You can forgive civil servants in the Office for Civil Society (OCS) having a stronger than usual bout of back-to-school blues right now. After 10 years of residence within the Cabinet Office – the centre of government and the closest thing the UK has to an office of the Prime Minister – they are taking-up new quarters within the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). A move that surprised and disappointed a lot of people in the social sector.
So what might the next few years hold for OCS and its various policy functions? And – perhaps a more interesting question – what might a radical programme look like that will prove the naysayers wrong about the ‘demotion’ to DCMS?
Let’s start with what doesn’t change. Most notably, OCS will still be working to Minister Rob Wilson. Assuming he doesn’t get too distracted by his additional responsibility for libraries policy, this should clear the ground for a fast start.
OCS will continue to be responsible for charity law. Rather than treat this as a sleepy function that someone has to do –can it be used to give Teresa May’s social justice agenda some teeth? A deeper review of public benefit tests could be interesting. Do charities that charge fees for services (private schools, care homes, universities) adequately report on how they provide public benefit? Are there real consequences if found to be failing the public benefit test? Some more uncomfortable questions like these could be incorporated into the next review of Charity Law.
OCS will still pay for and ‘commission’ the National Citizens Service (NCS) – now open to all 16 and 17 year olds. This has been one of the very few areas of budgetary growth – so OCS would do well to work with the NCS Trust to build a bipartisan evidence case for NCS to become a permanent feature of growing-up in the UK. Assuming it really does work!
All the various components of the National Lottery are now 100% housed under one department. It could be an opportunity for the Big Lottery Fund (BLF) to ask DCMS what happened to the £425m ‘borrowed’ for the 2012 Olympics and not repaid! Equally, the DCMS might ask the BLF to do more to systematically report on the impact they achieve from £9bn they’ve disbursed to date, not least to help fend-off any more attempted raids from the Treasury.
It will be interesting to see how high social investment stays up in the agenda. David Cameron’s government did so much (some say too much) to promote social investment, there is not much virgin policy territory left. One piece of unfinished business is to raise the size cap for the Social Investment Tax Relief (SITR). The forthcoming Dormant Assets Review should be soundly supported, although OCS should stick to the ‘source of funds’ question and resist the temptation (for it will be strong) to opine on the ‘use of funds’. Other than this, social investment should probably be left to mature free from much government initiative or table-thumping. However, I can’t resist this idea – OCS could work with the Big Society Trust (owner of Big Society Capital and corporate member of the Access Foundation) to set a long-term ambition to redistribute social investment holdings to the people. It might take 20-30 years but a hundred quid of mixed social investments per household is not impossible to conceive of. Let’s hope for some financial returns alongside impact then!
Arguably the least successful element of OCS’s past few years has been its influence on public service reform. This is in part because there has been no real centralist public reform agenda for it to grip – certainly not on the level of the Blair or Brown years, and insofar there’s been one at all, it’s about devolution and greater city-region powers. However, a few Social Investment Bonds (SIBs) and mutuals (in reality companies with some employee-ownership) does not cut it either, and charities in particular have done very poorly out of the rise and rise of commissioned front-line services. I am a pessimist when it comes to ‘influencing commissioners’ through academies, exemplar projects, soft-teethed Social Value Acts etc. I just think commissioners’ ambitions will almost always be trumped by the obligation of their procurement colleagues to max-out savings. So a radical agenda here is probably about restricting future public service markets by law to low-profit companies, social enterprises or charities. This will still allow for a commissioning model, but will force commercial players to reinvent themselves or get out of town, and in the long-run will allow surpluses to be reinvested into service delivery.
What of Brexit? It now seems de rigeur to look for positives, not negatives – so here’s one idea with the shiniest of silver linings. Let’s use Brexit to get rid of state aid rules for the UK social sector entirely. I have yet to hear of any state aid case brought against UK charities in the past 30 plus years, let alone a successful one. So what’s the blooming point?! The rationale for state aid rules is to stop billions of euro subsidies flowing to national champions and distorting whole industries such as aerospace or automobiles (no comment on how successful the EU’s been there…); it was never to police a £200k grant to a charity. In a very British rule-abiding way, the time and expense the charity sector goes into to second-guessing state aid law is ridiculous, damages outcomes for beneficiaries and is long overdue for change.
And with that, it remains to wish OCS the best of luck in safeguarding the NCS, the BLF, staying (largely) out of social investment, continuing to evolve Charity Law, revolutionising public service law and putting state aid rules on the bonfire. Good luck!
Matt Robinson worked in OCS between 2010 and 2012 and for Big Society Capital between 2012 and early 2016. He writes in an entirely personal capacity.