Are the devolved nations a model of how to get on with government?

by David Ainsworth, Research Associate at Pro Bono Economics

Civil society and government have a lot to talk about. Both have an interest in improving the wellbeing of citizens, addressing environmental challenges, and making our society fairer and safer. Moreover, an effective relationship between civil society and government supports healthy and functioning democracy.

So what makes for a strong relationship between civil society and government? Personalities, political interest and other cultural factors are part of the equation. But are there structural factors that can help explain why civil society in some countries finds itself working much more closely with government than in others?

In order to understand the relationship between government and civil society in the UK, it may be useful to examine the differences that exist across the four nations. If we observe differences between the relationships within the nations, this may offer clues as to the best way to build stronger connections between the sector and the state.

In particular, there is a general perception within civil society that there are stronger relationships between government and civil society within the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, when compared with the UK government in Westminster.

Overall, there are a number of differences between the central UK government and the devolved administrations, which seem likely to affect the strength and quality of the relationship.

One of the major differences is that of scale. The devolved administrations oversee 1.8million people in Northern Ireland, 3.2m in Wales and 5.5m people in Scotland, compared to just under 68m people in the whole of the UK. The UK is unusual among large, developed nations in that – other than the devolved administrations – it has an extremely centralised governmentThe devolved administrations are similar in size to one of the 19 German states, or to one of the 50 states of the US, but they have no regional parallels within England.

Another major difference is one of political leaning. Wales and Scotland have elected left-of-centre administrations continuously since the first parliaments were established in 1999. In Wales, Labour has held power continuously. In Scotland, Labour held power until 2007, and the SNP has held power since. In Northern Ireland, the political environment is more complex, but a power-sharing agreement exists which includes more left-leaning politicians.

A third difference is around powers and responsibilities. Devolved administrations have relatively little authority over tax, benefits and other aspects of annually managed expenditure, or over defence or international relations. This leads to a greater focus on public service issues, which are also an area of greater focus for a greater proportion of civil society.

All three of these differences appear to have the potential to provide some explanation as to why civil society might have closer relationships with government in devolved administrations.


A difference in tone

When speaking with individuals working in policy in the voluntary sector in other nations, and assessing the various documents and reports produced about the relationship with government in these countries, it becomes clear that relationships are indeed perceived to be closer. In Scotland, a strategic partnership was recently announced between charities, local government and central government.[1] In Wales, there is a legal duty on government to engage with the voluntary sector, formalised in the Third Sector Partnership Council, which sees charities meet twice a year with the First Minister or the senior minister with responsibility for civil society. There are also various smaller engagement processes with individual ministers, and a funding and compliance council.

These closer relationships are perceived as having led to more successful outcomeswith one notable example being funding during the Covid pandemic. The UK government distributed a £750m fund to support charities, but it attracted significant criticism over the amount of the bailout, the tone of the speech which announced it, the length of time it took for the money to get to the frontline, and the decision to divert £1.4m of the pot to a commercial organisation, PwC, to provide “strategic consultancy support services”.[2] Contrastingly, in both Scotland and Wales, charities reported that more funding had been made available, that it had been distributed faster, and that there had been a much greater sense from government that it was important to support the sector. In Scotland, that is explicitly visible in the £300m of support which was pledged on top of the UK government funding for charities, although not all of that went to the sector.[3] In Northern Ireland the picture is more nuanced, but this is complicated by the unique political environment in the region. Northern Irish charities also report more ability to engage with government, but are less confident that this leads to more successful outcomes. This is in part because charities are often seen as being connected to a particular affiliation, either nationalist or unionist, and are therefore viewed with some suspicion at Stormont. 

Yet the closer engagement was not necessarily a solution to familiar problems. In all three administrations, I was told that charities continued to find it problematic to engage with government on similar questions, such as advocacy, service delivery, and funding. I was also told that there was significant variety from individual to individual and from department to department. While overall, relationships were closer and warmer, there were certainly ministers and teams of civil servants who had more complex and difficult relationships with the sector. 


