There is only so much that can be said about the jarring inconsistency of a government that waxes lyrical on the virtues of civil society whilst disregarding the local foundations on which it is built. And, as the Guardian recalled in its response to the new Civil Society Strategy published last week, I (amongst others) said quite a lot of it in 2010 and 11.

It is certainly unfortunate that the new Strategy was published in the very week that East Sussex, and the now technically bankrupt Northamptonshire County Council, were revealing the devastating impact of public spending cuts. It is easy to compare the relatively modest numbers attached to the initiatives in this report with the gaping deficits and to dismiss the strategy as Big Society 2018, “Ash tray on a motor bike” 2.0.

Easy, but wrong.

A proper strategy?

For a start, the “Big Society” was a speech, a marketing slogan (even the Oxford Dictionary’s “2010 word (sic) of the year”), but it was never systematically translated into significant and specific departmental objectives, far less operationalised. There was a brand and a handful of projects, some like Big Society Capital, initiatives of the previous administration happily continued though pointlessly rebadged. Otherwise precious little was to be seen.

The new Civil Society Strategy, in contrast, is what it says on the tin – a strategy, not a strap line with optional baubles. That’s why it is wrong and short-sighted to tally up the spending commitments (there aren’t many), take away the money that isn’t new (most of it), and rush to  a verdict.

We should instead judge this report by the standard that the authors set for themselves – as “a successor to the industrial strategy”, not as a set of spurious alternatives to state funded services. It’s an ambitious approach but without  the absurd guff of the “great transition” promised in 2010 and of greater long-term value than a shopping list of projects. In the current context, engaging with the “nitty gritty” makes far more sense than currying favour with the “itty bitty”.

This Strategy sets out a path towards reconfiguring and rebalancing power and responsibility on all sides, and I think it’s a good start. Not without limitations, but with the potential to be regarded as a significant milestone in the years ahead.

Towards a thriving community

The goal, a “thriving community”, is simply defined – “strong; financial, physical, and natural resources; and strong connections between people”. Not a million miles from Community Links’ own goal of a “Ready for Everything Community” and our work on social infrastructure.  Also like us, the authors recognise the importance of the “connections between the foundations of social value – people, places, social sector, private sector, public sector”, and the value of collaboration: “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.

“Social sector” is snuck into the narrative without fanfare, dispensing with the often overlapping, largely unhelpful and increasingly anachronistic lexicon of subsets and synonyms usually deployed. Using the term more widely would enable us all to focus on the service or the policy or the organisation that achieves the optimum public good or social value rather than the one that adopts a particular legal structure.

As is the regular convention with a government paper it is the name of the minister rather than the real author that makes the title pages. Here Jeremy Wright and Tracey Crouch get the credit, but Danny Kruger did the hard yards. Danny co-founded and led Only Connect and the West London Zone. He knows the territory, noting for instance that “many of our public services began life outside government including the National Probation Service…” (before, he might have added, being sold off to the highest bidder in the dogma-driven disaster of Chris Grayling “transforming  rehabilitation”).

Kruger’s experience seems particularly evident in the description of commissioners’ “often rigid focus on numbers, including budgets volumes and time scales, rather than on the relationships and flexibility which people and communities need”. And in his solution:

The government’s vision for public services in the modern era is one of collaborative commissioning. This means that in the future local players will be involved in an equal and meaningful way in how services are created and delivered. It means that all the resources of a community, including public funding, will be deployed to tackle the community’s challenges.

Civil Society Strategy (DCMS, 2018).

Citizen commissioners, the report further suggests, are one way of doing it. Details are thin, but if the concept of collaborative commissioning means anything at all (and I very much hope that it does), it would surely mean that what happened to probation and rehabilitation would never happen again. Anywhere. Radical stuff.

The section goes on to discuss the Social Value act – hitherto, very largely, a well-intentioned irrelevance. In future, government departments will be expected to “account for” rather than “consider” social value and to explore the potential for applying the act to “other areas of public decision-making such as planning and community asset transfer”. This captures exactly what I meant about the potential for this report to be regarded as a milestone. The linguistic change could prove to be a technocratic tweak, easily gamed, but used as-intended it could be significant.

More to like

There is more to like here than I have space to properly consider:

  • The acknowledgment that charities have often been slow on data and digital technology and the commitment to help. Most of us still think of data as an audit tool and use it as a rear view mirror, reflecting where we’ve been, not as a Sat Nav driving continuous progress. We have the technology for data-led development. It is right to make it a priority.
  • The support for inclusive growth and the commitment to the design of a “shared prosperity fund” – exactly the kind of forward-thinking policies that our Early Action Task Force has been promoting and developing.
  • And, although I have already made the point that random projects are of less value in a paper like this than deeper seamed strategic shifts in the machinery of government, the re-announcement of a £90m fund to help the “most disadvantaged” young people transition into work is welcome (if not new – it was promised in January). Our organisation has a long history with employment programmes that work with disadvantaged communities across East London, and past experience has taught us that government-led initiatives in this area more often than not aim for the low hanging fruit. The Strategy’s suggestion of a change in approach towards a deeper, longer term engagement, with the most in-need households and communities, is therefore welcome.

Mistakes and omissions

There are also mistakes and omissions:

  • Important government strategies aren’t published in the holiday season. It’s a pity that this one entered the world when it is most likely to be overlooked – not, perhaps, by the sector itself but by the friends we need to make in other places.
  • Perhaps it is grumpy old man syndrome, but I am always irritated by papers and statements that apparently announce something which has been announced already. This includes the aforementioned £90m Youth Employment initiative and the £55m for the new body tackling problem debt. Sound strategic thinking is cheapened by this common sophistry.
  • Whist I am on the subject of the new body for tackling debt, I welcome the commitment – it’s a big issue – but do we really need the start-up costs, the overheads and the learning time associated with a new body?
  • The Compact is fundamentally flawed. If ministers support the intention (and I am pleased to hear that they do) they shouldn’t reaffirm their commitment to a mechanism that has largely disappointed, but should learn the lessons and redesign.
  • Gagging clauses have been a point of contention for too long. Although the Strategy has good and clear things to say about democracy and voice, I am not sure how it is possible to also reaffirm the Lobbying Act.
  • The importance and the current plight of local authorities is largely ignored. East Sussex and Northamptonshire shouldn’t expect to find any easy answers here. Unlike the Big Society narrative, the Civil Society Strategy makes no such promise, but it is still unworldly to make so little reference to local government and  the broader context.

A good start

From individuals’ acts of kindness to the work of charities and mass movements for change, people taking action is the bedrock of a strong society.

This is the stand out line, deceptively simple. Imagine the difference if it were to be the credo that actually underpinned government policy – not only in relation to the “social sector” but in education and health care, in employment and criminal justice. Even in deficit reduction.

Single departmental strategies cannot deliver such an outcome, but they can plot the path. I think this one makes a good start.

David Robinson