Time for a civil society fight back

13 Apr 17

Civil society’s policy role has been neglected for too long. Here are some practical suggestions to give it a boost

With the funding of public services tight and likely to continue so for some time, policy makers and strategists at national and local level often start to dream about the role that civil society could play to fill in the gaps. Sadly that is about as far as many of them get.

Part of the reason is that they suspect the sector is not strong enough to actually achieve much. But just as important in our experience is the way that policy makers think about the sector and its role. It’s a nice extra to have but is really just there to keep a few local activists busy, a few grass verges tidy, train up some young people who are unemployed, help a few lonely older people; and so add their marginal contribution where either the state or private sector cannot or will not deliver. But they are not crucial.  

As a result of all this, there is a real lack of policies that are supposed to help the sector and a complete lack of thinking about it when formulating ways of trying to achieve public policy outcomes. We think that should end.

In a new report we argue that it is time to put civil society at the centre of our thinking not as a remainder when the other sectors have done their work. That is not because we are soft and sentimental about the worth of civil action, volunteering and the like, but because the values of civil society, the human capital, social enterprise, ideas, networks, emotional support, practical help and wellbeing, that it brings should be at heart of creating a decent society and indeed of the ‘Shared Society’ that prime minister Theresa May has recently talked about.

Taking this approach means we want some pretty decisive policies, but ones that go beyond the approach of the New Labour years that, while it funnelled good amounts of resource towards the sector, often did so in a very controlling way. And it needs to go beyond vague appeals to a civil action and a Big Society that the coalition and the current government often resort to, when they never will the means.

Thinking things through in this way leads us to some strong policies that we think could make a difference if all taken together. Here are some of them.

Ironically, perhaps we start at the central government level because unless the engine of government is on side then it will stifle and smother any attempt to re-boot this agenda. We argue for a new, small, powerful body with status similar to that of the Low Pay Commission – which supported the introduction and progress of the minimum wage – that includes practitioners, academics and independents. It would make recommendations on ways that the government could support the sector better. Its reports would be presented annually to Parliament and be debated in both Houses.

This would be flanked by a stronger presence in Cabinet, and a powerful unit in Whitehall and the major departments with a civil society test for policy to check we don’t pass laws and regulations that inadvertently stymie the sector. And all of this would be supported by more collection and analysis of data so that we really know what is going on, and that includes what is happening to our social infrastructure – from libraries and parks to sports facilities and meals on wheels – where so much social capital and sense of community is created.

We also have things to say about local and devo areas – demanding that civil society is guaranteed a right to be heard at all levels. In some cases this may mean representatives from the sector having places on decision-making boards and bodies – although we do not want to insist on one institutional mechanism. We also want all public services to have a published and scrutinised strategy for consulting and involving civil society at all levels that they operate in.

But it is not all about government and what it does. We want the private sector to become more pro-social and so support corporate governance changes to that end as well as ‘nudge’ approaches to improve their behaviours in various areas. In addition we float the idea that business – particularly smaller ones – could be offered local rate relief against spending on supporting local civic activity that benefits the community.

And civil society – which almost by definition is very variable in quality – needs to improve itself if this agenda is to work. We propose ripping out of the Charity Commission regulator any role in this and giving it to a new Civil Society Improvement body based loosely on how the Improvement and Development Agency for local government worked. The sector also needs to break out of group think and mix with ‘surprising friends’ in future including in the private sector.

We doubt that all this can be achieved without an input of funding. We suggest that a fund of serious – but not staggering – proportions should be created and used primarily to help civil society in the places and geographies where it finds it hardest to take root and flourish – often in more deprived parts of the country. And we’d like to copy something like the 0.7% of GDP for overseas aid as a way of stopping funding disappearing from these areas whenever life becomes a bit tough fiscally. And apart from new resources, we want a review of the way existing tax reliefs work for the sector – to see if within the same envelope of money we could design them better to achieve more.

For too long civil society has been seen as afterthought; left behind in the rush to modernisation through the state and the market. But 21st century Britain requires civil society more than ever. It gives meaning to people’s lives, is expresses mutuality and creates a dynamic of creativity and autonomy. The 20th century saw the state and market triumph; the 21st century should see a civil society fight back.    

  • Dan Corry & Gerry Stoker

    Dan Corry is chief executive of charity think tank NPC and a former Downing Street and Treasury adviser. Gerry Stoker is centenary research professor of governance at the University of Canberra, Australia and chair in governance at the University of Southampton.

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