The UK Government's new Civil Society Strategy. Big Society updated? Communities genuinely empowered? Let's see


Announced just as the Westminster Parliament was going on holiday, and in the teeth of the Brexit hailstorm, a UKGov report on their "Civil Society Strategy" might not be expected to get much of a fair hearing.

"Civil society" - defined as the thick weave of voluntary, community and change-oriented activities, existing way beyond our existing party-political loyalties - last became part of the public discourse of a Conservative government during the Cameron era, and his Big Society concept (whose troubled, complex history we've occasionally broached in the Editorials of this blog). 

Organisations like Civil Society Futures have been providing open-minded spaces to discuss the development of the sector. As this CSF blog outlines, the Corbyn-led Labour Party hasn't explicitly engaged with civil society (although they have reappointed a shadow minister for it). But its interest in the economic localist models in places like Preston and Barnsley suggests that "decentralisation" of power might become a cross-party-political theme in the next few years. 

Let's see - if so, we approve. And we are going to take a few days to read and absorb the UKGov report, and will report further next week. It's hard not to agree with editorials which point out that whatever measures the Strategy is proposing, are easily dwarfed by the effects of years of austerity-led cuts to local government spending - which are currently threatening a wave of council bankruptcies

Yet for the moment, we will post the text from this thread of tweets from Danny Kruger - once one of the Big Society's founding voices, now evidently a ''government advisor" to the Civil Society Strategy. As one tweeter said, it's considerably more concise and to-the-point than the document itself. 

Text of the following tweets:

  • The theory bit. Government’s job isn’t just to fix social problems directly, but to strengthen the foundations of society. It should grow communities' financial and social capital by stewarding local resources (including public £ but also private £, businesses, volunteers etc).
  • When these resources are aligned, ‘social value’ – positive outcomes for individuals and communities – is delivered. So the first commitment of the Strategy is to develop a common measure of social value for both private and public sectors.
  • The Strategy announces two major new civil society institutions, independent of government. £90 million will be allocated to a new body to help the most disadvantaged young people into work; and £55 million to a new body to tackle financial inclusion and problem debt. 
  • The Strategy sets out how government will help local communities attract more investment and take greater power and responsibility over their affairs. We will launch a new "Innovation in Democracy" programme to pilot new models of face-to-face and online decision-making
  • We will do more to help communities take ownership of public buildings and other local assets, and bring together alternative funding including social impact investment, charitable finance and corporate investment. Big Society Capital will devote £35 million to this work.
  • Working with the Charity Commission and UK Community Foundations, Government will release £20 million from dormant charitable trusts to community foundations across the UK.
  • The independent voice of civil society – calling out injustice and campaigning for change – is vital to our democracy. The rules against lobbying with public money do not stop this, but we will work with charities to explore how to strengthen their confidence in speaking out.
  • The Strategy sees a major role for responsible businesses. Many firms put social purpose at the heart of their work. We will establish a Leadership Group of business & civil society representative to lead the debate on the role of business in society and develop actions for the future. 
  • Many public services (eg probation, health services, job centres) began life in the independent sector i.e. civil society. We believe in ‘collaborative commissioning’, trusting local expertise and harnessing all the resources of a community to deliver services. This means…
  • … a new era of grant-making rather than exclusive reliance on competitive tendering; Citizen Commissioners to make spending decisions on behalf of communities; financial and expert support for non-public-sector providers who wish to deliver public services;…
  • … Beefing up the Social Value Act so all government procurement will account for its social impact; and exploring whether this requirement can be applied to grant-making and planning decisions too.
  • To conclude: the Civil Society Strategy is the start not the end of a process, and part of a conversation among equals. We want to work with others to strengthen the voluntary sector, put social purpose at the heart of business, and transform public services. Please join us!

More assessments of the Strategy from the National Council for Voluntary Activities, and from the Civil Society website.