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Civil Society Strategy: what NGOs need to know

The government has published its Civil Society Strategy, which will set the direction of government policy towards civil society over the next decade. The document covers everything from campaigning to commissioning.

Its recognition that a strong and independent civil society is vital to a healthy democracy is indeed welcome. While there is much to be praised – especially its renewed commitment to grants and commitment to include civil society in decision-making – it is light on detail and action.

Here are the most relevant and interesting parts of the strategy for Bond members.

Civil society and social value

Social value is a red thread running through the strategy, and is at the heart of its definition of civil society. The government views civil society as made up of individuals and organisations independent of state control, that work to enrich lives and create a fairer society for all. This includes businesses, as well as organisations such as charities and social enterprises, which are more commonly thought of as civil society.

Bond supports the use of an inclusive definition which captures the diversity of civil society in the UK today. We recognise that boundaries between private and civil society sectors have become much less distinct than they used to be, and there are more relationships and interdependences between them. However, there remain significant differences, especially between profit making and non-profit organisations, and the strategy would be stronger if it recognised that these organistions face different challenges.

Confidence to campaign

The government’s determination to ensure that charities have the confidence to speak out and have a strong advocacy and campaigning role is laudable, as are its commitments to work with regulators to explore what non-legislative steps can be taken to improve the situation, and to convene a cross-government group to establish principles for effective engagement in policy making. However, this does not go far enough; the government must revise the Lobbying Act and end the use of anti-advocacy clauses. Real confidence will come from actions not words.

The Lobbying Act and anti-advocacy clauses

The strategy says nothing about revising the Lobbying Act and it reaffirms the government’s commitment to using anti-advocacy clauses. It states that it is “right” that charities should be prohibited from spending government funding on “political campaigning or lobbying” but that “simply being in receipt of taxpayers’ money should not inhibit charities from making their voices heard”.

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The big issue here is that it’s not clear what is meant by political campaigning or lobbying. For example, would providing negative feedback about a government funded programme, and then asking for policy change off the back of this, count as political lobbying?

Sustainable Development Goals

The strategy highlights DFID’s support for the World Benchmarking Alliance, which ranks big global companies on their contribution to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. It also says that the government is exploring wider UK business engagement with the goals. Although this is welcome, its noticeable that that the goals are only mentioned in relation to supporting responsible business. Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals requires a whole of government approach, and that government, charities and business work in partnership to ensure that no one is left behind, either here in the UK or abroad. With the UK’s Voluntary National Review just around the corner, it’s disappointing that the strategy says so little about how the government will work with all elements of civil society ‚Äì and not just businesses ‚Äì to meet the goals.

Grants 2.0

We welcome the renewed commitment to grant-making in the strategy, which is referred to as Grants 2.0. This new approach to grant-making will, according to the government, “reflect the fact that grants can combine flexibility with the accountability and performance rigour of a contract”. However, there is a risk that Grants 2.0 combines the worst of both worlds. Grants and contracts are very different; where grants give recipients a lot of control over design, outcomes and approach, commercial contracts have tight, predefined objectives that are set by the donor. DFID and other donors should resist any “hybridisation” approach to grants and contracts, where grants become more like contracts, as the two serve different purposes.

Collaborative commissioning

The strategy includes a commitment to invest in collaborative commissioning, where all stakeholders, including charities, are involved in the design of new policies and programmes. It is not clear whether this will be applied to the international context, and if so what this will look like. If it means local communities in the Global South having more say in how official development assistance (ODA) is spent then this would be positive, but more detail is required.

The Social Value Act

The government will apply the principles of the Social Vale Act to all government spending and decision making. This is very welcome. Bond has been supporting members to improve their understanding of social value, so it is great that the government will put this at the heart of its policy and grant making. We will also continue to work with DFID to help them understand and see the benefits of CSOs as key delivery partners, with an added social value, and as a way to help them widen their supplier base.