.

Having explicit government support for this principle is extremely encouraging, as is the recognition that the UK bears a responsibility more broadly in terms of the example it sets through its own approach and the way in which it helps to defend civil society freedoms in other countries around the world. However, there is a definite element of grit in the oyster, in that the government reaffirms its belief in the necessity for an ‘advocacy clause’ in government grants and contracts to prevent organisations from spending money on “political lobbying”. Our view is this has always been a policy response to a problem that doesn’t really exist, and the only effect it has is to sour the otherwise positive tone of the Government’s announcements about civil society campaigning.

We would ideally like to see the advocacy clause completely scrapped; but failing that the challenge for the government is to ensure that the way in which they engage with civil society when it comes to advocacy reflects the positive tone of their stated position, and not the more negative implications of policies like the advocacy clause.

5 TECHNOLOGY (OR "DIGITAL", IF YOU MUST)

Another thing we were pleased to see in the strategy was a strong recognition of the importance of technology for civil society. (I’m going to stick to “technology” rather than the “digital” preferred by government, as I think we need to cast the net more widely when it comes to these issues. But that’s just a personal hobby horse).

We have been exploring the impact of disruptive technology on civil society through our Future:Good project for some time; where we have highlighted the ways in which new technologies can be harnessed to deliver social and environmental good, as well as arguing that civil society needs to play a prominent role in addressing the societal impacts and unintended consequences of technological advance.

The civil society strategy certainly echoes the former in terms of the value of “tech for good”, which is encouraging. There is less emphasis on the latter, however, in terms of the role civil society has to play in addressing the negative aspect of technology, which is something that may need to be addressed in coming years. We firmly believe this will be crucial if we are to ensure that technology is developed in such a way that we maximise the benefits to the whole of society while minimising any potential harms.

In practical terms, the report identifies the need for further support for civil society organisations to engage with technology effectively; and outlines an ambition to use the convening power of government to bring together the tech sector and civil society to explore the development and implementation of new technologies in collaboration. These are both essential components of ensuring civil society can engage, so it is good to see them acknowledged.

6 THE UK AS A WORLD LEADER IN PHILANTHROPY

One line that caught our attention is that “the government is ambitious for the UK to become the world centre for philanthropy practice”. This is a pretty strong statement of intent (particularly given what it will take to knock the US off that particular perch!) and is not really accompanied by any detail at this point. However, in the context of post-Brexit considerations about how the UK positions itself on a global stage, it may represent an intriguing hint that philanthropy could be part of those plans. Definitely something to keep an eye on.

7 RESPONSIBLE BUSINESS

The Private Sector gets a whole section to itself in the document, as it has been identified by the government as one of the three sectors (along with the newly-rebranded “social sector” and the public sector) that contribute to the health of civil society. This is undoubtedly true, although many might have concerns about the extent to which the inclusion of for-profit organisations with a self-professed “purpose” stretches the definition of civil society too far. Putting such concerns to one side for a moment, however, the idea that businesses need to be more responsible seems pretty uncontroversial.

In fact the danger is that it is so uncontroversial as to become somewhat redundant; as there is a risk that companies agree to sign up to principles of responsible business but then maintain that what they are already doing meets those principles, and it is then hard to know what there is left to do. This is something that has happened before to government initiatives around responsible business: many of which have fizzled out after an initial fanfare because they failed to set strong enough criteria to move the agenda forward and gave the government few if any mechanisms to enforce adherence to any principles outlined.

In terms of the tangible steps put forward in the civil society strategy, probably the most obvious is the announcement of a “responsible business leadership group”. Once again, this seems like precisely the right first step to be taking - as leadership in undeniably one of the most vital components to changing corporate behaviour – but the devil will be in the detail of how the group comes together and what its goals are.

8 SOCIAL IMPACT INVESTMENT

Another thing which comes across clearly in the strategy is the government’s ongoing commitment to social investment, and particularly their desire to bring this to the mainstream and enable everyone across society to invest and save in ways that are informed by their values as well as their desire for financial return. Given that a lot of government focus on social investment in recent years has been on a narrow range of specific models linked to public service commissioning (such as Social Impact Bonds), it is good to see this wider perspective on the potential for social investment being presented.

Well, that’s probably enough for now, and we haven’t even covered collaborative public service commissioning, the role of the Charity Commission, the value of the Compact and plans to strengthen the Social Value Act (among other things…) We might cover some of these in subsequent blogs, and also return to some of the issues highlighted above in more detail, so stay tuned. But for now if anyone has any comments, thoughts or questions feel free to get in touch!

Public Good by Private Means


Our book tells the story of philanthropy through the ages, and examines the relationship between philanthropists, the state and society.

Giving for the City


Looking to philanthropy as a way of reconnecting people with places and spaces.

Future:Good


Our project to create a world where new technologies and social trends have a positive impact on the future of civil society.