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The UK government’s Civil Society Strategy: Our thoughts

The UK Government recently launched its new Civil Society Strategy: Building a future that works for everyone, echoing Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister where she vowed to fight against “burning injustice” and to be “driven, not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours.”

By Ed Cox · September 13, 2018

Those were big words and we’ve heard these kind of bold promises before. David Cameron promised unprecedented transparency and openness before removing a decade’s worth of speeches from the government’s website – including one in which he talked about the benefits of making “more information available to more people”. David Cameron also promised the “greenest government ever” in 2010 while subsequent budgets announced more tax breaks for fossil fuel exploration, a “gas first” approach that led to a sharp increase in fracking and less funding for renewable energy.

But that’s all in the past. What about the future?

This document is promoted as “The first Civil Society Strategy in 15 years,” seemingly airbrushing from history David Cameron’s much-maligned “Big Society” strategy from 2010, which is strange, since many of the principles here are inspired by or expand on its main points. So, not an entirely honest start, then.

However, like many other organisations operating in the civil society sector, we’re cautiously optimistic.

homeless person sat on street

The strategy acknowledges the work already well advanced in parts of civil society, including “among responsible businesses and progressive public sector commissioners, where social value is in the forefront of what these organisations do.” One of the criticisms of the 2010 strategy was that it laid out plans that many charities and civil society organisations had been doing for some time.

Many responses to the strategy from the sector have already pointed out that the strategy lacks detail despite its size (a hefty 120+ pages) so is currently more a theoretical vision document, laying out intentions rather than concrete actions; they also point out that many actions mentioned are pre-existing initiatives, so it’s hard at this stage to know what’s happening as a direct result of this strategy and the consultation that preceded it.

Here’s our take on the strategy, chapter by chapter…

Chapter 1. People: enabling a lifetime of contribution

“We want to build a society where people have a sense of control over their future and that of their community.”

Setting aside the undertones of the “take our country back” rhetoric of Brexit and the far right, care must be taken here if empowering one group to have control over its community puts another at a disadvantage or risk of harm.

Charities are already dealing with the consequences of wage stagnation, the rising cost of living, low paid, low quality and insecure jobs and lack of affordable housing, all of which is already creating a sense of loss of control and tension between communities.

Studies show that racism is more prevalent in tough economic times, which has been borne out in increased instances of hate crime since the EU referendum, with spikes in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Poverty is also a contributing factor in radicalisation, and combined with the introduction of laws to restrict freedoms in the name of national security, could eventually lead to a downward spiral of violence and counter-violence, further isolating people and fracturing communities.

“Government is also supporting citizens to take action on the issues they care about by funding the training of 3,500 people in community organising by 2020.”

We’re wondering how the government has arrived at this number and whether it’s based on the work already undertaken by organisations such as Community Organisers which has been a result of the 2010 strategy, which indicated that “around 5,000 Community Organisers will be trained over the lifetime of this Parliament.”

We’re keen to see how Community Organisers use design thinking to “motivate [the community] to come up with the answers to the problems they face” and how the success of Community Organising training is evaluated given the range and complexity of the problems being faced by communities.

“…ensuring that major employers and social sector organisations work together to help the most disadvantaged young people transition into work.”

As part of our commitment to improving the diversity of our organisation and of the wider tech sector, we welcome these kind of initiatives and will work with government and other social sector organisations to create more opportunities for employment.

Chapter 2. Places: empowerment and investment for local communities

“By working with service providers, the private sector, individuals, and communities in a place, we will make more sensitive and appropriate policy, we will achieve better social and economic results, and we will make brilliant places for people to live and work in.”

This entire chapter seems to play down the traditional role of local authorities in delivering public services and managing public spaces, preferring instead to encourage the take up of “community rights” to run local assets and supporting people to “to take part in the decision-making that affects their communities.”

There is a risk that, with the financial health of local authorities across England getting worse, and without proper support from central government to fund basic public services, local councils will always prioritise financial impact over social impact when it comes to land use and development.

There is also a danger that community-run spaces could become ghettoised as developers and private security firms gradually take ownership of larger areas of quasi-public spaces, who, in return for paying for the upkeep of those spaces, police them according to the instructions of their employers rather than common law. This practice has an impact on the culture of our places and can be disempowering for communities, such as restricting the right to protest.

