Back to top

The Change Ahead

Named after Janus, the god of transitions and new beginnings, January (when I started writing this) is a time when we tend to look backwards to the past and, at the same time, forwards to make potentially life-changing resolutions. A conference held just before Christmas to consider the emerging findings from the review of support for civil society in London felt prematurely Janus-like, torn between these two directions.  The eighty or so delegates were reminded of Edmund Burke’s maxim that “those who don't know history are destined to repeat it” whilst there seemed a general acceptance that the environment in which the sector now finds itself means that the status quo is not an option.

The Change Ahead will need to be far reaching, in the same way that, twenty years ago this year, the Deakin Report on the voluntary sector heralded a new settlement for the sector. That report paved the way for nearly fifteen years of heightened prominence for the sector as a trusted partner of the state, and sustained investment by government in the infrastructure of civil society. 

Yet one of the more sobering findings from the current review is that, since the going got tougher, the sector has been poor at identifying its support requirements and implementing change. “Despite the numerous reports and reviews carried out in recent years, there is still no shared understanding of the role of civil society support . . . [they] offer long lists of recommendations as to what civil society support organisations should do, without taking into account the limited funding and room for flexibility that their funding allows, and without prioritising roles and responsibilities.”

The following reflections on the Change Ahead are more optimistic; in spite of the continued austerity and the magnitude of the cuts in local government funding (one of the mainstays of support for the sector), there is a genuine opportunity to learn from both past and current practices in order to implement an effective settlement for the c21st sector.                                                                                                           

  1. A Broader Definition of Civil Society

A theme running throughout the conference was an appreciation of the paradox presented by increasing cuts to government funding at a time of ratcheting demand for public services. Collaborate and the Local Government Association estimate a £14.4 billion supply-and-demand gap will emerge for local public services by 2025.  London Councils have argued the gap could be over £3bn in London alone by 2020.  As one delegate remarked, faced by such challenges we must accept there are “no longer any single sector solutions”; no sector (public, private or voluntary) “can afford to sit in splendid isolation” commented another.

In these circumstances, we should be looking for a broader definition of civil society for the 21st century. The one presented by the review seems too narrow; by highlighting the distinctions between the different sectors, it is too last century for our increasingly common purpose: “Civil society is where people take action to improve their own lives or the lives of others and act where government or the private sector don’t. Civil society is driven by the values of fairness and equality, and enables people to feel valued and to belong. It includes formal organisations such as voluntary and community organisations, informal groups of people who join together for a common purpose and individuals who take action to make their community a better place.”  Surely an “enabling state” and an enlightened private sector are just as much part of civil society – and potentially invaluable contributors to it - as voluntary and community organisations, or informal associations? 

  1. A New Settlement

The economic situation and social conditions in 2015/16 may not be as critical as they were sixty years ago, but a new settlement, as was forged in the post-war consensus, is essential.  Just as Beveridge recognised the importance and value of voluntarism working alongside the arms of the state, more than six decades on government and civil society are as mutually dependent as ever.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has talked of initiating a “revolution in the way we govern the country”, moving the UK from a “low wage, high tax, high welfare economy, to a higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare country.”  The total % of GDP on public expenditure has already fallen from 43% (2012) to 39.7%; by 2020 it is projected to reach 36.5%.  As Simon  Parker of New Local Government Network has pointed out, a 36.5% state is a return to the state spending levels of the late 1990s.  However, the UK will be vastly different in 2020, with an ageing and increasingly expensive population.

In the meantime, it is local government which is taking the brunt. One HM Treasury graph from the Spending Review shows that whilst government grant to local government is being cut by 56%, overall levels of Council resources remain pretty flat for the rest of the decade.  By freeing up Councils to raise and spend their own sources of income – from local business rates, council tax increases and other receipts from local economic development – the government expects Councils to transform, in Professor Tony Travers phrase, from being a “mini-welfare state into a local economic growth agency.”  The distributional impact of such a transformation will be significant. The new freedoms passed down from Whitehall to town halls are likely to favour already economically successful areas; further polarisation of wealth seems inevitable, and gaps in civil society will widen.

