Paul Streets: The devil of the Civil Society Strategy lies in the delivery

We should applaud the supportive tone. We should welcome the commitments to smaller charities. But we should equally question the lack of concrete proposals

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

The long-awaited Civil Society Strategy has been published. There’s much to welcome, especially its tone. Even in the ministerial foreword the strategy recognises the "pressures civil society is under" and the "extraordinary job" it does alongside the role of government as an "enabler", citing the strategy as "the beginning of a process of collaboration".

Crucially, there is recognition of the importance of giving charities more of a voice, allowing them to feed into policy and taking steps to strengthen their confidence around campaigning. The strategy sets out promising plans around new guidance on commissioning for small and local charities and around new approaches to strengthening social value.

It is broad in scope, encompassing civil society as inclusive of all activities whose "primary purpose is social value, independent of state control" and, critically, the role of government more broadly in enabling that. While charities are at the heart of a strong civil society, it is good to see the recognition for cross-sector support in addressing societal issues and the important pressure of ethical consumerism. We see first-hand how valuable a truly responsible approach to business can be – not just in terms of funding, but also in terms of skills transfer and in-kind support. Public, private and social sectors need to work better together.

And it is helpful to see supportive acknowledgement of the role of civil society from other government departments, having long called for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to influence the approach to the voluntary sector across government as an exemplar.

But this scope and breadth is also its weakness. It risks being everything and nothing.

Without concrete action on issues such as commissioning and joint working, there is a risk that this is simply warm words. We will watch with interest to see what replaces the community rehabilitation company contracts under Transforming Rehabilitation, given recent commitments by the Justice Secretary David Gauke: a critical litmus test for whether the DCMS has the clout it needs.

The strategy recognises the need for "new approaches in communities that have not benefited from growth", but it fails to translate that recognition into tangible and targeted action to address the most marginalised people and places. This is a critical issue for small and local charities working right at the coalface.

And although it hints at the potential significance of dormant assets and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, small nuggets are offered rather than the wholesale and significant investment targeted where it is needed most.

We have elsewhere highlighted the critical need for the sector to rethink sustainability post-austerity, but doing this will require commitment and clarity of purpose – and not just from the sector, but also from government. Without this there is a risk that what could be large amounts of money are frittered away on disconnected piecemeal approaches. We need to see these opportunities as we did the post-war Marshall Plan, an opportunity to restructure the support we provide to the most in need in society and to the poorest places – alongside more effective welfare provision, which doesn’t get a mention.

The breadth and scope of the strategy risks the government appearing as a convenor, rather than the central actor it needs to be. So although it’s a good framework, the devil will be in the delivery. Can the DCMS translate these welcome and very broad intentions into tangible and substantive action on the ground?

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

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