In response to the pressures of eight years of efficiency savings, last week the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport released “the first Civil Society Strategy in 15 years”. The plan aims to bring together charities, business and the public sector to empower communities.
You may be thinking that this plan sounds familiar; it has been criticised along these lines. First as a misnomer ignoring David Cameron’s Big Society programme, implemented not quite 15 years ago, but just shy of 7.
More importantly, the strategy is considered a repetition of Cameron’s policy; putting voluntary organisations under undue financial pressure by expecting their funding to replace decreases in government budgets.
While the new strategy has a continuing problem with uncertain funding, appropriate models for supporting charity financing are being developed. Compared to Big Society Capital, whose loan funding repaid through income streams was inadequate for the charity sector, a variety of means for financing charities are mentioned in the new report.
Two changes stand out; releasing £20 million from inactive charity trusts to give to grassroots community organisations, and renewing grant making with the new Grant Functional Standard recommended to all grant providing public bodies.
Charities focused on causes related to supporting disadvantaged young people into employment and providing accommodation for vulnerable groups can also expect some support from the £225 million allocated by government to tackle these concerns.
Yet a recurring theme amongst the opinions of social sector leaders is that the strategy is a “good start, could do more.” While the Dormant Bank and Building Society Act has made over half a billion pounds available to the Social Sector, the NCVO and Locality refer to the Dormant Asset Commission identifying that over £2 billion should be released. Furthermore, the government application of grants is considered underdeveloped by the Charity Finance Group and Lloyds Bank Foundation in terms of detail and amount.
Financially, the new plan has flaws. Outside of funding concerns however, the strategy could present charities some much needed clarification on their relationship with the government.
Two immediate points are of note here. First, the government has renewed the compact initially signed by the Blair government and subsequently renewed by the Coalition government. The documents for these can be found here and here respectively. Second, the government is looking to develop non-legislative best practice rules for charities to influence policy without breaking lobbying laws which the Lobby Act has made particularly challenging for charities to follow.
The benefit of this is to reduce the significant level of uncertainty surrounding the Lobbying Act as to the boundaries of what constitutes legitimately and illegitimately influencing policy. However, the change to the relationship is in an exploratory phase and any uncertainty is likely to continue during the period of policy development.
Coincidentally, ongoing policy developments regulating charities seem to reflect Conservative party demands for the role that charities should play. Our research with MPs from 2016 showed that compared to their Labour counterparts, Conservative MPs are more likely to perceive the charity sector as “too political” (61% to 10%) and that they should not campaign in Parliament (24% to 4%).
When prescribing the role of charity, the new civil society report also reflects Conservative MP views that the third sector should be involved in the design of public services. A view which is not reflected by the general public, whose support for charities playing a greater role in the provision of public services seems to have declined from 56% in 2009 to 41% in 2017.
With what feels like another attempt to introduce charities as a replacement for public services, an inadequate increase in funding and a more lenient reformatting of the Lobbying Act, coincidentally this does seem to tick all Conservative party perspectives on what charities should (and shouldn’t) be doing.
Reading this report, I am, rather pedantically, reminded of the difference between tactics and strategy. This is a not a new strategy; the aim is the same. The tactics have changed; grants and a more stable relationship between government and charities, but much greater detail is required on these measures.
“Good start, could do a lot more.”
 NfpSynergy, Charity Parliamentary Monitor, 2016 Q3
 NfpSynergy, Charity Parliamentary Monitor, 2016 Q1