When the Department of Culture, Media and Sport published the long-awaited Civil Society Strategy, it is telling that it chose a date during the summer recess. August is traditionally the time for easy and extraordinary news stories. It is not usually the time for serious debate and deliberation, not least because many stakeholders are likely to on holiday or be otherwise diverted.
Accordingly, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Government does not take the pursuit of a strong vibrant civil society as being a priority. I very much hope that this is not the case because a healthy civil society is not just important but essential for our social, economic, environmental, cultural and democratic well-being. It should be a priority for governments of all political persuasions, as should enabling and promoting an effective voluntary and community sector (VCS). And like all government priorities, this means that we should expect all government policies and actions to support the priority.
The Civil Society Strategy document is an interesting read and contains many warm words. It signals a commitment to civil society and the VCS. And it appreciates that the campaigning and ‘voice’ role, played by many civil society organisations and specifically by VCS groups.
It also recognises the importance of small local charities and VCS groups that speak for and serve local communities. And it even recognises the importance of local VCS infrastructure to support the development and activity of these local groups. Frankly, this is a veritable breakthrough, given that recent governments and the wider public sector have invariably seemed to ignore the value of local VCS infrastructure. There are many other proposals, commitments and statements contained within the Strategy that are to be welcomed by those active in civil society. These should rightly gain the Government some plaudits.
However, it is also important to consider what the Strategy does not address.
There is no acknowledgement of the adverse impact (and challenges imposed) that austerity has and continues to have on civil society and its many organisations and initiatives. In particular, the harm and constraint that competitive, procurement- based commissioning has had on numerous civil society organisations is completely ignored. Indeed, on reading the document, one might conclude that its authors see the VCS principally as contractors to the public sector and surrogates for the State as public services are withdrawn (which has been the case since 2010 and was core to David Cameron ‘Big Society’ policy). Given that most civil society activists do not necessarily share this perspective, this is a major gap and policy difference between the Government and the VCS. And actually, this gap is a serious and dangerous one.
I was particularly surprised and disappointed by the lack of serious reference to the vital role that local government has to play in nurturing civil society. Surely this has to be a localist agenda and not centrally driven. As place shapers and leaders of place, local government should value, enable and support civil society and its VCS component, which should be seen as complementing the former’s place shaping role. Why can central government not see this?
At the end of the day, any government has to be assessed on its track record rather than on its policy strategy documents. And the fact is that when I speak to fellow civil society activists, they refer to: the government’s austerity programme; the shrinking of the state and destruction of critical public services, and their marketisation; ‘welfare’ reform; increasing poverty and inequality; xenophobia and social division; as well as the Lobbying Act and its gagging clauses for the VCS. It is a more than a shame that none of these were addressed in the Civil Society Strategy. Their absence speaks volumes.
I suggest that a strong vibrant civil society has to be based on the principles of collectivism, democratic activism, equality and fairness, with strong communities supported and in turn propagating vigorous social action.
So, whilst thee VCS should engage with Government on this strategy it must do so on its own terms and be resolutely true to its values and principles, and not be seduced by warm words.
Unless the Government can demonstrate through policy, new money and action that it is committed to a vibrant civil society and strong independent VCS this Strategy will prove to be as hollow and vacuous as the ‘Big Society’ was,
Let’s hope that the Strategy’s publication in August was simply a timing error and not a deliberate attempt to avoid the real agenda and some real action. At present, the strategy would seem to be as hollow as the ‘Big Society’ – but I would love to be proven wrong.