We want to unleash the power of civil society, culture secretary says

The early stages of the coronavirus crisis showed that Whitehall did not know as much about civil society as it thought it did, admits Oliver Dowden

Oliver Dowden
Oliver Dowden

The culture secretary has promised to “unleash” the potential of civil society as he defended his government’s attitude to the sector.

Oliver Dowden was speaking at the virtual launch of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, hosted by the research charity Pro Bono Economics.

The commission is a two-year initiative that aims to examine how the potential of civil society can be unleashed in the UK.

The launch followed a report that suggested the sector was "undervalued and overlooked" and not reflected in the sector’s involvement in national decision-making.

Dowden said today: “The commission’s report identifies one key challenge, first and foremost – and that is what it calls our collective failure to properly value what civil society delivers.

“But I want to be clear up front: that is not this government’s attitude.

“That’s why we made a £750m investment into the sector when the Covid-19 crisis hit, to help ensure it could keep delivering essential support to those who needed it the most.”

When it was announced in April, charity leaders described the government’s £750m support as “a good start”, but not nearly enough to meet the need faced by the sector.

Subsequent research found that charities faced a £12.4bn shortfall in income during the second half of 2020 because of the pandemic.

Dowden said he wanted to capitalise on the “epidemic of kindness” witnessed during the pandemic and questioned what lessons can be learned from the past year as he highlighted how the government would “unleash” the sector’s potential.

“I use the term unleash deliberately,” he said. “Because I strongly believe, as your report rightly highlights, that there is huge power in civil society, and that it should be the government’s job to unlock it – not try to replace it, or end up stymying it.

“Not running things from the top-down, but stewarding the sector, unlocking resources and empowering volunteers.

“So my first priority is for the government’s work to focus on where it can add most value in this space,” he said.

Dowden spoke of how to tackle the sector’s “digital deficit”, how to build up his department’s knowledge of civil society, and unlock more resources.

He said: “The early stages of the Covid-19 crisis showed that Whitehall didn’t know as much about civil society as we thought we did.

“That matters because without that understanding, we in government can’t be as effective in supporting the sector or making the most of what it has to offer.

“So I have made it a priority for my department to build up that knowledge – bringing in new skills and tools in order to do so.”

In his earlier opening address, Lord Gus O’Donnell, chair of the new commission and a former cabinet secretary, said: “What I’m hoping is to change the culture[…] Quite often you find people asking the question: 'So can the private sector do this, or should government step in?' And they’re leaving out the civil sector out completely.

“Civil society needs to be heard in the boardroom, and around in the corridors of Whitehall. They need to be there, they need to have a voice around the table.”

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