With the creation of new systems of “accountable healthcare”, the public sector is moving more towards delivering health and social care services which focus more on the need of the individuals in defined places. These systems could create more opportunities for local and regional charities to deliver place-based services, as they have more knowledge and insight into the needs of local communities. However, there would need to be changes in procurement and commissioning to ensure that contracts are not just awarded to the largest national charities who might lack the local knowledge and expertise.

One flaw in the place-based approach to community services is that not all communities are defined around a geographic area. For example, the LGBT community could be described as a ‘non-geographic community of identity’. We know that LGBT have worse health outcomes that the general population, have their own unique health needs (including mental health needs) and suffer discrimination in accessing public services and healthcare. By focusing on serving geographic communities, place-based public services risk disadvantaging members of these communities of identity who live outside major urban centres by not offering easy access to the specialised services they need.

We’ll continue to seek opportunities to work with partners to empower individuals and communities to have access to – and make the best use of – their community spaces and to offer information, support and access to services using digital channels to supplement place-based services.

“Big Society Capital and Access (The Foundation for Social Investment) will devote around £35 million of dormant accounts funding.”

This is one of several references in the strategy to money being released from dormant accounts. When local authorities such as Northamptonshire county council are technically insolvent (it needs to make £70m of cuts over the coming months), how will the money be best used to support place-based civil society activity across the country?

Charities and social enterprises are already being leaned on heavily to shore up chronically-underfunded and failing public services and every charity we speak to states funding is reducing from the public sector, so how are they going to take on more burden?

Chapter 3. The Social Sector: supporting charities and social enterprises

“The government is determined that charities and social enterprises should be fully confident in their right to speak in public debates and to have a strong role in shaping policy and speaking up on behalf of those they support”

As the strategy points out, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 has made it very difficult to charities to confidently speak out on areas of government policy, including those affecting the most vulnerable people in society. As a result, charities are unable to influence voting or to campaign publicly on key policy issues, leading up to a general election risking fines, as happened to Greenpeace and Friends of the EarthResearch by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation has found that charities are already campaigning less as a result of this Act.

To enable charities and social enterprises to speak up on behalf those they support, the underlying legal structures also need to support this aim. In the meantime charities should check out Campaign Collective’s Freedom to Campaign guide.

“On leadership, we will work with civil society stakeholders and the Charity Commission to agree on joint action to open up trusteeship to people from different backgrounds.”

The commitment to “open up trusteeship to people from different backgrounds” is very much welcome. As reported by Inclusive Boards, trustee composition in UK does not reflect the diversity of the population or the communities served by those charities. The boards of the biggest charities are less diverse than those of FTSE 100 firms: 80% of senior leadership teams in the top 500 charities lack any ethnic minority professionals, while 62% of the charities have all-white boards.

We should strive for the same diversity at board level of private sector companies too as part of the commitments laid out in Chapter 4 – particularly if private companies are to be more involved in delivering public and community services. We welcome any support and initiatives from central government to diversify governance of all organisations at board level.

The full version of the Civil Society Strategy details a number of “missions” to focus efforts in each of the five chapters. We’ve highlighted some here that directly influence our work and our own mission, vision and values.

Mission 9: a social sector confident with digital

The government is once again committing to improving the digital skills of the social sector, through a range of initiatives with a number of partners. We have to be sure people are taught the right digital skills: as a nation, we’ve been bad at re-skilling people in digital, since the decline of coal mining and shipbuilding in the 80s and 90s. We have no reason to expect we can teach skills in using exponential technologies to workers in other sectors due to be disrupted by automation, AI and robotics.

Government has invested millions in digital skills in the civil society sector – including various transformation funds – and yet digital skills remain stubbornly low, according to Lloyds Bank’s UK Business Digital Index. We need to get better at retaining skills in the sector and there needs to be better support for knowledge transfer initiatives.

“The government will work with the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology and other partners to explore how best to build a responsive, resilient, and agile social sector.”

We’ll continue to work with partners and colleagues in the civil society sector – including the Centre for Acceleration of Social TechnologyDirectory of Social ChangeSmall Charities CoalitionCharities Aid Foundation and NCVO – to gain access to transformative technology and tools, and to build digital skills and resilience among civil society organisations.

