The Civil Society Strategy – what will it mean for you?

The Civil Society Strategy clearly recognises the value of strong, resilient communities.

Ailbhe McNabola

Head of Research and Policy, Power to Change

Today, the Government has – rather quietly – published its Civil Society Strategy, presented as the companion to the Industrial Strategy, suggesting that the social sector is as important as industry. But with very little real funding dedicated to supporting civil society, there’s a danger that the words won’t amount to much.

If you want a good summary of the strategy, Liz Chamberlain at NCVO has condensed the key points very nicely. Here’s what I found relevant for the community business sector:

 

Government wants to help to grow communities’ financial and social capital. The value of strong, resilient communities is clearly recognised. The strategy commits Government to ‘do more’ to help communities take ownership of public buildings and other local assets, and source alternative funding – with £35m being made available to support this via Big Society Capital.

We believe that community asset ownership matters, it builds resilience and gives communities leverage. We’ve seen community share issues work well as a way of raising capital and engaging the community – which is why we are match funding them through our Community Shares Booster programme and Community Shares Starter Fund – very often motivated by the desire to buy a cherished local asset.

Alongside this, there is a promise that Government will launch pilot projects in 2019 aimed at creating more sustainable community hubs and spaces, especially where they are lacking. And there’s an announcement of £20m for Community Foundations.

 

Local economies. The strategy states that “in the future the public sector will focus more on the needs of places and take a more collaborative approach”. We also believe in focused working in a particular place, bringing together the public, private and social sector in that place. There are references to local industrial strategies, the reform of Local Enterprise Partnerships. But it’s not clear how a substantial change will be brought about here. We believe that the social sector is an important part of local economies and should be involved in local strategic planning. Making that a consistent reality will take a lot of commitment from central government and enthusiastic adoption by LEPs and local authorities.

 

Public services. The strategy recognises that “many of our public services began life outside government, often in the social sector” and talks about wanting to shift towards “collaborative commissioning”, with local players involved in service design and delivery. To this end, there is a commitment to apply the principles of the Social Value Act to all central government spending. Of course, commissioning for social value has been a feature of local government spending for some time – but we as know, it’s a mixed picture and the smallest organisations, like community businesses, are struggling to get noticed or get commissioned. There is also a commitment to develop a common measure of social value for the private and public sectors. This is sorely lacking and Government could play a leading role in developing a shared understanding of what social value is and how it should be measured.

 

Grants are back. Not, perhaps, in any large way but it’s important that, after years of focus on competitive tendering, there is a recognition that grants make a positive difference. We know, from our experience as a funder and supporter of community business, that there is a role for grants to play to help organisations develop their businesses and work towards financial independence. It’s good to see this being acknowledged by central government; I hope that local government will similarly think about the strategic role that grants can play in the development of their local economy and society.

 

Giving the social sector a clearer route to talk to Government. There are a couple of new forums announced, to help improve the communication between Government and the social sector. We particularly welcome the ‘responsible business Leadership Group’ which will lead the debate on the role of business in society. Community businesses are ‘mission first’ but they are also very much businesses, generating surpluses to deliver on their social mission. They are an exemplar for how business can combine mission and profit – we know from our research that this creates a constant tension, but perhaps that is a healthy one.

 

The strategy says a number of positive things that chime with our experience of what matters in supporting and growing community business sector. But, as ever, the real test is in the implementation – will we see LEPs proactively engaging with their local social sector in developing economic strategies? Will collaborative commissioning take off? With local authorities poised to dispose of a lot of their estates, will more assets make their way into community hands? These are the kinds of changes we want to see over the coming years. If you’re seeing this start to happen, or gather pace, we’d love to hear about it.