5 things national politicians could do to boost civil society

FundsOnline - 5 things national politicians could do to boost civil society

Jay Kennedy, DSC’s Director of Policy and Research

Charities and wider civil society have been at the forefront of the pandemic response and dealing with the effects of the cost-of-living crisis. However, these and other systemic challenges have hollowed out the resilience of many organisations, with vital services for people across the country now under threat. 

Without addressing some fundamental problems in the relationship between civil society and the state, we won’t be able to meet the big economic and social challenges of our time – whether it’s on climate change, social care, support for young people and older people, ensuring equality and people’s rights, or relieving poverty.  

In a General Election year there’s an opportunity for new thinking and change. We know the public finances are not in good shape and it’s clear that there will be high competition for spending priorities in the next government. But plenty of things can be achieved with better thinking, not necessarily additional spending. Here are some ideas that political parties can do which will help: 

1. Parity of influence

Government at all levels needs to consider charities and civil society organisations on a par with business and the public sector. This includes fairer access to politicians and officials, but also acknowledging and supporting the development of data about the sector and its beneficiaries more comprehensively.  

Not involving the sector adequately neglects a substantial part of the economy which employs millions of people and mobilises billions of pounds in income and volunteer contributions. It misses out on a huge pool of expertise that can help improve government policy and make services more effective. Proposals like the creation of a ‘satellite account’ for not-for-profit organsations and volunteering would allow organisations like the Office for National Statistics to properly analyse the sector’s economic impact and better inform HM Treasury and other departments. 

The next government must fully consider how it will engage civil society across national government, and how it will support rather than interfere with good engagement with local and devolved governments. In reforming the ‘centre’ of government, the national government must consider how strategic, cross-departmental initiatives fully engage civil society and take advantage of its expertise.  

There is much that central government can learn from the devolved nations about working more constructively with civil society. For example, in Wales, the Third Sector Scheme facilitates communication and joint working between the Welsh Government and sector infrastructure organisations. 

2. More robust policy scrutiny

There’s a dire need for better scrutiny and more robust stress-testing of government policy for its (negative) impact on civil society. It’s a long-term problem but there have been too many examples in recent years where legislation or policy announcements simply hadn’t considered the impact on civil society organisations at all, resulting in them having to spend resources trying to alter or minimise the impact of inappropriate regulation and poorly drafted laws. 

For example during the pandemic, many of the Treasury’s financial support programmes initially or intentionally excluded not-for-profit organisations. The furlough programme eventually proved important but just wasn’t designed for organisations that weren’t businesses. And more recently, the Digital Markets Bill inadvertently threatens the status of Gift Aid income on subscriptions, which could charities cost charities hundreds of millions.  

Lots of this could be achieved by better systems of engagement and communication between national politicians, their respective departments and officials, and civil society leaders. But better policy-making systems and following existing protocols could help too. For example, better consultation practices, robust pre-legislative scrutiny (i.e. Green Papers/White Papers), genuine consideration of the work of Parliamentary committees, carrying out impact-assessments when new policy is developed, and following the Ministerial Code and parliamentary rules when announcing new policies and legislation. 

3.  Reverse local government’s financial meltdown

After over a decade of sustained cuts to local government budgets, combined with the effects of high inflation, many authorities across the country are now in genuine crisis. This not only has devastating effects on communities and millions of people who rely on council-supplied services like social care, it’s having knock-on effects on the local voluntary sector in the form of under-funded contracts, overnight cuts to grant support, and demand being shifted from local authorities onto already over-stretched charitable services. It’s not sustainable and if left unaddressed, more communities across the country will slide further into crisis. 

Local government finance is complex and needs comprehensive reform, but in the near-term it needs emergency support to stop further cuts to services and even some authorities collapsing, which will cost more in the long-run. The House of Commons Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee report includes recommendations for reform and calls for £4bn in the short-term to stave off financial collapse. 

4. Boost philanthropy and giving

Clearly the public finances are under pressure and many social needs and demand for vital services are also rising. But civil society can’t take on the burden of under-funded and deteriorating state services, nor should it. Government can however help boost the existing ecosystem of funding and support without incurring huge state expenditure. For example, much policy thinking and legislative effort has gone into developing the recovery of dormant financial assets, which now have the potential to establish Community Wealth Fund(s) in communities.   

The next government should devote policy effort and legislative time to boost giving, philanthropy, and associated tax reforms. Previous governments have shown that where there’s a will there’s a way, with the inception of things like Gift Aid decades ago. There’s plenty of expertise and willingness in the charity sector to make further reforms happen, it just needs engagement with organisations that have expertise, and sometimes parliamentary time. This will ensure that civil society overall is more resilient and able to work with the state to jointly solve pressing social problems in the future. 

5. Protect charity independence

Charities don’t exist to serve the state, they exist to serve its citizens and the many charitable causes which are defined in the law. These will not always be universally liked or popular, and there can even be conflicts and tensions between different causes which are equally valid in terms of the law. Charities are governed almost exclusively by volunteer trustees and their regulation needs to be proportionate, appropriate and enabling. 

The Charity Commission has just launched a helpful new strategy, with the top-level values of ‘Fair, Balanced and Independent’ and the next government should support the implementation of this strategy. The Commission is rightly independent of government ministers and of the government of the day, yet we have seen increasing attempts from some quarters of the press and politics to bully it into investigating particular charities, and to silence or curtail those charities which are legitimately carrying out their charitable work. Even well-known and trusted charities like the RNLI and National Trust have come under repeated, and unfair, attack.  

The next government needs to reinforce the independence and proper functioning of the Charity Commission, and provide it with adequate funding to do its job and enhance its performance in the next Spending Review. 

Civil society is made up of individuals that play many different roles. Sometimes as staff in organisations, but also as volunteers or trustees, donors, and the people who benefit from services. The next government also needs to respect their rights and their voices, rather than further proscribing voluntary action with ever more legislation that clamps down on rights of protest and freedom of expression. For example, the next government should reconsider Lord Hodgson’s exhaustive review of Third Party Campaigning and its many recommendations, which were never implemented. 


These are just a handful of ideas – given freely to any political party that cares to listen. There will need to be more effort and policy expertise mobilised to make them happen. But it’s clear that the status quo – where civil society organisations are too often excluded, overlooked, or taken for granted – isn’t an option for any party that genuinely wants to solve the many social problems we face now and in the future. Civil society, with charities at its core, has to be part of the solution.