“The government will continue to work through the Digital Skills Partnership to help civil society organisations to build their skills, boosting collaboration between the government, civil society, and business to tackle the digital skills gap.”

We’ll continue working with The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and our other partners on the Digital Skills Partnership’s Digital Enterprise Delivery Group to continue building digital confidence in charities and social businesses.

We’ll continue to work with Lloyds Banking Group and Google to deliver digital skills training as part of the government’s UK Digital Strategy.

“The government will support the development of an effective Charity Digital Code of Practice for charity leaders and trustees”

A code of practice is a good start towards digital maturity for charities and trustees, but it needs underpinning with suitable digital skills and experience and adequate, sustainable income in order to be truly effective.

We’ll embed the Charity Digital Code of Practice in our work with charities and with the infrastructure support agencies supporting civil society organisations, so that even the smallest charity can make the best use of its valuable time and resources to embed digital principles according to best practice.

“The government will work with sector partners to deliver a #DigitalTrustees campaign to promote digital confidence on charity boards.”

We will get involved in projects to help encourage trustees with digital skills and knowledge to become charity trustees, so they can lead and contribute to digital transformation within their organisations. Organisations such as Reach Volunteering help charities identify digital skills gaps at board level, have tips and a model role description to help recruit into those roles.

Chapter 4. The private sector: promoting business, finance, and tech for good

The 2010 strategy (.pdf) set the template for the role the government expects civil society to play in the age of austerity and how charities, community groups and volunteers would deliver vital public services when central and local government funding disappeared. This strategy document builds on those principles, highlighting the contribution that can be made by the social, private and public sectors working together to deliver services.

To view this cross-sector collaboration less cynically, at least the government appears to be  forging stronger links with the private sector, as part of its commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development GoalsGoal 17 around strengthening partnerships.

Mission 10: Responsible business

We need to be careful of the role played by the private sector in delivering this strategy, that motives are genuinely about delivering social value and not about making longer term business benefits at the cost of partners in other sectors.

doctor taking blood pressure

Private Finance Initiatives were to be a way of getting private sector investment to develop and improve public buildings such as hospitals, but have ended up with the NHS facing extra debt while private developers acquire land when deals fail.

It’s important that the social value of any involvement from the private sector is communicated clearly so as to not be interpreted as selling off the country’s assets, or “privatisation by the back door.”

Additional regulation may be needed to ensure responsible business practices, or penalties for irresponsible practices, as well as settling guidelines for proactive, positive behaviour. Even though there are laws covering working conditions, job security, paying tax, data protection, they often don’t go far enough or are not acted upon.

For example, Grilling Starbucks, Google and Amazon about their tax avoidance practices in a public inquiry sends out good signals to the public without actually closing the legal loopholes used by those companies, which is within the government’s power to action, if it really wanted to.

It’s early days for GDPR but we should soon see how Ticketmaster will be punished for its recent data breach that exposed the information of up to 40,000 customers.

Tightening laws and acting on existing ones when companies breach them, will help improve the reliability of public trust in private companies.

“The government is implementing the Good Work Plan… to focus on improving the quality of jobs and the wellbeing of workers across our economy.”

Many societal problems are tangled up in work and housing. 60% of people in poverty live in a household where someone is in work, and the risk of poverty in a working household has risen 25% in the past decade and the Minimum Wage is still not considered enough to live on according to the Living Wage Foundation,

With rents rising in the private rental sector faster than wages, many people are no longer able to afford to pay their rent, or have to choose between paying the rentheating their home or feeding their family. The number of people facing homelessness is rising sharply, particularly among vulnerable groups. Food bank charity The Trussell Trust distributed 1.3 million 3-day emergency food parcels to people in crisis in the year to March 2018, a 13% increase on the previous year.

Zero hour contracts are exacerbating the problem, though numbers of people on zero hour contracts appear to be slowing from its peak of almost 1 million people in early 2017. The rise of the  “gig economy” means fewer people on permanent employment contracts, with as many as 5 million people preferring to work on a freelance basis for a short term instead, for companies such as Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon. While some people benefit from the flexibility, others are working several jobs to make ends meet.