What can be applied to the UK government

The differences between devolved nations and the UK government raise questions about how much of this might be applied to Westminster. It is clear from devolved nations that the benefits of stronger links with government are well worth pursuing. This, then, creates a query around subsidiarity. Is it simply that the scale of government is the problem? If regional government was more dominant in the UK, would that be the appropriate level for most charities to engage? To what extent would it continue to be necessary to lobby centrally, in Westminster?

In my conversations over the years with Council for Voluntary Service leaders at a local level, they have reported exactly the same problems as national leaders – too big a gap in scale between them and the relevant authority (in the case of local leaders, the council). This suggests that it is not that smaller government is more helpful. It’s that relative scale matters. This is a sentiment echoed in my previous conversations with leaders of local authorities. They feel that it is difficult to relate to the small and scattered charities in their area. The same issue is widely reported with regard to government contracts. Government often wishes to commission at a scale which charities are simply too small to bid for.

Perhaps then, the problem is not one of absolute scale, but of comparative scale. In conversation with charity leaders in major cities, however, a slightly different picture emerges. In many cases they are leaders of very small charities engaging with very large government operations, but they report high levels of success. Their position was that it was not scale that was the defining factor, but unity. So long as a single entity was seen as having the authority to negotiate on behalf of the voluntary sector, its scale was less important. One leader of a voluntary sector umbrella body quoted an apocryphal remark, attributed to Henry Kissinger – “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” – to describe the problems many local authority leaders felt they faced.

It was clear in my conversations that charities in devolved nations benefited from having a single voice communicating with government. It appears that in all three nations, a much smaller number of infrastructure organisations communicate with government, and those entities are comparatively largergiven the scale of the country. The largest infrastructure body in England is the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, with a staff count of roughly 100 people, whereas the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action have somewhere in the region of 60-80 staff. The number of infrastructure bodies in the sector has been the subject of debate in England from time to time, including in a recent article by Asheem Singh, director of economy at the Royal Society of Arts and former interim chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. However, there has also been resistance to proposals for mergers, largely on the basis that while it may have some lobbying advantages, it would not be beneficial for service delivery to members, which is currently the primary function of most infrastructure bodies in the voluntary sector.

Another issue which emerges from devolved nations is the need for permanent structures of engagement. Part of the success in Wales, in particular, has been the creation of permanent engagement structures such as the Third Sector Partnership Council. While it is not clear whether these structures would survive intact through a change in government, it appears that they are now relatively well-embedded, and therefore resistant to removal. Similarly, we had an opportunity to see which structures survived best through a change in government in Westminster in 2010. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was those structures which were embedded in law and independent of government. Several funding programmes, such as vinspired, which channelled funds to volunteering programmes, were terminated relatively quickly by the coalition government. The Office of the Third Sector, which had been a significant entity with a budget of more than £250m, was preserved at reduced levels for the first coalition administration, but has since been renamed The Office for Civil Society. In November’s Spending Review, it was announced that the OCS will be “rationalised” to “achieve efficiencies”. But the reformed Charity Commission has fared no worse than other independent regulators, and has even in recent years seen above-inflation increases in its budget.


It does appear that there are stronger connections between civil society and government in the devolved nations. To some extent, this is down to different operating contexts. These are smaller countries, with fewer policy levers, and more left-leaning governments.  At local government level we see some of the same patterns emerge. In at least some cases there are close relationships between city-based voluntary sector infrastructure, and the relevant councils and mayors’ offices.

While some of the issues are contextual, others reflect the structural differences. Charities appear to do better when there are long-term structures in place to facilitate communication, and potentially also a more unified voluntary sector infrastructure. So if we want to create stronger, more powerful connections with government, one way to do it may involve building connections which are overtly apolitical and independent, and are embedded in law.

[1] SCVO, SCVO enters new strategic partnership, 15 March 2021

[2] D Brindle, Barely a quarter of charities’ coronavirus fund for England allocated, the Guardian, 3 August 2020

[3] Scottish Government, Helping communities affected by COVID-19, 18 March 2020