Government has just published its Civil Society Strategy, setting out how the Westminster government intends to nurture, support and work with civil society in England.
We participated fully in the consultation process, with a written response and contact with the minister and her team, writes Co-operatives UK Policy Officer James Wright. Why? Partly because civil society policy is, a little frustratingly, where co-ops and social enterprise are pigeonholed in Westminster. Also, because this was an opportunity to argue for a more co-operative vision for civil society – one with more collective agency, social solidarity, participation and mutuality. And most importantly because, while most co-ops rightly see themselves as fully commercial businesses and tend to eschew close associations with charity, a bigger and more vibrant co-op sector will only grow out rich, resilient and radical modes of civil society.
Our pitch to DCMS had five main areas for prioritising action: community development and localism with an economic emphasis; platform co-ops and digital for the common good; community investment; public-social partnerships with multi-stakeholder mutuality and recognition of co-ops as pro-social businesses. So, how’s it gone?
From our perspective there’s some good stuff in there and also some underwhelming policy too. It’s worth bearing in mind that most of the policy levers needed to make a big difference are not held by DCMS. Perhaps this Strategy will be most valuable as a means to influence decision-making in other parts of government.
There’s a lot wrong with the Public Service Mutuals programme. One big shortcoming that we’ve highlighted to government on many occasions, including this time, is that it generally creates social enterprises with nominal employee ownership, whereas what we need are organisations that are designed to empower service users and communities alongside frontline practitioners with real agency, ownership and control. So the announcement in the Strategy that DCMS will consult on how the Public Service Mutuals team could help “create an environment of far greater user-led, community-led and staff-led delivery” is very positive.
Last year DCMS published an independent review on social impact investment that was all 'the City' and no community. People who’d worked to build the community shares model were not happy. Community shares is an investment model that combines community action and social investment like no other. It had to feature this time! And it does. Government says it will “work with civil society partners… to explore ways of raising awareness and enabling use of [community shares] in options to encourage community ownership of assets and within onward devolution approaches.” Sounds promising.
We also made a lot of the current limitations of Social Investment Tax Relief as a policy tool to support community investment and ownership. The Strategy references our issues directly - bemoaning restrictions that mean the relief doesn't support community ownership of assets or renewable energy - but in a weird way that says nothing about further action. Let’s hope the DCMS team will now fight this battle with HM Treasury.
Community economic development
Our main hope for this Strategy was that it would include practical measures to broaden and deepen the scope and scale of community development and empowerment, with a clear focus on community economic development in particular. In this we are torn. There are some promising trajectories but also some underwhelming policy ideas.
The Strategy includes plans to devote around £35 million of dormant account funds to develop new place-based investment programmes. This work will involve Big Society Capital, Reclaim Fund and Access Foundation, but in a very welcome break with recent past, local decision-making and grassroots action will be prioritised in design and delivery. This is great and a really promising signal that the next tranche of dormant assets might end up as democratic tool in the hands of communities, as they always should have been.
There are also some welcome plans to improve the support government gives to communities when it comes to taking ownership of assets.
The Strategy contains a statement from the Business Secretary that welcomes “the steps which this new Civil Society Strategy takes to … involve communities more strongly in local planning for economic growth, prosperity and employment.” Yes! This is it. A big commitment on community economic development! Um no… not really. What starts off so promisingly ends up with a very underwhelming hint that Local Enterprise Partnerships will be encouraged to consult with their communities more often and consider the view of civil society organisations. Meh! Left behind communities need a radical shift in the distribution of power in local political economies, not nice chats with the local bigwigs.
The Strategy does though confirm that when it comes to the future for local economic policy, decisions about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund are where it is at. A consultation is due on that before the end of the year. Everyone who thinks community economic development is a building block in a genuinely inclusive economy needs to focus on influencing the outcome of that process.
Social sector forum
DCMS will establish a forum to help charities and social enterprise engage with the Whitehall machine. This could be very useful for co-operative and community benefit societies, who face significant challenges in this regard. We’re waiting for the invite.
What about digital?
We had high hopes for this. But it seems where co-ops are going in terms of platforms social action and worker control is too radical for DCMS just now. The Strategy is far more preoccupied with initiatives to help charities to digitise their operations, which while necessary no doubt is not what we‘d pitched for. There is some encouraging but also vague stuff around supporting more investment in 'social tech' ventures and supporting an apparently already thriving ‘tech for good’ movement in the private sector that need more exploration.
The Strategy has a strongly out of place section on how business can be more responsible and socially good. It doesn't mention links between ownership and purpose, let alone co-ops. And not surprisingly given that DCM has no economic and business policy levers, doesn’t really include many actions of note. There will be a Responsible Business Leadership forum (or something) that it might be good for a co-op to be on.