London at night

UK Civil Society Strategy one year on: actions speak louder than words

Launched in August 2018, the UK government’s Civil Society Strategy set out how government will work with and for civil society in the long term to “create a country that works for everyone”.

The strategy intends to set the direction for government policy and focused on the “five foundations of social value”, These were:

  • people
  • places
  • the social sector
  • the private sector
  • the public sector.

The intention is to help strengthen organisations with similar goals, and work with them to co-create the civil society of the future.

What did the government say it would do?

The commitments in the strategy have a number of promising aspects: greater opportunities for civil society to contribute to policy-making. Strengthening civil society’s confidence in speaking out, regenerating grant funding, rolling out the Social Value Act across-government, and collaborative commissioning were proposed. We welcomed the offer to work with civil society, regulators and other government departments to determine how to support advocacy and campaigning in the UK.

There have been some good examples of engagement with civil society over the past year. For civil society organisations working in international development, for example, DFID’s work on its disability strategy brought in civil society in a meaningful way, and the department are also working collaboratively with civil society to revise their approach to cost recovery.

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However these examples of good engagement are scattered. Individual cases of good engagement do not add up to the promises laid out in the Civil Society Strategy. It is important that commitments on engagement must be respected and implemented across government as a whole in order for the Civil Society Strategy to be realised.

Confidence to campaign

Despite strategy’s positive language, the strategy said nothing about revising the Lobbying Act and it reaffirmed the government’s commitment to using anti-advocacy clauses. Bond has continued to campaign for the revision of the Lobbying Act.

We have also worked with the Electoral Commission to simplify the guidance on campaigning during elections. The revised guidance is expected to be released in the coming months and will be easier to understand. This will hopefully encourage more charities to campaign within the restrictions of the act.

We met with the Cabinet Office to discuss gagging clauses in grant agreements. The Cabinet Office intends to renew its guidance later on this year and has expressed a desire to work with civil society to evaluate grant recipients’ experiences.

We maintain that the best way of giving civil society the confidence to speak out is to explore legislative steps, such as revising the Lobbying Act, and for the government to stop inserting anti-advocacy clauses into grant agreements.

CSOs contributing to policy-making

Earlier this year, we released Ensuring civil society is heard, a report which looked at relationships between civil society and government. The report concluded that the quality of relationships was in decline as government had not engaged constructively enough with CSOs on international development. This effectively excludes them from the policy-making process.

Since the publication of this report, we have been working constructively with DFID on developing a more effective relationship that will deliver mutual benefits. We hosted a roundtable with the sector and DFID earlier in the summer, allowing members to discuss future engagement on learning and innovation, how DFID can share learnings, their thoughts on Aid Connect, as well as localisation and civic space.

DFID’s funding approach

The Department for International Development (DFID) has renewed its commitment to funding civil society organisations through grants with the new round of UK Aid Match and its commitment to reviewing UK Aid Direct. As a result of the findings of ICAI’s review into DFID’s partnership with civil society, DFID has extended the deadline for all grant proposal applications to 12 weeks which they hope will make it easier for organisations to manage their resources.

DFID has also been open to discussions with the Bond Funding Group on the most effective way to fund civil society. But, to date, we have only had discussions, and DFID has not yet committed to changing their approach.

Grants 2.0

We have not however seen Grants 2.0 as was outlined in the civil society strategy. Instead DFID has continued their focus on commercial contracts. They recently tendered the International Multi-Disciplinary Programme Framework Agreement (IMDP) which is likely to have up to £1.3bn of ODA going through it.

To access this funding, civil society organisations (CSOs) will need to either be part of the framework already, or be connected with the consortia leads. If DFID wants CSOs to be able to access this funding they should extend the time from tender release to deadline so that it gives more time for those that are not part of the framework to find suitable consortia to connect with.

The Social Value Act

Earlier this year, the Cabinet Office launched a consultation into the Social Value Act, and how it could be implemented across government. The Bond Contracts Group submitted a response which highlighted how their proposed approach would be difficult to implement within international contexts. We will wait to see the next version of the Social Value Act and we hope that it has taken into account these international contexts.

Our asks

We want to see a re-invigoration of energy and commitment from the new government to implement their civil society strategy. The strategy’s statement of “the strategy outlines a bold vision that will be realised over the long-term. This period will span multiple parliaments and spending periods. The emergence of new pieces of work will inevitably depend on the outcomes of this exploratory work and decisions taken at future reviews of spending with the agreement of all relevant departments” needs to demonstrate consistent meaningful action in line with its commitments, otherwise the strategy might become empty rhetoric.

In order to realise the strategy, the new government should produce a plan as to how it will be achieved, with clear objectives, a theory of change, and anticipated milestones. It should also work closely with civil society to do so. We look forward to working with the new civil society minister, Baroness Barran on this plan.

Read more about the Civil Society Strategy and what it means and should mean to NGOs.