There are also close links between poverty and mental health. People stress about not having enough money, which can keep people trapped in a cycle of poverty. UK children and adults living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

Poverty, homelessness and mental health are all interconnected, and are issues the civil society sector is tackling every day. We welcome efforts in the government’s Good Work plan to enforce employers to respect basic working rights, to promote workplace health and wellbeing and to encourage skills development and progression, but it’s clear that people need better quality, better paid jobs in order to survive and thrive.

Staff fulfilment is one of the fundamental factors of our ethics, and we will adopt the government’s suggested measurements for “good work”:

  • Satisfaction;
  • Fair pay;
  • Participation and progression;
  • Wellbeing, safety and security;
  • Voice and autonomy.

“The government will explore further support for the development and expansion of the Purposely tool, which assists businesses to make the most of the flexibility within existing Company Law to embed purpose in their legal documents.”

We welcome any and all initiatives to help businesses embed purpose in their legal documents. Our own objects “to pursue trading activities that are both economically and socially responsible” and to promote equality and diversity, social inclusion and sustainable development have been written into our Memorandum and Articles of Association since 2010.

“The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Government Inclusive Economy Unit are exploring how businesses are engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals”

We support any government initiative to get more companies to adopt work according to the Sustainable Development Goals, as a framework for responsible business and for being a catalyst for positive social change.

We acknowledge the UK has some way to go against some of the goals, as it currently underperforms in terms of prevalence of reducing inequalities, prevalence of obesity, e-waste generated, nitrogen and carbon dioxide emissions, over-fishing, deforestation, endangered species survival, ratio of renewable energy generated and tax haven status.

The goals offer business a $12 trillion opportunity and we will continue to seek partnerships with organisations across all sectors that want to work proactively toward the Sustainable Development Goals to achieve a lasting, positive impact on the world, both in the UK and beyond.

We’re currently aligning our work with the Sustainable Development Goals, so we can communicate how our employees, clients and partners are contributing to achieving some of the most ambitious objectives in human development – including eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing inequalities and contributing to sustainable and responsible consumption. We publish details on our website soon.

Mission 11: Finance for good

“Big Society Capital will focus its strategy on providing homes for people in need, supporting communities to improve lives, and investment in early action to prevent social problems.”

We fully support this initiative, and are keen to see how this will work out over the next few years. We expect to see an increase in truly affordable housing in communities that need it the most, along with financial support for civil society organisations and groups on preventative action in supporting people and communities at risk of social problems.

“Social impact investment should become ‘business as usual’ for individual and institutional investors.”

We fully support the government’s commitment to pursue recommendations from its 2017 Corley Review, “Growing a culture of social impact investing in the UK.” and its initiatives to support social investment so far, including Social Investment Bonds, Social Investment Tax Relief

As a social enterprise, we’re excited by the prospect of a robust and thriving social impact investment ecosystem, supported by government, where investors are incentivised to put their money into the initiatives most likely to prioritise social impact over financial return. We’re encouraged by the fact that demand for impact investment seems to outweigh the current availability of suitable products and look forward to a growth and diversity in impact investment opportunities.

We will continue to work with individual and institutional investors who are seeking impactful investments, including providing impact measurement tools to aid investment decision-making. We will also seek social investment into our products and services and seek to invest in socially-impactful digital products and services where possible.

“The government will direct funds for the establishment of a new Financial Inclusion organisation responsible for deploying £55 million of funding from dormant accounts”

We welcome the government’s efforts to tackle financial exclusion, and to support ways of helping individuals strengthen their financial resilience, including developing programmes for saving with providers of affordable credit, and for avoiding income shocks through insurance.

It should be noted that these financial safety nets are already available to many people but are not currently used because people on the lowest incomes don’t have any money available for savings or insurance. In fact, the “poverty premium” makes credit even more expensive for the people who need it most and this is not directly addressed in the strategy, hinting instead at “payday lenders, doorstep credit or rent-to-own services” being the problem.

We will continue to work with partners to tackle issues of affordable credit and access to financial services, including housing associations, in developing digital products and services to support people at risk of financial exclusion.

Mission 12: The role of Technology

“Digital technology offers unprecedented opportunities to rethink the way in which we approach social challenges.”