In these circumstances, and with an opportunity to negotiate with central government to devolve more powers locally, Councils in London are looking to collaborate more. This is manifest in the increasing prominence of variously named borough groupings (the Tri-boroughs, the Growth Boroughs; the West London Alliance etc) which are looking to share the costs of service delivery and achieve more for less. However, in trying to harness economic growth which is also socially inclusive, these partnerships need to feature prominently both civil society organisations and socially responsible businesses.  The absence of local government, let alone business representatives from the Change Ahead Conference, suggests there is still some way to go to ensure that inclusive, cross-sectoral discussions happen in the context of further devolution and new governance arrangements in London.

  1. Valuing Civil Society

One way of ensuring government and business take more interest in the potential of civil society is to be more confident of its size and importance, and expressing this in language they understand.  The sheer diversity of the components which make up a civil society means it tends to defy easy measurement.  A recommendation in the Change Ahead report is that the Greater London Authority which, via GLA Economics has long collected data on the size of London’s economy, now extends its remit to include measures of the capital’s civil society. 

In the year in which London assumes the mantle of European  Volunteering Capital, 2016, a robust assessment of the economic value of volunteering offers as good an indicator as any of the significance of civil society in London.

The Chief Economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, recently argued that because the societal gains from volunteering are not captured by official GDP statistics, its value tends to go unrecognised.  Seeking to rectify this, he estimates that an army of 1.25m people across the UK create an annual economic value of at least £50bn; proportionately, this is likely to be worth £13bn or more per annum to London.  

Using Change Ahead to lobby a new Mayor of London to give due prominence to civil society in the capital, the report’s sponsors could do worse than enlist the support of the Bank of England.  Haldane suggests another reason why the full cost-benefit of volunteering is not appreciated is that many organisations which make up the fabric of civil society do not have the skills (or perhaps the time) to measure its value.  Change Ahead is on to something when it calls for funders, and strategic bodies like the GLA, to do more to help measure the true value of civil society in the capital. By also recognising the rising value of the sharing economy in London (the third biggest creator of sharing economy start ups in the world), a new Mayor has a real opportunity to signal a major shift in how we define and measure what constitutes a successful city.     

  1. A Plurality of Funders

London is not short of funders of civil society – charitable trusts, community foundations, statutory agencies, corporate donors and social investors – many of which already recognise the importance of investing in infrastructure that supports and sustains the capital’s social fabric. However, in straitened times and with demand rising, it is increasingly incumbent on this plurality of funders to collaborate in order to ensure they are not funding the same thing, but share information and learning in order to maximise the impact of their investments.  

Three priorities seem to stand out for funders of London’s civil society, none of which will be easy to meet. 

  1. Funders need to have the means to say no. Julian Corner, CEO of Lankelly Chase, told the Change Ahead conference that we have become too accepting of a culture of needs-based funding.  Put bluntly, this is a deficit model in which organisations have a vested interest in growing the problem they are set up to tackle.  Funders and support organisations need to be much more confident in being able to distinguish between authentic needs and those which may be systems driven.
  2. Funders need to acknowledge the increasing blurring between the public, private and voluntary sectors, and how each can contribute to a vibrant civil society, by being prepared to fund “bridging architecture,” not to shore up the VCS, but to develop a new paradigm of cross-sectoral collaboration.
  3. Funders (and civil society organisations in general) need to create more time and space to be able to collaborate.  As Debbie Sorkin of the Leadership Centre suggested, it is important to “get off the dance floor and onto the balcony” from time to time.

One tool which may enable funders’ collaboration is a shared investment plan or road map.  At a time when we are increasingly being asked to question what the EU has done for us, we can draw some inspiration here from the way the European Structural and Investment Funds for London are co-invested.  A co-investment plan for funding support of London’s civil society would:

  • Set out some overarching and shared objectives and priorities.
  • Identify a number of potential co-investors in London’s infrastructure whose investment is targeted at meeting one or more of the shared priorities, including central government departments; Big Lottery and the EU itself in the form of its Technical Assistance programmes.  
  • Match these sources with funds from “London’s co-investors” – ie the GLA and London Councils (for pan London and sub-regional programming); individual or small groups of boroughs for more local support; trusts and foundations and potentially corporate givers for (additional) specialist and thematic support and/or pilot projects.  

The governance arrangements would need to be worked through, but in London Funders there is potentially the makings of a secretariat which already creates space and time for funders to collaborate, and who now need to take forward the recommendations of Change Ahead.