The relationship between government and civil society has not been good for some years. We have been through fair amounts of conflict and betrayal, and neither party is entirely blameless. Reconciliation is desperately needed, so can we find a way forward? The new Civil Society Strategy seems like a well-timed intervention.
At first glance, there is much in the strategy to delight. Lots of the language used is familiar and pleasing: "place-based approaches", "people power", "collaborative commissioning". These are concepts coined by civil society, so hearing them played back certainly makes us feel listened to and appreciated. It is flattering.
Some of the initiatives sound like the government is making real efforts to change: reviewing approaches to commissioning to ease up on the targets and number crunching; reinstating grant funding to provide much-needed core support; support for community ownership models; and a new Innovation in Democracy project. All good things that we at SMK talked about in our recent Social Power report, which made recommendations for unlocking the potential of civil society.
And yet, when you get into the detail, there’s the uncomfortable suspicion that, deep down, nothing has really changed.
Despite much talk of devolving power, much of the content in the strategy is focused on government initiatives. The strategy casts the government as "convenor", but the content itself reinforces its instinctive role as "controller". Scant powers or resources are being passed down. The strategy is in large part a list of top-down investments in line with government’s favourite themes.
Those themes are revealing: volunteering, young people, tech and social finance. Despite the warm words about the broad role civil society plays, the bit government is really interested in is actually quite narrow. You can see that the ideal embodiment of civil society, one to make the authors squeak with joy, would be a young entrepreneur accessing social finance to launch a new "tech for good" platform, ideally encouraging volunteering. And why not? But the social finance/tech for good bit of civil society is pretty niche and a long way from the reality of most charities and community organisations.
Finally, charities are invited to campaign and use their voices. But if "social value" is about creating a fairer society for all, and public policy is a significant way to make that happen, why balk at allowing public funds to be spent on advocating for policies that would achieve that? Especially when solutions are rooted in the evidence and experiences of people who are receiving publicly funded services. Yet balk it does. The lobbying act also remains staunchly in place, despite clear evidence that it is silencing civil society voices.
I’m left wondering if this strategy is really just an act of seduction. The mood music is good and the words sweet nothings to make us swoon. But if we look at the actual content, has our partner really turned over a new leaf? I’m not so sure.
So my advice to the sector is to be cautious. We’ll need a few more dates before we know if this new partnership really is a marriage made in heaven.
Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation