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Finding the overlap of interests between civil society and government

By Andrew Hudson 17 October 2022 5 minute read

I read the essays about charities and the state for NPC’s 20th anniversary with considerable interest. Having run public services in the Treasury, and served as a charity trustee and volunteer, I’ve seen this relationship from plenty of different angles. I’ve concluded that a healthy relationship between the state and civil society demands a very clear focus on what each is trying to achieve, to find the overlap of interests between the two, and to interact respectfully on that basis. We can think of this as a Venn diagram.

The overlap will vary with the situation. Sometimes common interest will extend to grants or contracts. At other times, differing views will lead a charity to be very critical of government, as Alison Garnham’s essay brought out.

There’s a danger of charities’ becoming defined by their relationship to government. Most will guard against this, but the dislocations that arose as grants stopped after 2010 demonstrate the risk. I agree with Rachael Maskell’s emphasis that the “business of charities is to do everything to support their beneficiaries”. But I would give more prominence to mobilising voluntary action – both in giving money and in giving time and skills. Civil society is fundamentally about the interaction between beneficiaries and those who support their cause.

Many smaller charities won’t deal much with government, local or central. Others will get grants, or use of meeting or workspaces, and either side may try to deepen the relationship to further their objectives – which could become adversarial if a charity disagrees strongly with a policy. Local Venn diagrams therefore vary between charities and over time.  Meanwhile, big charities will have ongoing multi-layered relationships with government, ranging from contract delivery through sharing of intelligence to lobbying.

For the public sector, the best starting point is not to set a sweeping objective to do more with civil society or to work better with charities (nothing wrong with either, of course), but to ask what the best way is to deliver their objectives. As NPC has argued, this should be an evidence-based assessment, and charities need to show rather than simply assert why they are best placed to deliver a given programme.

I see a lot of force in Chris Wright’s argument for an enabling and outcome-focused approach to “commissioning”, but the basic foundation needs to be clarity of objectives from the public sector: that way, charities and government can explore together whether there is genuine overlap in this particular Venn diagram.

Interaction between charities and government is vital for good policymaking. There are plenty of insights that charities are much better placed to supply, such as lived experience. Charities can and should seek to build strong relationships with officials, central and local, as the basis for open and fruitful exchanges – often in private.

Chris Sherwood’s essay brings out well that good relationships depend on hard work, focus, and time from charities. The same applies to government departments and councils, who need to invest time and effort in working out which charities actually have their finger on the pulse, which won’t always be those who talk most or loudest. And, yes, that means keeping staff in post for long enough to do this, which we know we struggled to achieve in the Treasury!

Charities should also take time to develop relations with ministers. There will be areas of mutual interest, as well as times when charities need to tell governments facts they will find uncomfortable. Alison Garnham’s essay calls for a readiness to do this on poverty. A self-confident government ought to be open to such dialogue, which both sides ought to conduct with respect and on the basis of evidence.

In the real world, of course, strong feelings on both sides can get in the way, as the essays bring out. The politics need careful management, though that is not unique to relations between the state and civil society. The ease of doing business will vary over time, depending on a number of things – any prominent issue helpful or otherwise, or how far ministers are preoccupied by wider political developments. A recent survey suggested ministers and MPs were becoming less responsive to charities, and we can speculate that they may have been preoccupied by leadership issues. Focusing engagement on people where there is a clear business purpose is likely to bear the most fruit at turbulent times, and charities will be planning on these continuing. As Samuel Kasumu brought out in his interview, strong relationships mean people can trust each other even where they disagree and may help to keep “policy tensions” apart from “politics tensions”.

Given the importance of finding specific areas of common interest, I’m less fussed about where the “charities brief” should sit in government. There are some things which need to be done centrally, most obviously the legislative and regulatory framework, and this can sit either in the Cabinet Office or another department: what matters more is that the minister responsible and key officials should be in post long enough to build relationships. But the role of civil society in health or education will depend far more on the ministers and officials in those departments than on any central exhortations.

It’s true that charities are well placed to identify where different public services could work together more effectively. But again, making the case in the way Chris Sherwood suggests will be better than expecting the Cabinet Office to wave a wand to conjure up collaboration. Of course it’s tempting to search for such wands when a civil servant is getting a hard time from a charity, or a civil society organisation wishes government was easier to deal with. But the healthy basis for a better relationship is constructive, respectful, and evidence-based exploration of areas of common interest between the unique power of government and the unique richness of civil society – growing the overlapping area in the Venn diagram.


Andrew Hudson ran Public Services in the Treasury between 2009 and 2011 as the New Labour Compact gave way to the Coalition’s Big Society. Since 2011, Andrew has worked part-time at the then Big Lottery Fund, been a trustee of two medium-sized charities (Volunteering Matters and Mayday Trust) and played a hands-on role in two local civil society organisations (one in community arts and one in homelessness) where he still volunteers. 


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