Groundhog day for civil society

With limited fanfare, DCMS today launched the government’s latest civil society strategy proudly described as the first new such strategy in 15 years.

Key features include a £165 million fund to support community organisations, a new Innovation in Democracy programme to pilot participatory democracy techniques such as citizens’ juries, more emphasis on public sector mutuals, a mixed economy of private and VCS in public service provision, social impact bonds and citizen commissioners: “local people supported to make commissioning decisions on behalf of their communities”.

It’s important to start with the positive. These are, in the main, good ideas and things that should happen. At LGiU we have argued for many years that to make public services that can cope with the challenges of the 21st century and to fix the democratic deficit that afflicts too many communities in this country, we need more collaboration, more co-production and an evolving, dynamic relationship between citizens, communities and councils.

But will the strategy launched today deliver that? Describing it as the first new civil society strategy in 15 years seems like a final erasure from history of David Cameron’s Big Society. That’s ironic as in many ways the strategy launched today feels like a medley of ideas from 2010/11. The Big Society’s emphasis on the role of civil society in the delivery of public services; the creation of community champions; the community rights from the 2011 Localism Act; and Francis Maude led initiatives from the cabinet office to encourage smarter commissioning, public sector mutuals and social impact bonds all find close parallels in today’s paper.

What we do not find, however, is any real consideration of why these sorts of initiatives didn’t stick the last time round.

I’d argue that was not because they were bad ideas in and of themselves but because:

  • We don’t have a good conceptual framework for how participatory and representative democracy should work together. Brexit is currently providing a dramatic example of this on the national stage. One of the first pieces of work I did for LGiU was an IDeA commissioned study of the role of councillors in community empowerment (in response to Hazel Blears’s Community Empowerment Agenda – another forgotten civil society initiative) in which I argued that unless we understood this tension better such initiatives would never succeed. Re-reading that piece this morning for the first time in many years it’s depressing how little we have moved forward in a decade.
  • By extension we don’t have a clear sense of how these sort of civil society initiatives interact with local government. Local government is not involved in their creation or delivery and they’re helicoptered in from somewhere else, in this case from a completely different part of government. So from the outset we are trying to reconcile parallel systems rather than a genuine, collaborative cross system approach. (What for example would be the difference between a citizen commissioner and a councillor, except that the councillor is elected? Which would take precedence over the other? What is the value in having both?) Perhaps things will be different this time but the fact that this comes out of DCMS with MHCLG nowhere to be seen and a “muted” response from the LGA doesn’t bode well.
  • It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to implement this sort of thing when local government is firefighting massive cuts. That was the problem in 2011 and it will be the problem now. The DCMS strategy acknowledges that “Local authorities are uniquely placed to bring together all partners, including the voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations, to take a wider view in addressing some of the key challenges faced by communities and to ensure the most vulnerable people are not left behind”. But they can’t do that when they are fighting for their very survival and reducing services to a bare statutory minimum. It may well be that engagement of civil society is part of the long term financial fix for local government but unless we have an account of how we get to there from the current crisis then this sort of civil society initiative will remain a quixotic fantasy.

So, while the strategy launched today is packed with great ideas it’s hard to be optimistic about its outcomes. It’s too clichéd to quote Einstein’s definition of insanity as being to do the same things and expect different results, still more Marx’s remark about history repeating itself first as tragedy then as farce. Clichéd, but almost irresistible.