The final article in this series will look at the content of The Blue Book of the Voluntary Sector, following explorations into the ideas and themes in both The Red Book and The Yellow Book. The Blue Book was written whilst Brooks Newmark was serving as the Minister for Civil Society, and his replacement by Rob Wilson in October and the implications of this swap will also be briefly explored.
Given Newmark’s short tenure, it is the analysis of the sector by his predecessor Nick Hurd that might be the most pertinent for charities, and he contributes to the essay collection. Hurd suggests that the sector is stronger than it believes, whilst acknowledging the impact of spending reductions in some areas. He praises greater awareness of CSR in the business community and cites the impact that the Social Value Act is having, adding that he sought to create a culture which encouraged charities and social enterprises to find new social solutions and deliver them to scale.
Whilst the past five years have been dominated by the language of the Big Society, the relationship between the Conservative Party and charities extends well beyond that. Kwasi Kwarteng traces the roots of civil society to the 19th Century, arguing that the modern expression of values by Conservatives takes much inspiration from that, whilst criticising Labour for intertwining government funding too closely with civil society. Drawing on lessons from his constituency, Kwarteng argues that civil society needs support from the state but should become an extension of it, and calls for a greater focus on active citizenship and ensuring that civil society operates in a space independent of government.
But what of the Big Society? For Jesse Norman, it remains an important idea and a way of challenging traditional power relationships. Norman sees political attacks as limiting the impact of the Big Society but also diving thinking on the political left. For Norman, although programmes such as National Citizen Service and Big Society Capital are viewed as successes, there is still a belief that the Civil Service needs to better understand changes in the power dynamic. Norman sees the Big Society as the most effective way to challenge the risk of ‘crony capitalism,’ and calls for the Conservatives to reiterate the principles of the Big Society at the 2015 election. Agreeing, Danny Kruger suggests, tongue in cheek, that David Cameron should brand himself as a ‘new socialist,’ committed to using the power of society to protect minorities, defend local communities, and create opportunities for greater social mobility.
It is the relationship between the sector and the state that attracts the attention of the majority of contributors. John Glen calls for donors to think carefully about the causes that they choose to support, and argues for the creation of a ‘robust society.’ For Glen, the best way to strengthen civil society is through the expanded use of both formal and informal networks, and ensuring that faith and church-based projects are not marginalised. Glen praises the OCS for creating master classes for bidding for contracts, but believes that commissioning processes need to be amended to be more accessible to smaller charities. Kruger wants to see the government help to build civil society on the ground to support smaller charities, but warns of the danger when the sector campaigns for itself, and not the myriad of causes and people that it helps.
Charlotte Leslie is more critical of policy makers, arguing that sometimes the importance of people and their values can be overshadowed by processes. Leslie believes that many government organisations can learn a lot from the charitable sector, and praises the intertwined values of charities, and their staff and volunteers. Leslie wants to see greater personalisation in the provision of public services, and sees sectors such as healthcare, welfare and criminal justice as beneficiaries of an increased role for charities and implementation of their approaches. There is of course a role for the volunteer within this vision, and Sarah Newton argues that harnessing the dedication of volunteers creates an extra resource for the public sector, and that volunteer-led collaborative working can generate impressive improvements in wellbeing and quality of life. For Newton, greater interaction with the charity sector will have a positive impact on public sector commissioners.
With the election set to be dominated by the economy, Penny Mordaunt argues that the future will have to include new ways of funding services. Mordaunt believes that the government could use money more effectively by co-ordinating planning, sharing good practice, and ensuring that civil servants responsible for commissioning have a greater understanding of the charity sector. Approaches could involve better use of public and private partnerships, Mordaunt calls for the Cabinet Office to lead by consulting with corporate and third sector fundraisers to find sustainable financial solutions.
The need for a better approach from government is also seen as a priority by Dominic Raab, who warns that Whitehall can over-value the savings associated with short-term cuts. He praises charities that focus on preventative models, and suggests that charities helping NEETs into work or training could be allowed to fully recover their VAT costs. In addition, he argues that Payment-by-Results contracts need to better take into account savings made to the wider taxpayer through prevention. Chris White, author of the Social Value Act, believes that this is already helping to transform the commissioning process, and praises local authorities for applying the legislation to contracts for good as well as services. White wants to see acknowledgement of social value across all departments and not just in individual contracts. One way of ensuring this would, White proposes, see the appointment of a Social Value Champion in each local authority.
Since becoming the new Civil Society Minister, Rob Wilson has begun to set out his thoughts for the future of the sector, and a recent interview with Third Sector explores his ideas further. In the interview, Wilson reiterates his belief that charities can continue to campaign as long as they do not cross into the party political sphere, and prioritises the sustainability of the sector through more proactive commissioning and capacity building. Contrary to the wishes of Norman and Kruger, Wilson foresees a reduced role for the Big Society in the pre-election rhetoric, but promises a “strong manifesto” for civil society.
The contributions in The Blue Book demonstrate that although the Big Society may not be as prominent in 2015 as in 2010, a number of Conservative politicians are keen to see the themes live on. There is appetite for greater collaboration between charities and government, and an awareness that commissioning processes can be improved to open up new opportunities to the sector, and harness the impact of the expertise that charities are able to bring. These and other ideas can be explored further in the essays contained within The Blue Book.
The past five years have been challenging for charities, with reductions in grant funding, and the wider economy making it difficult for donors to continue to contribute. In testing times the relationship between the sector and government is of even more importance, and the production of manifestos in the coming months will give charity leaders greater insight into what the next few years will have store for them. The Social Leaders Debate that we’re hosting with ACEVO later this month will explore the themes and ideas contained within these collections in more detail, and seek to ensure that charities are provided with the support and resources they need in the years ahead.