Editorial: The NCVO enters the less familiar terrain known as 'civil society'

As the NCVO gathers for its annual conference today, there is a definite sense of one chapter in the life of that organisation coming to an end and another one opening.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The closing chapter is, broadly speaking, the programme of the 1996 report of the Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector, often referred to, after its chairman, as the Deakin report. This independent commission was set up and supported by the NCVO, which has played a prominent role in promoting its proposals. The most important of these have been implemented, including the Compact, a new charity law based on the concept of public benefit and a government office of the third sector in the Cabinet Office. Other key recommendations, including reform of VAT for charities and a parliamentary select committee to monitor the activities of the sector, remain works in progress with uncertain prospects of success.

The NCVO can look back with some satisfaction on the achievements and its own part in them, and is understandably looking around and asking itself "what next?" An extra importance is perhaps added to the question by the recent saga of the Government's ChangeUp programme for developing the infrastructure of the voluntary sector: the switch by Capacitybuilders from the NCVO's preferred system of the national hubs to the new approach of the national support services has been something of a blow to the organisation, not least because it has led to the loss of 20 of its 135 jobs. It needs to find a path away from that into pastures new.

One way it can reliably do that is by forging ahead with its core mission of improving and refining its services to members so that more organisations join and participate and it can consolidate its chosen role of giving a strong and authentic voice to the voluntary sector. It has made considerable progress recently in boosting its membership to 5,500, and it remains the single most influential organisation in the voluntary sector, respected and listened to in Whitehall and more widely.

But it is also embarking on something more ambitious: the exploration, mapping and promotion of civil society in the UK, working in parallel with the current inquiry into that topic by the Carnegie UK Trust. This year's NCVO UK Civil Society Almanac is the first step into this new territory, inhabited variously by voluntary organisations, cooperatives, universities, independent schools, political parties and trade unions. By this time next year, it hopes to have worked out what a new agenda for action might be.

The concept of civil society it not a strong one in this country. It has been more familiar in societies with less political freedom and stability, such as pre-revolutionary France or the countries of the former eastern bloc in the 80s. But it may take on more importance in Britain as the range of political discourse continues to shrink and the controlling and intrusive tendencies of the state continue to grow. Whatever the differences between the varied organisations that lie outside the state and the private sector, there can be no harm in them pooling their experience and learning more from each other as they attempt, in their different ways, to preserve their independence and produce ideas and initiatives for the mounting social and environmental problems that lie ahead.

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