What holds civil society back from unleashing its full potential?

Written by Anoushka Kenley, Director of Research and Policy at Pro Bono Economics

The past few weeks have finally felt like the beginning of Spring. Or at least, the cold, dark days of December feel like a long time ago. It’s been nearly 3 months since the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport helped Pro Bono Economics to launch the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, two years of research and policy work focused on unleashing the potential of civil society in the 2020s.  

We have a lot in store for the coming monthswith the first wave of our research on civil society and levelling up, the state of UK philanthropy and civil society data gaps all coming soon. And today we are launching our call for evidence – helping us gather evidence, insights and aspirations for our work over the next two years. 

But before looking forward, I want to spend a bit of time looking backwards. What, if anything, has changed since the Commission was launched all those distant weeks ago?  

One thing that hasn’t changed is the tough financial circumstances many civil society organisations still find themselves in. Official forecasts published alongside last week’s Budget suggested the economy will return to its pre-pandemic level of GDP by spring 2022  six months earlier than was forecast in November, but still an indication that the financial hardship facing many organisations, including the 23 per cent of charities that told us in January that their income fell by more than a quarter last year, won’t disappear when (and if) restrictions are lifted in June.  

We also learnt last week that, despite a widely supported and co-ordinated askthe Government isn’t prepared to offer further, targeted financial support to the charity sectorAnd yet, this chimes oddly with how much the public value charities and community groups. In January, we learnt that that 60% of British adults believe charities and community groups will play an important role in the country’s recovery from Covid 

These things underline several of the major themes of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society. First, that civil society tends to be undervaluedand its contribution is often overlooked compared to the private sector, contrary to how much we as individuals tend to value it. Second, a lack of comprehensive and timely data about the state of the social sector is making it hard for policy makers to respond nimbly to challenges organisations feel on the ground. Third, that the financial challenges facing many civil society organisations currently are unlikely to take a sudden U-turn, making it more imperative than ever that what resources we do have are used as effectively as possible. 

But there are also reasons to be optimistic. For example on 1 January, strengthened social value act rules, requiring a minimum 10 per cent social value weighting on tenders, came into force. And the Government is currently consulting on its overall approach to procurement, explicitly citing achieving “best social value for money” as an ambition. Plenty of civil society organisations are concerned that what Government is proposing doesn’t go far enough. But at least social value is creeping up the agenda, albeit slowly. These are some of the footholds that might provide a route into changing how we conceive of, and how government works with, civil society.  

If we want to scale up and accelerate this progress, we need to have big ambitions and big ideas – a mix of practical solutions (like improving social sector data) and changing of hearts and minds (like how policy makers value what civil society provides).  

To do so, this Commission has to be a dialogue – across organisations, across sectors– because we will need to achieve cross-sector consensus to make real progress here, and change will never come from one organisation alone making the case.  

So launching today’s Call for Evidence, we want to hear not only from charities, community groups, social enterprises, volunteers, services users and community leaders, but also from policy makers, and both purpose-led and profit-led businesses. We want to hear examples, good or bad, of civil society working with government and with business. We want to know what holds civil society back from unleashing its full potential and what existing evidence we need to build on. And we want to know what you’d most like us to achieve over the next two years – even if that’s a radically different looking Budget 2023.