Sue Tibballs: Civil society is entering a new era: embrace it

The sector has to find and broadcast a refreshed sense of its role and value

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

After his address to his last National Council for Voluntary Sector Organisations’ annual conference, chief executive Sir Stuart Etherington was asked about the biggest regret of his 25-year tenure. His answer was far from trivial: he said the social sector had become too compliant with the state. This was a courageous thing for Etherington to say, given that he was at the heart of the sector as its relationship with the state changed.

Ensuring that our sector became a high-quality and trusted supplier of services to the state wasn’t necessarily wrong. It built confidence in the sector, increased income and allowed many organisations to deliver services, often in ways and places the state struggles to do. But over time, and particularly in the hands of less supportive politicians, it has led to a diminution in status and very real constraints. And not just because charities don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. Clauses are being inserted into contracts that prohibit campaigning, advocacy and public criticism of ministers. Public money is handed over, but the sector is gagged in return. Charities are bought, not paid.

The social sector has to rediscover and broadcast a refreshed and renewed sense of its role and value. And this is about more than voice. The sector has to fight for its right to speak out and resist the "gagging clauses". But more than that, we need to proceed with absolute confidence in who we are and what we do if we are to play the role we need to. The state is receding. Civil society is already filling the void. As inequality and discord grow, civil society is going to have to do more, not less.

This narrative is certainly emerging clearly within the sector, including in the final report of Civil Society Futures. But there is still a real job to be done to reach and persuade those active in politics, on both the left and the right. A report published this month might help do this.

45 Degree Change, by the think tank Compass, recognises that the changing nature of society is changing how things get done. It draws on the many examples of how civil society is developing new responses to old problems, an energy and creativity bubbling up from citizens and communities who have taken it upon themselves to get involved. The report argues that the state needs to learn that it must stop trying to command and control, and become an enabler instead. Civil society, it says, needs to meet the state at 45 degrees if both are to optimise the opportunities of a more networked world.

This is important because it means civil society and the state talking about politics together. Not in narrow party political terms, nor as if politics is an illicit activity, but in an open, curious conversation about power, governance, responsibility and how sector and state can most effectively work together. We need more of this. I hope 45 Degrees proves to be a spur.

This also requires leadership, of course. Which brings us back to the NCVO. Etherington has led the organisation brilliantly through one era, but now we need a chief executive who can take it and the sector into a new one. At the heart of this has to be a new settlement with the state that recognises and respects the incredible value of our sector.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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