Skip to content

The ‘Secret’ Civil Society Strategy Is More Than a Big Society Reboot

Under the cover of summer, the government launched the first Civil Society Strategy in 15 years. Silently released from calm shores far from Brexit, you could be forgiven for missing it. Of those eagle eyed commentators that did notice its release, many dismissed it as a rehash of the now much-mocked Big Society ideology, and found it fundamentally undermined by on-going deep cuts to services and benefits. It's a response I can understand. Many will find it hard to take seriously a Civil Society
Strategy from a government who they feel, in practice, don't care enough about society. Which is a shame because this is a good piece of policy.

The Big Society was, in essence, a political slogan first, and a programme of work very much second. It was a key plank of the 2010 Conservative Manifesto, which in my view had noble intentions, but was always disconnected from the theory and practice of how to actually build community power. This Civil Society Strategy is in many ways the opposite. It is practical, not polemical, having been developed in close consultation with members of the community sector. It was published with little fanfare and has explicitly drawn upon evidence and experience of what works. It comes across about as non-partisan as it could. I’m not sure even the most vociferous Corbynite could find fault with most of the practical proposals.

What I like most is that it includes a focus on public services. This is newish territory for policy documents like this, which tend to focus on important but hard-to-disagree-with areas such as volunteering and supporting charities. This one recognises that services profoundly affect all our lives and have the potential to be engines for creating a stronger society. The devil is of course in the detail, but here too there are reasons to be hopeful. The strategy recognises that, at present, our services are too often dogged by “a transactional model of service delivery, with an often rigid focus on quantifiable costs, volumes, and timescales rather than on the relationships, flexibility, and patience which the reality of life for many people and communities demands.”

To address this, chapter 5 is dedicated to the tricky, but essential, issue of collaborative commissioning; and chapter 1 contains commitments both to measure the extent to which our services support people’s ‘self-efficacy’, and to re-design them where they fall short. Self-efficacy, an academic description for agency, is the lifeblood of both a healthy society and effective services. It is what transactional services inhibit; and explains why they can be so damaging.

Those familiar with my work will have heard me banging on about self-efficacy for a while, so of course its inclusion makes me happy; but more than that, its presence reflects a granularity in policy-making that is in stark contrast to what we saw for the Big Society, or for that matter, its predecessor, the empowerment agenda.

The challenge will be the extent to which DCMS can persuade those in charge of services at DHSC, MoJ, DWP and others to come aboard. Understanding this, the authors have wisely recruited eight ministers to the crew of HMS ‘Building A Future That Works for Everyone’, each offering statements backing the strategy. Of course, writing the strategy was the easy part, but this is the kind of serious policy-making that, despite not making a splash, might actually make a difference.

Part of
Good Help

Author

Rich Wilson

Rich is a Director of the Osca social impact lab. He is a people power specialist who has worked with hundreds of different organisations, big and small, to help them support people ...