At our State of the Sector launch yesterday, Baroness Diana Barran, the Minister for Civil Society, introduced the government’s plan to work with charities as the country emerges from Covid-19. Our Policy Manager Tom Collinge unpacks the big talking points:
Understandably, the headlines focused on what she had to say about the £750m “rescue package” for charities, and how much of it remains unallocated. While some may have hoped she might allude to new money, the focus instead was on the delays to what’s already been announced. But the minister also made important comments about how she and the government sees the role of charities in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and supporting our economic and societal recovery.
Three priorities for the voluntary sector
The minister outlined three areas of the government’s Civil Society Strategy that she’d chosen to focus on when she took office:
- Building community (with a focus on Brexit divisions and loneliness)
- Young people
- Improving the way government spends money with the voluntary sector
The government is evidently committed to this plan, with no changes after the 2019 election other than a “levelling up lens”, and the Minister was clear yesterday that she doesn’t think coronavirus changes these priorities.
Though these priorities aren’t new, it’s important to hear them reconfirmed in light of coronavirus, and interesting to see continuity with the Civil Society Strategy of 2018 explained as well. Danny Kruger, who is widely attributed to be (though not named as) the author of that civil society strategy is now an MP, it seems the strategy is still a valuable resource for anyone wanting to understand the government’s perspective on the charity sector.
Adapting to coronavirus
We clearly need to be more creative and focused around digital skills and digital responses, so that’s both skills within charities and responses to beneficiaries.
Though her priorities remain resolute, the Minister did talk about shifts within them. She pointed to the need for digital skills and creative applications of digital technology explored in our research, which has been highlighted by the lockdown. Notably, a shift to digital potentially sits across all three of her priorities.
Levelling up keeps the same issues that we had coming out of the election about parts of the country feeling very left behind, but given the terrible impact that Covid-19 has had on the BAME community that has to be a critical part of that work.
Building communities may have originally focused on Brexit divisions and loneliness, but yesterday the minister spoke instead about her concern for the parts of our country feeling ‘left behind’ and in particular the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities. Addressing this, she said, must be a “critical” part of the work on communities in future.
The minister was very candid that the government struggles with the ‘hyper-local’. She wants to support what’s working already, pointing to successful examples of self-organising that we’ve seen in response to the crisis. We should listen to those who are experts in this, she argued.
What form such listening takes will be crucial to how we learn from the crisis. We expect that small hyper-local self-organising groups are not in a strong position to make an evidence based case to the government about what they need or the wider lessons that can be learnt from their work. They will likely need help to articulate their case. It’s an area we’d been keen to explore at NPC, and also potentially an opportunity for charities partnering with these groups to help them champion their work to constituency MPs and local authorities.
It is difficult for government, we’re not good at hyper-local, but I think we need to lean into what’s working. So, positively, we’ve seen fantastic examples of self-organising as well as light-touch organising of volunteers around the country and examples of good neighbourliness. I think we need to think through and build on those and listen to those who are real experts in how to do that.
They’re clearly the worst hit group, in terms of education, job prospects, and anxiety. Not in terms of [physical] health outcomes we believe, but in just about every other outcome.
The minister was clear that young people are “the worst hit group” in almost all outcomes except physical health. This is certainly very likely to be true economically, as research from the Resolution Foundation released just today would seem to support, but also in terms of mental health.
We can expect youth unemployment and the prospects for young people to become a more prominent feature in our national conversation. It will be interesting to see if charities can position themselves to be seen as part of the solution across the whole of government, instead of being confined to DCMS.
We can’t all do everything, and that’s probably something which as a sector we’re not brilliant at doing. We don’t like saying ‘I’m going to do X and not do Y’ but actually perhaps that’s a different way of thinking about it. What are the behaviours that will drive the outcomes we want and how can government policy and money support that?
Finally, on improving the way the government spends money with the sector, the minister reflected:
“We spend billions. We’re the largest single funder of the voluntary sector and everybody’s cross with us so there’s got to be something wrong about that”.
Citing our research on the Social Value Act, she confirmed it to be something the government is working on, particularly in relation to central government procurement. There is some way to go here, with 58% of the charities we surveyed saying the Act had “little or no influence” on the way central government commissions services. Interestingly, the 2018 Civil Society Strategy suggested the solution was “better information and training for commissioners and bidders, and a strong and public steer from central government about the priorities for public spending”.
In a way this mirrors a comment the minister made later in the event. Our State of the Sector research found that charities are doing more of every activity this year than in 2017. In response, the minister suggested the sector needed a different, more focused way of thinking, asking:
“What are the behaviours that will drive the outcomes we want and how can government policy and money support that?”
This hints that the government will continue to see social value commissioning in terms of the value it wants, rather than encompassing all the value charity provides. Bridging this gap is a major communications and lobbying challenge for the sector, especially as we head into what may well be straightened times for public finances.
Our research captures our sector in the final few months of calm before the storm, offering insight into its strengths, weaknesses, challenges and risks, so that philanthropists, funders and policy makers can best support charities to help those who rely on them now more than ever.
The future will be determined by our appetite for real change and progress. Will we be cautious and shelter in our respective safe spaces? Or will we be bold, and take risks?
The country is in a very deep crisis. At NPC we are working with philanthropists and partners on how they can more effectively fund charities now, and we want to hear your ideas about what more can be done.