In this guest blog, Sarah Vibert, Interim CEO of NCVO, discusses how the voluntary sector can work with and influence government. Sarah will be speaking about the social sector’s response to Covid-19 and how we can rebuild post-pandemic at NPC Ignites. Book your ticket to hear more from Sarah and to put your questions to her.
Over the past year, there have been many challenges for the voluntary sector to respond to and this has been a real test of strength for our relationship with government—with lessons both positive and negative for us to learn from. But in parallel, the sector’s infrastructure bodies – such as NCVO, which provide advice and support nationally to other charities on operating effectively, and represent the interests of those charities to decision-makers, and others which provide specific support to sub-sectors and roles—have been brought closer than ever before. This gives me cause for optimism about how we, as a sector, are organising and collaborating, and what this means for how we relate to government in future.
A complex relationship
Our combined relationship with government is as complex as it is diverse. With over 163,000 voluntary organisations in the UK, this is no surprise. Many of those are delivering public services in partnership with the state, while others are representing and standing up for marginalised communities and issues—often challenging the government. And in more recent times of austerity, many voluntary organisations are picking up the pieces because of government policies.
Some parts of the voluntary sector have developed excellent relationships with central government departments, often due to a combination of political tides, governmental interests, and effective influencing, for example, the environmental subsector. Furthermore, at the local level, a majority of organisations told us that local authorities had become more responsive to their needs as a result of the pandemic.
Influencing government during the pandemic
The pandemic has been one of the greatest tests of the government’s relationship with voluntary sector infrastructure. Restrictions meant many organisations struggled to raise the income they needed to deliver vital services to people and communities.
In response, infrastructure organisations came together and coordinated a sector-wide campaign for support from government, to help meet the increasing need of the communities the sector serves. Many commentators have criticised the resulting £750m of funding as too slow and not enough. While this may be true, overall, I believe it is one of the most significant achievements of the infrastructure community in recent times, enabling the support of vital services over a very difficult period.
When NCVO leaders spoke to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on the day that the £750m fund was agreed, it was far from a done deal. Getting government to make changes to other coronavirus support schemes, so that voluntary organisations could access them, was another important—but less talked about—achievement by the infrastructure bodies. Our influencing efforts should be considered a success.
As we said at the time, charities don’t have a right to exist, but people do have a right to access the vital services they’re providing. The campaign was never about charities as organisations. This was always about how our communities could best survive a global health, economic and social crisis. We did however, underestimate the resilience and innovativeness of charities. The voluntary sector is bigger this year—not smaller—compared to last year, with a 3% rise in employees as of September 2020. We’ve seen fewer charity dissolutions than we’d expect in a normal year. And public donations exceed expectations.
The worst-case scenario didn’t happen because of the collective efforts from government, trusts and foundations, the public, and charities—not because it was never going to happen.
A government wary of our work
But our work to secure that support package did expose our limitations as infrastructure. It was clear that we did not have the strength of relationships, particularly with Conservative MPs, that we thought we did. Ministers, officials, and parliamentarians didn’t understand our sector as much as they thought they did. Some were—and remain—actively hostile to the work we do.
Over the past 20 years, charities have taken on a greater share of public service delivery, as partners of local and national governments. Many in central government are wary of this. The bargain struck at the turn of the century, through the Compact, was that charities would do so while retaining the ability to critique and campaign on issues. Repeatedly, we see this undermined. Only last month, the then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, suggested that the future chair of the Charity Commission should ‘harness the oversight powers of the Commission’ to shift charities away from ‘woke’ work.
The importance of partnership and collaboration
However, as an infrastructure community, we do have wide access to government. Our challenge is to turn that access into influencing power. I firmly believe the best way to do this is to work collaboratively. This ensures that we have a consistent collective message. It will also increase our collective capacity—the combined policy departments of the national voluntary sector infrastructure bodies still doesn’t match the CBI’s policy team in terms of size.
We are building new partnerships with government too, launching a formal partnership programme with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to collaborate on shared priorities. Plus, alongside Lloyds Bank Foundation, we are partnering with Bright Blue to build new relationships with influential figures across the centre right of UK politics. We will focus on how the voluntary sector can support the government to deliver its ‘levelling up’ agenda. Not everyone likes the language, but I believe this is another way of talking about reducing inequalities—an agenda where voluntary organisations have a lot to offer.
The tensions inherent in relationships with government
We must build these relationships, while simultaneously defending the work of charities against political interference. Furthermore, we should partner with the government, while remaining independent and capable of speaking out without fear, knowing we can offer unique perspectives and expertise.
As a sector that is working to be more inclusive, it is important that government influencing is no longer something done behind closed doors. A modern approach to influencing involves sharing power and access and ensuring we are amplifying the voices of people and local communities. NCVO is actively working on how we better involve members in influencing work and developing new connections with devolved parliaments, metro mayors, and city authorities.
Our relationship with government has ebbed and flowed throughout NCVO’s 100-year history. Over time, the challenges that people and communities face change, as does the politics of the day, but challenges will always exist. What doesn’t change is NCVO’s work to find a way through the inherent tensions involved in influencing government, on behalf of the organisations that support their local communities. We will work, alongside our infrastructure partners, to ensure we build relationships with government, but we won’t hesitate to speak out when the rhetoric and actions of the government or politicians are undermining the freedoms and rights of charities, civil society and the communities they work with.