The announcement by the Minister for Civil Society, Tracey Crouch, of a new strategy for the sector has been warmly welcomed. It certainly has the potential to be a great opportunity to take stock and plan the sector’s sustainability. However, without wishing to rain on the parade, strategies have a habit of not quite living up to their billing. Too often they are developed with an overriding focus on the end document rather than the process. Whether the resulting strategy is successful or not depends on how the Office for Civil Society goes about developing it, whether it is a truly strategic, inclusive process or, as the shadow minister has suggested, no more than a tick-box exercise.
So what should the OCS consider when thinking about its strategy development process? Well these would be my recommendations.
Stand back and think forward. Strategies can easily be out of date by the time they’re printed, and the sector needs a strategy that will still be relevant in seven years’ time. The process needs to be grounded in an understanding of how the critical trends of today are likely to set this future context. Issues such as the ageing population, the housing crisis, the waning trust in authority and traditional institutions, localism and Brexit are likely to be shaping our world for some time to come, and the strategy needs to consider how these and other important issues will affect society. Against this background, the strategy needs to consider the demands that will be made of civil society and what support it will need to fulfil that role.
See past the money. There’s more to resource management than money. Funding, fundraising and all associated issues need to be considered. We will always need more money, but there isn’t going to be a huge amount of it any time soon. The strategy needs to look at resources in a wider sense: skills, capabilities, partnerships, volunteering, goodwill. It needs to think not only about how to get more resources, but also about how to use what we have more wisely. In particular, it needs to consider how relationships with government, funders and other large institutions can strengthen or undermine our effectiveness.
Appreciate our unconventional nature. Threaded through its unique culture, the third sector has more than a touch of the maverick. For many of us, rolling our sleeves up, challenging the status quo and working to change the world is a core value. The OCS would do well to remember Peter Drucker’s famous observation, "culture eats strategy for breakfast", and work with rather than against this culture. Rather than rail against it, the process needs to embrace the sector’s creative, entrepreneurial spirit. After all, that’s what gives it the energy to achieve great things.
Get out of the Westminster bubble. The strategy needs to be a truly national strategy. The OCS needs to get out of London and talk to the local groups in Sunderland and the social clubs in Plymouth, see what is happening in village halls in Norfolk and the Lake District. The local voluntary and community sector outside the capital is a mine of excellent practice and networks, and this experience needs to be brought centre stage in this process.
Whether the final strategy is a truly useful document remains to be seen, but if the OCS starts with a good process, it will certainly be on the right tracks.
Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator