Politicians need to engage with the ‘ends’ not just the ‘means’ of civil society

By Andrew Harrop, General Secretary, Fabian Society 

It is a dozen years since I was a director in a large national charity. Sadly though, most of the challenges the Law Family Commission on Civil Society has identified are painfully familiar. Quite a few of them have been on the sector’s radar for decades. Civil society’s funding is too fragmented and short-term. Limited scale, financial instability and complexity get in the way of building professional capabilities that match the business world. Charities struggle to invest and innovate for the future. And the challenges are growing. The gap between the needs charities are there to address and the money at their disposal is rising. The public standing of charities has been undermined by populist political assaults. And, with limited resources, it is harder than ever to build the capabilities modern organisations need – from mastering data and digital to adequately protecting vulnerable people.

Charities are of course incredibly diverse, and the Commission has had the unenviable task of developing recommendations that apply very broadly across all key parts of the sector. For that reason, I suspect, its focus has been on means more than ends. Perhaps rightly, the Commissioners have concluded it is for charities’ trustees and leadership to determine purpose and goals.

But politicians and policymakers do need to engage with the ‘ends’ not just the ‘means’ when they discuss civil society. And this is particularly true if charities are to play their part in a project of national renewal, which I hope will come with a change of government at the next election. In thinking about civil society’s place in a broader agenda for the country, there are four roles that politicians should want to bolster:

Voice and challenge: Civil society has been cowed by ideological attacks, with many on the political right questioning the legitimacy of charities who wish to campaign, or indeed just think for themselves. When the RNLI and the National Trust are pilloried, the whole sector is in trouble. Those who value the sector as an independent and challenging source of truth to power cannot assume that a change of government will make such problems go away. They need to consider what new laws and regulation will safeguard the rights of charities to run themselves and speak up. But there are responsibilities for charities too. Many still need to do much better at platforming and channelling the voices of the people they work with, and in generating first class evidence to make their case.

Public service partners: There is a possible future where the social sector sits alongside the public sector as the key agent of public service delivery. Traditional charities have always provided statutory and discretionary services in sectors like social care. But housing associations, universities and school academy trusts are also registered charities. Together, they deliver a huge swathe of public services, and many progressive politicians would like to see civil society organisations take on an even larger role in the future, at the expense of private sector contractors. This is politically contested territory, with some on the right wanting the efficiency of the market and some on the left wanting public-only delivery. But if politicians, the public and civil society want it, there is a middle-way to be forged where non-profits are the preferred partners – or in some cases the only permitted partners – of the state.

However, for civil society to replace private outsourcing, policymakers need to consider strategically how to reshape the landscape in which services are commissioned and how to build the capacity of their non-profit partners. And charities who want to play an expanded role as public interest institutions need to think through what accountabilities and responsibilities would come with such privileged status.

Community action: The Commission’s report does not dwell in detail on the critical role charities play as facilitators of community and volunteer capacity and contribution. But from the perspective of politics, this is perhaps the unique attribute that civil society offers which business and government cannot. Whether it is formal volunteering, neighbourhood self-help or traditional sports and leisure clubs, civil society provides our social glue. But we know that when it comes to volunteering, self-organisation and community action there isn’t enough of it, and it is distributed inversely to need. Building capacity and contribution will not be easy (it is now clear that the pandemic did not bring lasting changes to behaviour), but I would like to have heard more from the Commission in this critical area.

Independent philanthropy: The role of philanthropy has never been more important. After 15 years of stagnant living standards and public sector austerity, we are more aware than ever that the state lacks the capacity to meet all social, economic and environmental need. Politicians therefore need to think more about the volume, targeting and effectiveness of private philanthropy. The Commission’s report demonstrates both that there isn’t enough giving, and that it is often done in ways that diminish the effectiveness of charities. More thought is also needed on how to better direct money to the greatest social need and to the most impactful solutions. The Commission has lots of useful ideas on increasing giving and delivering it in ways that better serve charities and their beneficiaries. But it will take a huge change in policy and culture to achieve the levels of philanthropy seen in the USA.

This piece was written in response to the publication of the report ‘Unleashing the power of civil society’