Responding to the UK Government’s Civil Society Strategy

This post appears in full on Reason Digital’s website.

The UK Government recently launched its new Civil Society Strategy: Building a future that works for everyone, echoing Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister where she vowed to fight against “burning injustice” and to be “driven, not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours.”

The strategy acknowledges the work already well advanced in parts of civil society, including “among responsible businesses and progressive public sector commissioners, where social value is in the forefront of what these organisations do.” One of the criticisms of the 2010 strategy was that it laid out plans that many charities and civil society organisations had been doing for some time.

Chapter 1. People: enabling a lifetime of contribution

“We want to build a society where people have a sense of control over their future and that of their community.”

Charities are already dealing with the consequences of wage stagnation, the rising cost of living, low paid, low quality and insecure jobs and lack of affordable housing, all of which is already creating a sense of loss of control and tension between communities.

Studies show that racism is more prevalent in tough economic times, which has been borne out in increased instances of hate crime since the EU referendum, with spikes in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Poverty is also a contributing factor in radicalisation, and combined with the introduction of laws to restrict freedoms in the name of national security, could eventually lead to a downward spiral of violence and counter-violence, further isolating people and fracturing communities.

“Government is also supporting citizens to take action on the issues they care about by funding the training of 3,500 people in community organising by 2020.”

We’re keen to see how Community Organisers use design thinking to “motivate [the community] to come up with the answers to the problems they face” and how the success of Community Organising training is evaluated given the range and complexity of the problems being faced by communities.

Chapter 2. Places: empowerment and investment for local communities

“By working with service providers, the private sector, individuals, and communities in a place, we will make more sensitive and appropriate policy, we will achieve better social and economic results, and we will make brilliant places for people to live and work in.”

There is a risk that, with the financial health of local authorities across England getting worse, and without proper support from central government to fund basic public services, local councils will always prioritise financial impact over social impact when it comes to land use and development.

There is also a danger that community-run spaces could become ghettoised as developers and private security firms gradually take ownership of larger areas of quasi-public spaces, who, in return for paying for the upkeep of those spaces, police them according to the instructions of their employers rather than common law. This practice has an impact on the culture of our places and can be disempowering for communities, such as restricting the right to protest.

With the creation of new systems of “accountable healthcare”, the public sector is moving more towards delivering health and social care services which focus more on the need of the individuals in defined places. These systems could create more opportunities for local and regional charities to deliver place-based services, as they have more knowledge and insight into the needs of local communities. However, there would need to be changes in procurement and commissioning to ensure that contracts are not just awarded to the largest national charities who might lack the local knowledge and expertise.

One flaw in the place-based approach to community services is that not all communities are defined around a geographic area. For example, the LGBT community could be described as a ‘non-geographic community of identity’. We know that LGBT have worse health outcomes that the general population, have their own unique health needs (including mental health needs) and suffer discrimination in accessing public services and healthcare. By focusing on serving geographic communities, place-based public services risk disadvantaging members of these communities of identity who live outside major urban centres by not offering easy access to the specialised services they need.

Chapter 3. The Social Sector: supporting charities and social enterprises

“On leadership, we will work with civil society stakeholders and the Charity Commission to agree on joint action to open up trusteeship to people from different backgrounds.”

The commitment to “open up trusteeship to people from different backgrounds” is very much welcome. As reported by Inclusive Boards, trustee composition in UK does not reflect the diversity of the population or the communities served by those charities. The boards of the biggest charities are less diverse than those of FTSE 100 firms: 80% of senior leadership teams in the top 500 charities lack any ethnic minority professionals, while 62% of the charities have all-white boards.

We should strive for the same diversity at board level of private sector companies too as part of the commitments laid out in Chapter 4 – particularly if private companies are to be more involved in delivering public and community services. We welcome any support and initiatives from central government to diversify governance of all organisations at board level.

Chapter 4. The private sector: promoting business, finance, and tech for good

The government appears to be forging stronger links with the private sector, as part of its commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 17 around strengthening partnerships.

“The government is implementing the Good Work Plan… to focus on improving the quality of jobs and the wellbeing of workers across our economy.”

Many societal problems are tangled up in work and housing. 60% of people in poverty live in a household where someone is in work, and the risk of poverty in a working household has risen 25% in the past decade and the Minimum Wage is still not considered enough to live on according to the Living Wage Foundation,

With rents rising in the private rental sector faster than wages, many people are no longer able to afford to pay their rent, or have to choose between paying the rent, heating their home or feeding their family. The number of people facing homelessness is rising sharply, particularly among vulnerable groups. Food bank charity The Trussell Trust distributed 1.3 million 3-day emergency food parcels to people in crisis in the year to March 2018, a 13% increase on the previous year.

Zero hour contracts are exacerbating the problem, though numbers of people on zero hour contracts appear to be slowing from its peak of almost 1 million people in early 2017. The rise of the  “gig economy” means fewer people on permanent employment contracts, with as many as 5 million people preferring to work on a freelance basis for a short term instead, for companies such as Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon. While some people benefit from the flexibility, others are working several jobs to make ends meet.

There are also close links between poverty and mental health. People stress about not having enough money, which can keep people trapped in a cycle of poverty. UK children and adults living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

Poverty, homelessness and mental health are all interconnected, and are issues the civil society sector is tackling every day. We welcome efforts in the government’s Good Work plan to enforce employers to respect basic working rights, to promote workplace health and wellbeing and to encourage skills development and progression, but it’s clear that people need better quality, better paid jobs in order to survive and thrive.

“The government will explore further support for the development and expansion of the Purposely tool, which assists businesses to make the most of the flexibility within existing Company Law to embed purpose in their legal documents.”

I welcome any and all initiatives to help businesses embed purpose in their legal documents and have already signed up to the Purposely tool. Reason Digital’s own objects are “to pursue trading activities that are both economically and socially responsible” and to promote equality and diversity, social inclusion and sustainable development have been written into the company’s Memorandum and Articles of Association since 2010.

“The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Government Inclusive Economy Unit are exploring how businesses are engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals”

I support any government initiative to get more companies to adopt work according to the Sustainable Development Goals, as a framework for responsible business and for being a catalyst for positive social change.

The UK has some way to go against some of the goals, as it currently underperforms in terms of prevalence of reducing inequalities, prevalence of obesity, e-waste generated, nitrogen and carbon dioxide emissions, over-fishing, deforestation, endangered species survival, ratio of renewable energy generated and tax haven status.

The goals offer business a $12 trillion opportunity and, through social entrepreneurship, I will continue to seek partnerships with organisations across all sectors that want to work proactively toward the Sustainable Development Goals to achieve a lasting, positive impact on the world, both in the UK and beyond.