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Garry Jones's blog

Wed 15 Aug 2018

Civil Society Strategy – smoke and mirrors?

Last week saw the launch of the new Civil Society Strategy – building a future that works for everyone (not an altogether unique subtitle). The first such strategy from government in 15 years (and this government has only been in office for 8 years), I do wonder how important we really are to central government these days? But I get ahead of myself; first the positives:

  1. They have produced a strategy – since Nick Hurd MP left the department in 2014, its felt like a team clutching at ideas, for the next big thing. Perhaps the strategy will start to give some coherence to the OCS?
  2. It talks about Grants,  albeit as if they are a modern reboot of an old blockbuster movie (Grants 2.0), but hey it talks about grants in a positive, very positive way… watch this space.
  3. Social Value Act – strengthened: Central Government will be expected to ‘account for’ the social value of new procurements, rather than just ‘consider’ it as currently – could be a game changer; roll out to local government please?
  4. It talks about lots of other things in a generally positive and constructive way, including  better commissioning, co-production and (selfishly) local support organisations such as ourselves.

Sorry, its a short list. Now, the not so great:

  1. Ok, this may seem a minor detail, but using the word ‘work’ in the subtitle of a strategy that is about a sector which is founded upon volunteering… irritating!
  2. The good, positive, constructive ideas – almost all are couched in terms of reviews, refreshing, supporting, renewing, non-legislative enablers…. such little commitment or by way of concrete proposals are forthcoming, that I’m left feeling it’s a strategy published to an arbitrary deadline, and dare I say, half finished. Many of these have the potential to become good things for the sector and some may even be big ideas, but at the moment we just can’t tell whether they will develop or quietly disappear as so may policy proposals do these days (remember the 3 days employer supported volunteering for big companies?…. cue the tumbleweed)
  3. There are a couple of substantive announcements on new funds – one on financial exclusion to the tune of £55 million and another worth £90 million for getting young people into work (erm… wasn’t that called Talent Match?) again good causes but a little irksome that most government policy points true north to ‘work and money’ as though they were the holy grail of exclusion and disadvantage.
  4. The digital obsession persists – apparently artificial intelligence is now a major issue for the sector!
  5. ‘New forms of funding’: ok so they do talk about grants, but they are putting millions more into yet more social investment; with scant evidence of impact.
  6. Co-commissioning – nice word, but how are you going to make local government and the NHS (amongst others) do it meaningfully?

Over all it’s a strategy that raises more questions than answers; though that ain’t necessarily a bad thing, if it gets government talking about our sector again. There is no doubt we have been marginalised over the last 5 years; and more so since the OCS was side-lined into the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (I’m still working out which of those they think we are). The full strategy is littered with anecdotes form other ministers, so well done Tracey Crouch for getting some wider Whitehall buy-in, let’s hope you can build on that further.

Finally, I’ll leave you with one of those big ideas I’m always going on about. If government (of all colours) continues to believe in capitalism; and it believes our sector must fundamentally change its funding base, and it sees a central role for us in financial inclusion and in job creation and growth – which I can only conclude it must. Then why not fundamentally change the capital basis of our sector? A major programme of capital investment into our sector to own and run our own property, allowing us to generate income from our own and other sectors. Put our sector on an equal footing with the private sector, by raising our asset base.

Smoke and mirrors? Only time will tell.