We wholeheartedly agree that technology is one of the key factors to successfully scaling social impact. It’s our entire reason for existing. We believe in user-centred design, co-designed and developed with the people who are facing the particular problems we’re working together to tackle. We believe in running projects using agile methodologies and lean business management principles.

These principles are in direct contrast to the huge public sector IT projects – including the Department for Work and Pensions’ Work Capability Assessmentsroll out of Universal CreditE-BordersDisclosure and Barring Service overhaul – most of which have gone over budget and/or failed to deliver value. A culture change is needed in the public sector to understand why these contracts failed and to understand the principles of agile and lean, before the public sector commissioning ecosystem is stable enough for smaller tech for good firms to prosper.

“We will explore what more can be done to harness the power of technology to address complex social issues, including but not limited to tackling loneliness, healthy ageing, online safety, and digital inclusion.”

We welcome the government’s focus on these key areas and will continue to work with partners across sectors to tackle the biggest social problems and technological issues of our times, such as Call in Time, a telephone befriending service we worked on with Age UK, that matches volunteers with older people for a weekly 30-minute phone call in an attempt to reduce loneliness – a disease present in 1.2 million older people in the UK.

“The government will review the extent to which it is procuring social tech solutions as part of its service delivery.”

We welcome the procurement of more social tech solutions, but we would recommend exercising caution so that “tech for good” doesn’t become another shortcut for saving money and cutting costs in delivering vital services. Effective technology solutions need investment, planning and a focus on longer-term impact over short-term financial gains, particularly when commissioning public services can often be a race to the bottom when driven by costs.

“We will also explore the role of corporate partnerships in the Tech for Good ecosystem.”

We welcome the experience, resources and reach that corporates can bring to charities and social enterprises working in the tech for good space. However, we would advise that any partnerships need to be treated as equal partnerships by all parties, to avoid some of the unequal or ineffective charity-corporate partnerships created in the past, which have made poor use of volunteers, have led to projects being developed purely for the funder’s benefit then discontinued, and unsatisfactory social impact measurement.

We will continue to seek partnerships with and between partners across the private and social sector, where we can see the benefits to all parties of coming together to create effective and scalable social change using digital technologies.

“The government will look at how it can support the development of fintech applications that provide investors with direct sight of the social and environmental impact of their investments.”

We welcome additional support for individual investors to evaluate the social impact of their investments. Tools such as ClearlySo ATLAS currently helps social investors track the impact of their portfolio of investments in order to help them make more informed decisions about future investments.

Exponential technologies such as Artificial Intelligence could automate effective decision-making and could have a profound influence on the quality and quantity of investments that have a direct social and environmental impact in the future, particularly if the government follows through on its commitment to “work with partners to design a coherent measure of social value.”

Chapter 5. The public sector: ensuring collaborative commissioning

“There needs to be an increase in social value commissioning across all levels of government. This means improving the use of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012.”

The strategy, and a recent announcement from David Lidington, Minister for the Cabinet Office, recommends reforming the social value act to require all government departments to explicitly evaluate social value when commissioning services, rather than just “consider” social value.

The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 was originally meant to give social sector organisations a better chance at winning government contracts, or at least forming consortia led by the social sector that could compete against the usual suspects of G4S, Capita etc.

In reality, awareness and take-up of the Act was initially poor and failed to live up to expectations. Where it has been used, social sector organisations have often had to make do with being subcontractors to large prime contractors, though the government has attempted to police this by requiring prime contractors to report their spend on charity subcontractors.

However, the bigger public sector contractors have developed their own approach to satisfying the conditions of the Social Value Act which have been patchy, inconsistent and more to do with winning large contracts than having a lasting social impact. Time will tell whether the collapse of Carillion – and the system that allowed the government to award £1.3b of new contracts when it knew Carillion was in financial difficulties – will lead to the government rethinking the practice of awarding contracts to businesses that are “too big to fail.”

We support the new proposals to extend the Act and make social value reporting mandatory in government departments. To this end, we’ll seek to promote our social value reporting tool Impact in the public sector and will seek to build partnerships in order to report social value in public sector project supply chains.

If you work or volunteer in any civil society role, we’d recommend reading the entire report, as it will likely decide government policy for the next decade and will have a profound influence on the social, economic and technological environment in which we all operate.

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