Does the government’s civil society strategy go far enough?

10 Aug 18

Mark Norbury of UnLtd reflects on the laudable ambitions included in the government’s long awaited Future of Civil Society Strategy.

A braver, more inclusive and more accountable civil society: this is what we called for back in May when the government asked the sector about what its future should look like.

UnLtd fed into the consultation with Social Enterprise UK and School for Social Entrepreneurs, reaching out to social entrepreneurs across the country for their ideas. These views, along with evidence from our work, formed the backbone of our recommendations, many of which feature in the final strategy.

We welcome the ambition to build thriving communities with a strong financial base, physical and natural resources, and connections. We want to see this too, and social entrepreneurs, whether reopening pubs as community spaces or redesigning the places they live in, are working to create places like this every day.

It’s useful to see the strategy’s broad interpretation of civil society, embracing all who act to create social value, independent of the state. This allows for the full range of market-based, philanthropy-based, grants-based and hybrid models. It has to be right that what matters is primacy of social mission rather than legal structure or business model. The work of the social entrepreneurs UnLtd supports is a stellar example of this. In our Big Venture Challenge, those social ventures who had a mission locked, but not asset locked, structure achieved more impact, and greater growth in impact, than their peers. 

It’s right that government has recognised the key role businesses, whether commercial or social, can play in building a strong civil society.

Purposely, the government-backed online tool, built by UnLtd and lawyers Bates Wells Braithwaite, that helps companies to lock their purpose into their governing articles.

Purposely inspires companies to think more boldly about their place in the world and make authentic and legally binding commitments to serve that purpose. With renewed government support, Purposely, currently in beta, could be refined and adoption rapidly scaled. There are over 1.2 million socially-oriented SMEs out there who could be using Purposely to cement their commitment to purpose.

UnLtd is part of the Inclusive Economy Partnership, working with civil society, business, and the government to tackle challenges affecting disadvantaged communities. Together with Accenture, O2, Movement to Work and Youth Employment UK, we are teaming up with the West Midlands Combined Authority and young people in the region, to enable them to find pathways into employment that these young people find meaningful.

We asked the government to help remove barriers that prevent social entrepreneurs from scaling up. Six in ten social entrepreneurs tell us they struggle to find opportunities for public sector procurement. The 2012 Social Value Act, intended to tackle this, has not done as much as it could have to help social entrepreneurs build routes to market in the public sector because it was guidance rather than mandate.

We welcome the strategy’s announcement that DCMS will account for social value when procuring major contracts but want to see the rest of Whitehall follow suit without delay. It is only right to expect the whole of government to procure in line with its own legislation, which gained Royal Assent over six years ago. We think there’s much more to do here to embed the Social Value Act. We look forward to working with government and peers such as Social Enterprise UK, who have been the driving force behind the Social Value Act, to make this happen.

We believe that local people need more than a voice in decisions that affect them – solutions should be designed and led by those with experiences of the challenges they are tackling. So it’s good to hear the government taking steps to help local people and leaders with lived experience be trusted and enabled to make the decisions that matter to them.

The strategy calls for more co-design and collaboration at a local level. It encourages the public sector to work with service providers and the private sector, as well as individuals and communities in a place, to identify and deliver solutions that are embedded in the whole local system.

The strategy has promised to explore and agree on collective action to open up trusteeship to people from different backgrounds.

We hope that the government will ensure that all these opportunities are truly open and address structural discrimination. We believe there is a lot more government could do to empower people with lived experience to be in positions of leadership.

Power and resources lie in a tiny minority of organisations and networks in our society. UnLtd has been part of that. We are now spearheading a number of efforts to turn this on its head. Our Leaders with Lived Experience pilot shows how we can give more ownership, decision-making and resource to citizens and diverse social leaders.

Lastly, we welcome the strategy emphasising the importance of campaigning and advocacy in civil society.

We particularly welcome the initiative to involve more young people in policy making, including the new Civil Society Youth Steering Group. We hope that this group enables young people to be meaningfully involved in substantive decisions, and that other characteristics such as ethnicity and socio-economic background are also woven in to ensure inclusive representation.

We are looking forward to taking part in the new opportunities created by the strategy, such as the responsible business leadership group and the social enterprise forum. We plan to share evidence from our work and put social entrepreneurs and lived experience at the heart of these endeavours.

So will all this make for a braver, more accountable and inclusive civil society? This is a welcome step forward with many initiatives that steer us in the right direction. But there’s still further to go in ensuring that people with ideas to tackle some of our most pressing challenges are able to fulfil their potential to do so. It’s our belief that given the right conditions, these social entrepreneurs will transform our world for good.

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