I am pleased to see Julia Unwin’s review of the sector published. It’s an important and substantial piece of work. The ideas behind the PACT principles that the paper puts forward—that we as a sector should share power, rethink our accountability to users, deepen our sense of community (be that of practice or place) and better promote trust—are ones I strongly support. Rightly, Julia is not suggesting revolution but her program will give impetus and new ideas to the sector.
There will be many debates, I hope, about both the analysis and the suggested ways forward over the weeks and months ahead. At times I felt the civil society the report describes is a rather idealised one; progressive and eager to solve the problems of our time, including inequality and racism. There are charities like this, but not all of our sector is so ‘pure’ in intention or deed and a recognition of that would have made the report more grounded.
I want to focus here on two things I feel are weak in the report, one about civil society organisations themselves and the other about how we might deliver Julia’s ambitious agenda.
First, the report seems to be missing a call for us to be good at what we do in terms of really achieving change and impact. We have a responsibility to our users, partners and communities to ensure that our work is making a difference, that we are using resources in the most effective way, that we are constantly trying to learn and adjust. Our accountability and the trust placed in us depend, at least in part, on this.
While the report makes criticisms of the way many civil society organisations work, it resists pointing out that in our diverse civil society many have little clue as to how well they are doing and often show little interest in finding that out and using that information to improve.
I’m not quite sure why explicit talk of improving their impact is missing. Maybe there is a concern that any talk of assessing impact leads to a bottomless hole of data, measurement, and ‘theories of change’ which are top down, too complex and time-diverting for many civil society groups.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Impact assessment can be user driven and the amount of energy an organisation puts into working on understanding and then improving its impact should be proportionate to its scale.
Maybe it is because to some, talk of ‘measurement’ and ‘outcomes’ seems alien to the concept of civil society—some have even badged it ‘neo-liberal’—when really it is just an aid to help us do more of the good we all want. When so many people and communities are relying on civil society, we must keep trying to up our game and I feel the report could have been stronger here.
This links to my second point which is the absence of serious mechanisms that could help civil society achieve the PACT principles—or indeed, increased impact. Without them I fear this promising start will quickly fizzle out.
We have to remember that it is very hard running charities. Whether it is a big organisation or a smaller one, the immediate needs of keeping the show on the road and the prevalent lack of capacity, make change very difficult. There are few factors incentivising organisations, community groups or active citizens towards prioritising the ideas in the PACT principles, or other principles, and plenty of pressing reasons to focus on finance and on the short term.
Trying to help charities lift their heads up, look around and understand what others are doing, is therefore crucial and I see nothing strong enough in the PACT proposals to enable this. In my view we need some sort of institution to make it happen and I have proposed the creation of a ‘Civil Society Improvement Agency’ to do just that. This would be led by the sector but mainly funded by the government.
Such an agency of course raises many issues. Some are practical about governance, funding and so on, as well as the way it would link to organisations like the NCVO, or even ourselves at NPC. But some are more philosophical.
Some reject the idea that the sector should be ‘told’ to improve and strive towards an optimal configuration because they think the sector should just be whatever people decide to do. This view holds that whether charities work well or badly; whether they focus on prosperous or deprived areas; what causes they work on; and with what diversity and level of involvement of their users is a matter for them alone.
Clearly, Julia does not think that and neither do I. She is encouraging us to think about how we do things differently. The report wants the PACT principles to be used as practical guidance for individual organisations, membership bodies, independent and government funders, commissioners, regulators and the like. Ideas like the ‘people-power grid’ have potential as part of an armoury for change but, for me, until we have a stronger mechanism—which does not have to be mine—then I am not convinced we will make much progress.
All this of course is in addition to things that government can do. I have argued that reform of regulation, of charity tax breaks, and commissioning would help civil society evolve in ways and in places that we all want. The report touches on some of this which is very welcome.
I hope that out of the discussions on the back of this report will come ideas for more effective mechanisms to create the change that is sought. Otherwise there is a danger that, like the recent Civil Society Strategy, it will be an exercise with many good ideas and potential fruitful directions but not much to help us get there.