THE BLOG

Memorandum to the New Minister for Civil Society - Time for Action

06/10/2014 11:49 BST | Updated 04/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Dear Minister

Welcome to the new job.

I write this memorandum as someone who works with many civil society organisations, is a trustee of some national and local charities and as a former senior executive in that sector.

I expect none of us could have predicted the reason for your predecessor's resignation but many in the social, charity and voluntary sector (the sector) will not have been too disappointed at his departure - not because of his personal and private activities but because of his apparent contempt for the sector, highlighted when he told the sector to keep knitting and keep out of policy.

The sector is feeling beleaguered: by the impact of public expenditure cuts; poor and price-driven public sector procurement (often with little sense that there has been any strategic commissioning prior to the procurement); a perception that Government and the wider public sector commonly favours large corporates in preference to the sector when awarding public service contracts; and being faced with the human consequences of wider Government policies such as welfare 'reform'.

Not surprisingly, the sector does not respond favourably when ministers (including your boss Frances Maude) imply, as he has done this week, that the sector will step in to replace services lost as a result of public expenditure cuts, and when he talked about needing the 'Big Society' alongside austerity. Actually, the sector (almost universally, in my experience) wants to complement a properly-funded public sector - not to substitute for it.

What is needed is an effective, respected and protected civil society: that sits neither in the markets nor in government; which provides space for innovation and participation; that can challenge and offer alternatives to Government and public policy whilst being assured of its independence, and the right to work with whom it wishes and to do whatever it wishes, within consensually agreed laws. Currently, one rarely if ever hears this message from politicians, especially ministers.

Voluntary social action has always been core to communities and public policy change. Yet one feels that Government would prefer the sector simply to be its agent delivering contracted services or other services which it has to fund even though the public once did so collectively through taxation.

The Lobbying Act did much to undermine any confidence that the sector had in the Government and Parliament. So much of this country's progressive reforms have come from successful campaigns led and supported by the sector, and the Act clearly now limits the sector's ability to perform its full role.

You have to undertake some major repair work to the government's reputation with the sector, do so quickly, and to best of your ability and position as a junior Cabinet Office minister. The Government has done little so far to off-set the negatives. Therefore, sadly, the list of issues to be tackled is large.

Respectfully (given we have never met), my advice is to:

  • make an early speech (and repeat it frequently), committing the Government to respecting and honouring the independence of the sector and its right to speak out on all matters, including public policy and practice when this is having or is likely to have a detrimental impact on society, communities and organisations' beneficiaries ( of course, without being partisan)

  • signal an intent to repeal at the earliest opportunity those elements of the Lobbying Act that are causing problems and concerns for the sector, and indicate that meanwhile no action will be taken against any charity that might technically be infringing this law

  • establish a cross-Government group of ministers with real power (and ideally the authority of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister) to ensure that the sector and its interests, including its financial well-being and policy support, are promoted across Government- and co-opt sector representatives onto this group

  • encourage departments and the wider public sector (I recognise that you cannot 'instruct' them) to: work with the sector in policy design and development as well as delivery; adopt commissioning and procurement approaches that enable the sector to play to its strength (including using grant aid instead of payment by results and similar over-complex procurement and contracting arrangements); and learn from the experience of schemes such as the Work Programme

  • announce an intention to regulate if necessary to make the financial services industry invest in, loan to and work with the sector, including mainstreaming social finance

  • commit to the involvement of the sector in any wider consideration of the English and UK constitutions, political systems and decentralisation

  • for the longer term, commit to the establishment of a comprehensive review of charity and related laws, taxation and regulation (including the role of the Charity Commission) and alternative legal structures and forms

  • allow the sector to take over control of national initiatives for volunteering and similar, and only involve the business sector if and when the sector wishes this to happen; and/or allow these initiatives to be established locally and regionally rather than automatically assume that they are best run from Whitehall

This is a long agenda but the sector would expect you to make a start and signal your longer term intentions. It is in the Government - indeed any government's interest - to foster a strong civil society, strong civil society organisations and a strong partnership between Government and the civil society. This is not a small or inconsequential matter.

And above all, please can I urge you to spend more time meeting people - volunteers, staff, service users and members across the sector and across the country. Showing a commitment, an empathy and an understanding based on direct experience and conversations will be essential to having any chance of winning trust and respect in a sector that feels bruised and yet (as you will learn and experience as you tour the country), remains astonishingly resilient and up for both change and action.

There are not many months until the general election but I hope that you will take this (and I expect much other) advice to establish the importance of your ministerial role in this and any future Government- a role that perhaps, given the importance of the sector and wider civil society, should actually be at secretary of state level.

Whatever the ministerial rank, what matters is fostering a sense of new opportunity for a vibrant social, charity, voluntary and community sector within a strong and vibrant civil society. The sector can make a huge difference to the economic and social well-being of the country.

Minister, you have chance to make a big difference. You really do.