Closer connections – the social sector’s voice needs to be stronger in government

By Nicole Sykes, PBE Policy and Communications Director

As new Ministers take up their briefs this week, one of the first things many will do is review which organisations they want to meet with in their early days, and who will advise them in the months ahead. With the cost of living crisis encroaching, a strong relationship between the social sector and government is essential.

Ministers can benefit hugely from a close relationship with the charities, community groups and voluntary organisations that make up the social sector. Social sector organisations gather rapid insights about the state of our economy and society – often well before other sectors – and that valuable intelligence can help to guide decision-making. Social sector organisations will be testing solutions to the problems faced by communities across the country, learning about what works and what doesn’t, which can be gold dust for policymakers. And as Ministers are developing policies, a close relationship with social sector organisations means they can stress test those policies with experts, to tease out how they might work in reality and make them as effective as possible before they launch.

When the social sector and government work in real partnership, success very often follows. The vaccine programme is a perfect example. The government and social sector worked hand in hand, including to convince vaccine-sceptic communities to get their Covid jabs.

The most formal route of regular engagement with external organisations the UK government undertakes  is through its advisory groups. In addition to undertaking thousands of meetings with individual organisations and hundreds of one-off roundtables each year, the UK government maintains a range of strategy boards, advisory committees, sector and scientific councils, working groups, taskforces and expert panels which meet anywhere between weekly and annually to provide input into policymaking. The Law Family Commission on Civil Society has reviewed the membership of over 270 of the UK government’s advisory groups, to understand where policymakers are benefiting from the insights of the social sector and where it might be missing out.

This analysis shows that, overall, the social sector has good engagement with government through this formal route. Representatives of the social sector make up almost 10% of members of the UK government’s active advisory groups, which is comparable to the proportion of the economy that the social sector makes up.

This level of representation does differ across departments. To some extent, this is to be expected. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has specific responsibility for communities, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has specific responsibility for civil society, so social sector representation ought to be higher in these department’s advisory groups. Indeed, this is the case, with representatives from the social sector making up 23% of the members of DLUHC’s advisory groups and 13% of the members of DCMS’s advisory groups.

However, the social sector is not well represented in the departments which focus on the economy. Representatives from the social sector make up fewer than 3% of the members of the Treasury’s advisory groups and around 5% of the members of the advisory groups run by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The social sector is an important part of the UK economy, but low levels of engagement between the sector and economic departments reflects that it is often not regarded as such. Yet charities employ almost a million people, and that workforce has grown at twice the rate of the rest of the economy over the last decade. Charities help people furthest from the labour market to find work, help people in the most serious financial difficulty to escape it, and help to create the conditions for entrepreneurship. Overall, charities in the UK are estimated to contribute around £180 billion in value each year, while charitable foundations are responsible for £70bn in assets.

A step-change in the relationship between the social sector and the government’s economic departments is therefore urgently needed. The Treasury could benefit from the social sector’s insights on a wide range of issues, for instance as part of existing Ministerial advisory groups on timely payments and taxation, and more generally from greater input from consumer groups and charities supporting those in serious debt, for example.

BEIS is the most prolific government department for external engagement. BEIS Ministers are responsible for around a fifth of all ministerial engagement declared by the UK government. There are numerous groups in BEIS which social sector organisations could be added to in order to ensure that Ministers and officials have a truly comprehensive understanding of the state of the economy. These include:

  • The AI Council, as charities have incredible untapped potential to utilise AI for good, and a number of civil society groups have a strong interest in the ethics of AI.
  • Regular meetings with energy companies, where the growing cohort of small community energy organisations are currently unrepresented.
  • The Hospitality Council, which could benefit from the voices of charities like Hospitality Action which support hospitality staff experiencing difficulty.
  • The Life Sciences Council, as health charities are a fundamental part of the life sciences eco-system, with medical research charities believed to fund half (51%) of all publicly-funded medical research nationally.
  • The Retail Council, which is currently missing out on the insights that charity retailers could provide.

Representation of the social sector within the government’s economic departments is additionally important because the approaching recession is likely to have a serious effect on the sector’s finances. Donations are expected to be suppressed, and costs are already rising. At this time of economic uncertainty, the government therefore needs to keep a careful eye on the sector’s health and its ability to support the people who need it.
The voices of the umbrella organisations which represent the social sector are key to providing a ‘helicopter view’ of the sector’s health. However, social sector umbrella organisations have a history of under-representation at the government’s table. According to data from Transparency International, throughout 2020, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) – the biggest umbrella body in the charity sector – had just 10 meetings with government Ministers. In comparison, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) had almost 200 meetings with government Ministers over the same time period. At present, the charity sector’s umbrella bodies meet quarterly with the Minister for Civil Society, while the private sector’s umbrella bodies meet weekly with the Business Secretary.
It would be deeply worrying if this shallow relationship between the social sector and government decision-makers is allowed to persist as the cost of living crisis deepens. Ministers would miss out on direct insight on the health of the social sector and those it supports, and the social sector would miss out on direct insight from Ministers which could help guide the direction it takes.

The appointment of a new government under a new Prime Minister provides an opportunity for a new commitment to partnership between the social sector and government – in the interest of those that they are both committed to serve.

As new Ministers take up their posts, one of the early decisions many will make is whether or not they will maintain the groups which regularly advise them. From nuclear energy to suicide prevention, human rights to apprenticeships, and HIV to heritage, social sector organisations are providing valuable viewpoints that Ministers will hopefully continue to hear from. In the areas where Ministers are not hearing from the social sector, the arrival of a new government presents an opportune moment to assert the importance of the sector’s voice – particularly its importance to the economy, and the significance of its umbrella bodies.

As the cost of living crisis escalates, both government and the social sector need to extend themselves if a true partnership between the two is to be established. Building a partnership requires trust, a genuine commitment to listen, and hard work. There is a good foundation of connections to build upon, but much more to be done.