As the general election gets closer, sector bodies are publishing their manifestos and buffing up their policy requests. Sector leaders jostle to have the minister for Civil Society on speed dial and speaking at their events. As a sector, we do a good job of fawning over politicians and behaving like government policies are all that matters for the sector’s future.
All the evidence, however, points to the opposite. Politicians have had barely any positive impact on the shape of the sector over the last decade.
Don’t believe me? Well our State of the Sector survey with Third Sector magazine last summer garnered the opinions of 600 charity workers. We asked how well they thought the current government had delivered on its three aims: getting more resources into the sector, making it easier to work with government and making it easier to run a charity. Less than 6% thought the government had done any of those things.
When we asked about specific policies, the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme was thought to have been the most successful. Given it raised far less than forecast and is universally derided for its bureaucratic constraints, this is a pretty serious indictment. Nick Hurd, one of the longest serving ministers for Civil Society, is rumoured to have said that the National Citizen Service is one of his greatest achievements. In our survey, just 6% thought its impact was positive.
If we lift up our sights from the details for a moment, it is worth remembering that the current government’s strategy for the sector has gone from the Big Society to the Lobbying Act in three short years, via the Give it Back George fiasco of course.
I am not trying to tell you that the last Labour government was much better. They had one crowning achievement, Gift Aid, and a host of tiny initiatives like the Compact, and, er, that’s all I can remember. Their record wasn’t helped by changing Ministers for Civil Society more often than Premier League football clubs change their managers.
This lack of government impact on the sector masks two deeper problems. The first is that what we really want from government is money and lots of it. The second is that by devoting all that energy to trying (and failing) to get the government to deliver some dosh, we have given up on trying to come up with our own solutions to our own problems. Reading those same manifestos and organisational strategies from sector bodies, it’s depressing how few big ideas there are for civil society or even the charity sector.
Let me put that more bluntly. When there isn’t any money on offer or to fight for, we really don’t know which direction we want the sector to be heading in. We may universally deride the Big Society, which was probably thought up in the back of a ministerial car on the way to an event, but what is the sector’s home-grown alternative?
So perhaps come the summer and a new government, we should spend less time working out what the new minister is, or isn’t, going to do and more time working out how to stand on our own two feet.
To paraphrase that immortal line in Death of a Salesman, ‘the World is an oyster, but you don’t crack it open on a Minister’.
Something in Commons with that? Or have we lost your vote? Leave us a comment below.