Andrew Purkis: Where Lord Gus O’Donnell’s report falls short

08 Mar 2023 Voices

The final report of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, chaired by Lord Gus O’Donnell, has a hugely positive vision but also some key omissions, writes Andrew Purkis.

Adobe, by chaylek

It is in many ways a heart-warming vision, expressed in an optimistic, can-do spirit, and accompanied by specific recommendations. The report champions the essential role of the sector (I am glossing over problems of definition that the Commission does not resolve) in our national life, and its central message is that national well-being and prosperity will continue to suffer unless the contribution of charities and community groups is better understood, recognised, measured, nurtured and supported, working in harmony with business and the public sector. So far, so brilliant.

To gain the support this vision so thoroughly deserves, however, the Commission needs to address some omissions and own goals.

To begin with, in the whole 100 pages of the report there is no mention of “church”, “mosque” or “faith groups”. What a strange omission! Churches and other faith groups still operate in deprived areas from which other institutions have long departed, play a key role in nurturing community, account for about one in every six pounds donated to charities, and inspire high levels of giving.

Local authorities are also underrepresented in the Commission, and it shows in some of its analysis.

And the brief mention of trade unions with their six and a half million members as part of civil society is inexplicably their first and last appearance.

The Commission advocates for long-term, unrestricted core funding for charities as a top priority: Amen. But the same has been passionately argued over decades. So why is there no analysis of why such calls have failed?

The report advocates for good infrastructure for civil society. Excellent. But there used to be much stronger infrastructure, well-funded and supported. The report omits crucial analysis as to why so much of this infrastructure has collapsed.

It also argues for more civil servants to be allocated to the civil society brief. But there is no consideration of the impact of this brief being shunted away from powerful central departments like the Home Office, and the Cabinet Office, with a dedicated minister as champion, into a siding in DCMS as one small part of a junior minister’s brief.

Overall, the report seems to have a habit of ignoring history, trying to avoid contentious issues and neglecting the cumulative expertise of current major players in the field. Business in the community – experts in the field of business/civil society relationships for decades – does not feature.

Similarly, the Association of Charitable Foundations does not appear to have been consulted with any care on the subject of grant funding by trusts and foundations.

Further I do not understand why the current CEO of NCVO was apparently excluded from this work. It is unarguably the premier infrastructure organisation in this field, whose bread and butter for many years has been the dissemination of good practice and the creation of data, ironically used by this Commission.

The recommendation to create a new Civil Society Evidence Organisation whose remit would appear to overlap with that of a number of existing infrastructure and academic organisations is also problematic unless they were thoroughly consulted. It won’t be surprising if the response is teeth-grinding and low murmurs.

The Commission is optimistic that there is “a strong bedrock of engagement and respect between charities and policymakers”.  But this sits awkwardly alongside recognition that a cohort of right-of-centre MPs and ministers do not appreciate the campaigning role of charities, the Compact’s demise, and that charities report banging their heads against a brick wall to get a decent level of consultation and recognition.

So, here is my unsolicited advice to the Commission. Your vision is brilliantly expressed and deserves maximum impact. So please engage better with key organisations that have toiled in this vineyard for decades. Study the constraints and pressures that have frustrated aspects of the vision over many years. Be as collaborative as you argue others should be. Bring in the local authorities and the faith groups. Acknowledge some of the political elephants in the room. And keep going!

A longer version of this article is available here

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