Civil society is vital to our social, economic and environmental wellbeing, so it is appropriate that the government should have a strategy to support the development of a strong, sustainable civil society, and indeed it is currently consulting on such. My own view is that government should go further and commit to a sustainable civil society and an independent and strong voluntary and community sector as being fundamental to a healthy civil society.
So it’s disappointing if not surprising that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport introduces the consultation thus on its website:
"We want to have an open conversation about civil society, what is working well, and what government can do to strengthen it further. If you want to help create a stronger civil society, we want you to share your ideas on how government can work with and support civil society to:
- support people – including young people – to play an active role in building a stronger society
- unlock the full potential of the private and public sectors to support social good
- help improve communities to make them better places to live and work in
- build stronger public service."
One can’t disagree with the DCMS that this important conversation should take place. However, the remit of the consultation is far too narrow and excludes vital contributions, which a well-resourced/independent VCS can and should make. In turn, this diminishes the potential of the intended civil society strategy. Furthermore, this formulaic, online consultation process ironically stifles the opportunity for real conversation and dialogue.
Surely this consultation should be part of a wider debate about the role and size of the state, political governance, the nature and role of modern businesses and wider political considerations. Civil society is not a "standalone".
The VCS and wider civil society isn’t and shouldn’t be an agent of government. That said, service provision, especially in the absence of state services, is an important role, traditionally undertaken by the VCS. It is has often innovated, pioneered and pushed boundaries well beyond where the state is comfortable going.
While the majority of the VCS does not contract with the public sector nor deliver their public services, there has been a notable increase in some VCS organisations contracting with or being supported through grants by the public sector to deliver public services on behalf of the state – often a small grant will enable and leverage significant public benefit. However, the VCS should not be expected to pick up the pieces when the state withdraws services (I’d much prefer that, if this is government’s intent, it should openly and honestly say so). This can too easily compromise and distort the mission of VCS organisations; and, if there is not proper funding, it will ultimately destroy them.
The VCS’s role is much wider and deeper than the provision of services, whether contracted by the state or funded and delivered by VCS groups themselves. The deeper core role for the sector within civil society includes offering a voice for disadvantaged and marginalised communities. The VCS should: speak up and speak out for such communities; when necessary challenge government, other public bodies and businesses; campaign for change in behaviour, policy and legislation; and should always seek to speak truth to power.
Much social change over the past few centuries has been achieved because of civil society agitation and campaigning. Social action, especially community-based social action, is core to political discourse and essential in any modern democracy. They are not substitutes for political parties, but they themselves are part of civil society or democratic institutions. Government should recognise this and make it core to any civil society strategy worthy of its name. The omission of this aspect of civil society and the VCS tells us much about intended government policy – and it’s not good news.
The DCMS website’s stated aims for civil society, as quoted above, will only be achieved when VCS organisations have a voice and actively engage in political and social debate and action.
Ironically, one reason why the VCS must be even more active today is that it finds itself having to address the consequences of a raft of government policy choices, from welfare reforms, homelessness, inadequate social housing provision, austerity and cuts to core public services. The VCS must not allow itself to be the means of providing cover for policies that are causing damage to society and communities.
A second irony is that, while stressing the role and contribution of the VCS within a strong civil society, government is dramatically cutting both direct financial support, as well as to local authorities and other public bodies that have traditionally financially supported the sector. To demonstrate its stated wish to strengthen civil society and the VCS, the state must commit to properly funding it, to supporting capacity-building and sector infrastructure, and offering finance by means other than competitively tendered contracts.
The development of a civil society strategy offers a significant opportunity, but only if it is progressed in the context of fundamental change to economic, environmental and political change and reform. Without such an approach, at best it will be a plaster over societal wounds and, at worst, it will further marginalise and fail communities.
John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and a former voluntary sector executive. He is now a trustee and chair