Engagement, dialogue, and audacity: What we need from the new civil society strategy
When the consultation was announced on the government's new civil society strategy, there were some sceptical voices heard, especially when it had been specifically stated there was no new money attached.
I wasn’t one of those. I love strategy; it can drive action, influence behaviours, change structures, set new approaches. These are critically important and can make a real difference. And while there are those who say culture eats strategy for breakfast, I’ve never been totally convinced – if you get the strategy right, and commit to it, then strategy can drive culture.
So I welcome the opportunity to contribute to development of the government’s new strategy for civil society. As a sector we need to feed in, set out what we believe the priorities should be and what initiatives it could then put in place to make that strategy real. If we can help the government develop the right strategy for civil society, then we have the building blocks for creating a stronger civil society, working more powerfully alongside government to make the world a better place.
Where would I start with looking at what a new strategy would be? I’d define civil society quite narrowly, to enable a focused approach: not for profit groups or organisations who seek to deliver public benefit. And I would focus on the shared objectives of those groups and government: public benefit. Every charity, community organisation, faith group, sports club, in its own way, has objectives to deliver public benefit, as does government. Which is why since the very introduction of income tax in 1799, the principle was established that charitable donations should not be taxed, enhancing the billions of pounds raised by charities to deliver public benefit.
That is why the question that should be at the heart of developing the strategy is how we best work together on our shared agenda for the good of society. For me the fundamental answer is engagement and dialogue. This has to be the fundamental basis underpinning the new strategy. I want to see a real commitment from government and, in return from the sector, to engage, listen and debate the key issues for society, here and abroad. We need open and frank discussion between government and civil society. We might not agree with each other, that’s fine. This isn’t a call for more bureaucracy and a Compact V2, instead it’s the cornerstone upon which the whole new strategy should be founded upon.
There is a practical question about how that strategic approach can be embedded across government. How about a proper cross-departmental initiative, including key sector representatives alongside ministers and civil servants, held twice a year which sets out the principles of engagement and dialogue and calls for firm commitments from each department?
For example, with my fundraising hat on, we should be able to agree that increasing the number of gifts to charities in wills is a good thing for both the sector and the government, based on our mutual desire to deliver public benefit. Therefore, surely it’s appropriate for every government department to work within their respective spheres of influence, with civil society organisations and others, to deliver it as a strategic objective: HMRC could commit to review tax incentives for gifts in wills, every department could offer a free will-writing service to its employees, BEIS could make a commitment to encourage business to offer free will-writing services to their staff members. The government as a whole could support publicity campaigns to make leaving a gift to charity in your will the norm.
There are also issues where we, the civil society sector, need government to play an enabling and supportive role to achieve key strategic objectives that underpin wider success and sustainability. Could there be a cross-departmental approach to help the sector become more diverse, or support skills development in smaller charities? Again, this would benefit the sector, the government, and society as a whole.
Or could we be more radical, and ground the new strategy in the overarching charitable objectives (and societal issues) that brought the civil society organisations into existence in the first place: a bold new strategy could see government commit to work with, or enable the sector to, reduce poverty and levels of health inequality, improve the environment, reduce differential employment rates and differential incarceration rates for people from BAME backgrounds ... the list goes on! This might be big and bold. But a strategy needs to frame big ideas, drive bold changes, and be audacious in its approach.
The engagement exercise has been welcome, and I look forward to seeing the new strategy that emerges. I would like a commitment to real strategic engagement and dialogue, and a commitment for that to be embedded across government. That’s not many words, but it is a big ask. If we can achieve it, then we can deliver real benefits for society here and abroad.