The Chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Stowell, has given a speech at the RSA on the new strategic intentions of the Commission. It contained a strong warning that trust in charities musn't be taken for granted and that some (presumably the largest) had drifted too far from what the public intend by 'charity'. 

Some sector commentators and respondents felt that there was a slightly contrived, or overblown, narrative developing of crisis and failing trust that threatens to become self-fulfilling. While this may be true, what was striking was the alignment between Baroness Stowell's speech and an underlying message of the Civil Society Strategy: that the voluntary sector risks being undermined by new mechanisms of social connectivity and the level where civil action takes place. 

Strategies abound

The Civil Society Strategy certainly seems an odd beast. A generational strategy with few timelines and a change programme with few actual projects. Crucially, it has been suggested it is also a plan with few levers to pull or push.

There's not much extra money to speak of and there is a glaring lacuna regarding how much the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) can genuinely change the way that other parts of Whitehall, not to mention local government and the NHS, actually function and procure.

However, there are other interesting aspects of the Strategy that point to a distinct vision of a future civil society. The Strategy wants to work towards solving Britain's social ills in a manner that is potentially more disruptive of the established charity sector, rather than co-opting and engaging with it. More established institutions, like larger charities, could face new challengers to their role as agents of change in society. It is this challenge that Baroness Stowell was describing, but more as a warning about poor behaviour rather than as something to embrace as inevitable, as the Civil Society Strategy would prefer.

Putting theory into practice

Back in May, during the last of the consultation meetings for the Civil Society Strategy, Matt Hancock (at that time Secretary of State at DCMS) gave a speech that highlighted two overlapping notions which he considered central to the future relationship between civil society, Government and the general public.

The first was that the Strategy contained some correctives to the bifurcation of the public from those who exercise power over their lives, which is often highlighted as contributing to the Brexit result. The second notion was that the means to administer this corrective came from very local communities, acting through their own agency.

In Matt Hancock's vision, these community agents come together via technology and social media (very much an interest of Hancock's) to achieve specific hyper-local outcomes. Crucially, these groups don’t necessarily go on to solidify into an institution such as a charity; they dissolve and then reform into other groups, all mediated by technology.

There is certainly not much in the Strategy for the larger, established charities in the charity sector who may, at least implicitly, be considered by some in Government as part of the problem. There is certainly a concurrence with the findings of the Civil Society Futures inquiry when the chair, Julia Unwin, has been quoted as saying: "Britain’s leading charity and voluntary sector organisations have almost all been almost entirely absent from the communities we’ve spoken to. And where they are present… vital decisions are made far away by people who don’t really understand.” 

The Civil Society Strategy aims to give greater prominence to communities so that they can get back what David Cameron, back in July 2010, once called their "oomph". 

It's (mostly) all about Place

If the centrepiece of the Civil Society Strategy is about communities, presumably it’s also about Places? The Strategy does contain a section on Place, and on the role of local government as a commissioner, but that would be to ignore a key consideration: ‘community’ is no longer always 'local'.

Crucially, a community today can be a virtual thing that exists globally online; or it can be a social group brought together by common interest that crosses boundaries, or it can be both. In addition, even when discussing Place in the physical sense, the scale envisaged by the Strategy is much more local than even the smallest district council. Local authorities are only now starting to grapple with the multitude of complex ingredients that make up even a single neighbourhood, or even a single street. The Civil Society Strategy sees that the way out of this complexity is not to impose from above, but to encourage action from below.

Taken to its conclusion, this would be more than ‘double devolution’ – it would encourage commissioners to engage with community groups that have the will to enhance their situation but have little track record and, in all likelihood, limited governance expertise or financial capacity. Of course, these are exactly the sort of indicators of good practice that commissioners look for at present when making grants or dispensing contracts, often to exactly the charities that Baroness Stowell accused of acting too much "like businesses". It will be the ultimate test of the Strategy whether anything changes in this regard and more risks are taken.

Is this a bad thing?

Given the findings of the Civil Society Futures inquiry, and the national argument about the ‘real meaning’ of the Brexit vote, it’s a very valid and urgent question as to whether the Civil Society Strategy has lighted upon a partial, but genuine, response to the sense of public alienation. 

Even if DCMS does lack the clout to make the changes to public procurement and culture that the Strategy requires, it has laid down a long-term and useful challenge to the charity sector: can you deliver change in a different way, by going hyper-local and using new technologies and democratic tools, before you are disrupted yourselves by activists from below?

And can you do so in a manner that squares the circle of acting, as Baroness Stowell suggests, as the public would expect a charity to act?