An analysis of Office for Civil Society funding reveals that most of it is allocated to a handful of priority areas.
A while ago, we requested the spending of the Office for Civil Society under the Freedom of Information Act. Those figures came back at the end of last month.
So, what do they show? Has the OCS really been “gutted” and “hollowed out” until it is “just a name on the door” as the former chief executive of Acevo, Sir Stephen Bubb, memorably told us at the end of 2015? Or will those who say this indeed "look very silly", as former minister Rob Wilson said in response.
Well, total spending was £255m, which sounds impressive. But, of that, £203m went on youth programmes, not charity, including £191m on the National Citizen Service, the government’s six-week programme for teenagers, which contains an element of volunteering, among other things.
The NCS not only occupies three quarters of all OCS spending, but it is actually under budget. Original estimates suggests spending would be over £200m by now, but it has been plagued with issues, including consistently missing participation targets, and a damning National Audit Office report.
Leaving youth projects aside, the remaining £52m offers a clear insight into the priorities of the then-minister Rob Wilson. The OCS spent £17.5m on social investment, and £7.4m on social action. The only other significant spend was £17.8m on the Local Sustainability Fund – a concept pioneered by the last-but-two minister Nick Hurd.
What’s particularly interesting is how much of the spend on charities comes from outside any sort of core budget. The LSF cash is - or at least was intended to be - additional funding from HM Treasury to provide one-off support to cash-strapped medium-sized charities.
Then there is £4.2m on Access: The Foundation for Social Investment – a project to provide grant support and training for charities seeking social investment. Funding for this project comes from repayments from the Futurebuilders England loan fund.
And there is £4.1m in money raised from banks in Libor fines, and channelled through OCS, and another £2.1m raised from the Tampon Tax.
All told, more than half the spending on the charity sector itself comes from fiddly, additional pots of cash. The core OCS budget allocated to the sector appears now to be less than £24m – down from around ten times that figure, a decade ago. Austerity has hit the charity sector’s budget particularly hard.
There are also no longer clear projections of what OCS spending is, and it took a lot of work to extract these budget lines from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, its new parent. So we won’t have clear visibility on spending in future years. But with the decision to subsume civil society into a wider brief including sport and gambling, as well as many other things, it looks likely that its funding may be run down even further.
There is one potential rabbit to pull from the hat. Under Wilson a team of financial experts identified that there is at least £1bn - probably much more - kept by banks in dormant assets such as shares and insurance policies. These may be channelled through the OCS, although it seems likely that the funding will not be allocated as strategically as some have hoped.
Of course, it’s questionable whether the OCS funding was ever particularly well spent. You could argue that the government wasted a lot of its £250m-or-so budget following the creation of the OCS in 2006, when it was the Office of the Third Sector.
But then, we could definitely ask the same question about the NCS. What would happen if we stockpiled the £1bn due to be spent on the NCS over the life of this parliament, and spent £50m every year on organisations like the Scouts and Guides?
It might be that we’d really be better off scrapping all the project funding in the OCS, and just really beef up its policy and advocacy function.
It also raises a question about why we are fighting so hard over the Charity Commission. I don’t think anyone doubts that money spent on the regulator is money spent well. Shouldn’t we just scrap a few of these dubious, low-impact vanity projects, and spend the cash we save on regulation, instead.
Total OCS funding – all teams and programmes
- £2.2m Youth
- £191.3m National Citizen Service
- £5.0m Youth Investment Fund
- £5.0m #iwill fund
- £1.6m Sector Support
- £17.8m Local Sustainability Fund
- £1.7m Social action policy
- £5.7m Centre for Social Action
- £4.5m Inclusive Economy
- £1.0m Life Chances Fund
- £1.7m Life Chances Fund Development Grants
- £4.2m Accesss: The Foundation for Social Investment
- £6.2m Social Outcomes Fund
- £1.4m Governance, Awards and Programmes
- £4.1m Libor Grants
- £2.1m Tampon Tax