Civil Society, Third Sector, Big Society?

For Progress Online, September 2010:

Did the Coalition really spend thousands of pounds changing the name of the Office of the Third Sector to the Office of Civil Society because Dave “didn’t like the name”? Civil Society, the OCS web site tells us, is made up of “charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations.” So both ‘civil society’ and ‘third sector’ fit.

Or do they? I like the idea of a third sector, at an apex of an equilateral triangle, counterbalancing and complementing the public and the private, equal in esteem. And civil society, as any student of developing countries will tell you, includes more than just “charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations.”

A woman from west Africa asked a conference in London earlier this year: “Who is this ‘civil society’, anyway? Why can’t we be represented by the trade unions, like we always have?” Trade unions are part of civil society, by any definition, as are political parties, pressure groups and academic institutions. So too are philanthropists and informal volunteers, which remain within OCS but don’t apparently warrant a mention in their rubric. OCS will not oversee these other interests so ‘Office of Civil Society’ is not a good name.

Rant over. It’s not what OCS is called but what it does that should concern us.

Like any other government body, OCS is charged with helping reduce the deficit, so plans to cut funding by 40% are being drawn up. Carrots are being dangled before “charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations”, such as more opportunities to win service delivery contracts and unprecedented ten-year funding agreements.

But these chalices have been poisoned.

Nick Hurd has said that unit costs for contractual outcomes will have to be reduced and that full cost recovery is to be jettisoned. Full cost recovery – the principle that charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations should not need to subsidise the services they provide on contract – has been hard won. It is the key to the professional standing achieved by third sector service providers in recent years. It is also inextricably bound up with the Compact, the recently refreshed memorandum of understanding between government and the sector. When Francis Maude told his ministerial colleagues that decisions to cut funding to the sector should be ‘Compact compliant’ did he really mean ‘except for full cost recovery?’

It gets worse. OCS’s 42 ‘strategic partners’ are to be reduced to 15 in 2011. There will be less money for grants. Arbitrary new rules will ensure that no group gets more than half of its funding from OCS nor more than £500,000 a year from them.

Four organisations currently receive more than 70% of their funding from OCS and no fewer than seven, including most third sector umbrella groups, are caught by the half a million rule. Six of these could lose up to a million pounds a year each, but one organisation will feel that it is being especially targeted.

Over four years ‘v’ has generated imagination, enthusiasm and volunteering opportunities for almost a million young people. The greatest proportion of its £39M direct funding last year came from Government. Earlier this month the OCS and the Department for Education between them made an immediate cut of £10M in v’s funding, leading to over 90 redundancies.

If this is a taste of things to come, who’s next for the chop?