The state and the voluntary sector have always had an uneasy friendship, to put it mildly. In the mid-1990s the government produced a framework intended to put this relationship on a more equal footing. Called the Voluntary Sector Compact, the framework offered rules for engagement that would help to protect the voluntary sector’s role in civic life and its independence.
Flash forward twenty years and it’s fair to say that the Compact isn’t exactly the word on everyone’s lips. But the Office for Civil Society have recently signalled plans to renew their commitment to the document and make it more relevant to the 21st century.
In one sense this is very exciting. During the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, we found that many in the sector feel they’ve been in a subordinate role in their relationship with government. They’d like the relationship to be of greater quality, with more respect for local expertise and knowledge.
In this respect, the Inquiry offers some clear lessons for the Office for Civil Society if they want to renew their commitment to the Compact. Firstly, the Compact needs to recognize the power imbalance in past government/civil society relationships and the legacy of negativity this has left. One of the key questions a renewed Compact will have to grapple with is how trust and mutual respect can be built between state and sector. Part of this will involve shaping shared expectations for both sides.
Furthermore, civil society is now far more diverse than it was 20 years ago. This needs to be reflected in any renewed commitment to the Compact. Some participants in the Inquiry, for example, argued that the Compact has up until now focused almost exclusively on voluntary organisations as public service providers. Their work promoting volunteering and campaigning has been largely overlooked. Engagement around a renewed Compact has to be accessible, inclusive, and engage minority voices.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult of all, a new Compact has to make itself, and the government, accountable. Past reviews of the Compact have found little evidence of measurable success on topics like commitment to longer-term funding and full cost recovery. Various evaluations have found there’s been a lack of central government engagement with the Compact, a lack of promotion of local compacts, and missed opportunities to establish the credibility of arrangements for evaluating progress.
This is important because it means the government can, on paper, follow some of the Compact’s undertaking but still not change its behaviour in a way that matches the Compact’s principles and ideals. A quick example: a commitment by government to consult and to give early notice of forthcoming consultations, or to publish data online has not resulted in fair access by civil society organisations to the decision-making process.
How do we crack this nut? Many of the issues that have prevented growth and maturity in the relationship are behavioural and attitudinal (such as lack of trust, lack of recognition of the diversity of the sector, favouritism towards some charities, a lack of honesty about where power lies within the relationship). As people who are interested in systems change are increasingly becoming aware, it is often the ‘little things’ that make a difference in any relationship. Showing respect, showing kindness, taking the time to contact somebody to explain why a decision that did not go their way has been made – these are all behaviours that show a sector or organization they are valued.
So if we agree that culture change is what is needed in the relationship between government and civil society, the Office for Civil Society could use the Compact refresh to build a set of behavioural prompts that people feel characterize an equitable and respectful relationship between these two sectors. This needs government and civil society to agree on what values and outcomes these behaviours are meant to promote, but a lot of work has already been done on this (not least our own Inquiry report). The key will be to create behaviours that are measurable (did they happen – yes or no?) and amenable to easy reporting from both government and civil society. Following this, we – as a government/civil society collective – should create a set of perception-based indicators that can capture changes in attitude within our relationship. Where do people feel the power lies in the relationship, for example? How much trust is there in the relationship? How easy is it to disagree with each other?
None of this will be easy. It will require a shift in thinking by government and civil society alike. But if the Inquiry process showed anything, it showed the willingness of the sector to try new things. To take risks and be bold.
For more information about our response to the Office for Civil Society, download our discussion paper on the Compact.
 Zimmer, M., Rochester, C. and Rushbrooke, B. (2011) Use it or lose it: A summative evaluation of the Compact, Birmingham: Commission for the Compact
 Carrington, D. (2002) The Compact: The challenge of implementation, London: Active Community Unit, Home Office
 Craig, G., Taylor, M., Carlton, N., Garbutt, R., Kimberlee, R., Lepine, E. and Syed, A. (2005) The paradox of compacts: Monitoring the impact of compacts, Home Office Online Report 02/05, London: Home Office11th July 2019