In September, Matt Robinson set out a great overview of an agenda for the Office of Civil Society (OCS) in its new home of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS): continuing to improve charity law; using the opportunity to fully integrate the oversight of Lottery funding; enabling the growth of social investment; developing the National Citizenship Service; and, promoting public service reform.

In particular, I believe that Matt is absolutely right to highlight that the government fundamentally needs to decide which services are best delivered by the social sector, and reserve provision for such organisations. If certain services should be provided by organisations whose primary motivation is social, no amount of tweaking through Social Value Act requirements, capacity building or changes in procurement practice will achieve that. It has to be a requirement.

Social ownership of services

Academy school trusts, adoption agencies and those organisations delivering statutory children’s social care responsibilities are already reserved for not-for-profits. This reflects a widespread acknowledgement that it is impossible to capture all society wants from such services in a commercial contract, and that prioritising children must also be hardwired into the mission and accountability of the provider. It is difficult to see why the same logic does not apply, for example, to new federations of primary care practices or the increasingly non-NHS provision of care for those with mental health conditions.

Yet to rely on the OCS to lead this reform alone would be unfair. The Office often struggled to achieve changes to public service provision from within Cabinet Office. DCMS risks being an even weaker platform. Those of us who care for improved public services will therefore also need to take responsibility for making the case for radical change in the ownership and purpose of certain services directly to individual Departments, Number 10 and HM Treasury.

Supporting a good society

There is, however, an arena of civil society where OCS could take a greater leadership role in its new home, and effectively respond to a changing political environment. It could lead a fundamental reprioritisation and reimagining of how government supports the foundations of a good society – the bonds of support and common sense of belonging which tie people together and help us act collectively to address social needs.

The fragility of the social fabric of many communities has been discussed and fretted about for decades. However, the EU referendum result has put that in sharp focus, highlighting many people’s deep concerns about identity, the cohesiveness of their communities and their sense of powerlessness.

The challenge for government is to find a way to respond which is meaningful, long-term and avoids people and communities simply turning inwards.

Renewing social infrastructure

This will not be easy. It is intrinsically difficult for central government or national politicians to directly engage in the inevitable ‘messiness’ of the millions of social relationships and complex nature of identity which characterises Britain’s social fabric. Strengthening social bonds and collective social action must also go alongside the equally challenging task of developing a fairer and more equal economic system if it is to be effective at fostering a good society. I think that this is, however, the agenda which OCS must seek to pioneer from its new home.

What might be some of the components?

01/ A new perspective on infrastructure

Firstly, the activities and institutions around which people come together should be viewed as part of the country’s infrastructure, as Dan Gregory and others have argued. This social infrastructure includes the role of primary schools as a loci for parents to come together, the tens of thousands of grassroots sport associations, increasingly the way in which people with similar health conditions support each other and those rare but important on-line spaces which facilitate inclusive political and social debate and engagement. Each may have a specific purpose, but together they also help form the threads of our social fabric. They provide the warp around which the weft of friendships, informal mutual support and cultural identity develop. As such, they are just as important as the physical and economic fabric of roads, superfast broadband or the banking system.

The lens of strengthening infrastructure is also helpful, I believe, because it rightly pushes central government not to try to second-guess the specific way in these activities and institutions should operate. Instead, it implies a strategic agenda focused on investment in and creating the conditions for growth. It acknowledges that infrastructure takes decades to build, rather than arising from short term initiatives.

02/ Matching community resources

Secondly, if OCS is to pursue an agenda of a strategic public investment in the country’s social infrastructure, it would do well to start with issues where there is already social energy or a clear desire for coming together and action. As a general rule, government is best seen as a co-investor in civil society, matching and supporting the resources which people put in themselves. As mentioned earlier, there are important existing loci for social action which can be built up: schools where parents could have a greater role, thousands of grassroots sports clubs which could be better supported locally and, in health, a growing level of ‘peer support’, where people with similar needs help each other. Another arena people want to see improved is support for young people. OCS already has an interest through the National Citizenship Service (NCS) and some roles in relation to youth provision, but the need is much greater – the vast majority of people are frustrated that as a society we are failing to support many young people to successfully manage adolescence and the transition to adulthood. Genuinely locally rooted festivals and civic associations represent a further area for potential energy – an area where the UK could do much to learn from other countries. Other areas of public engagement and need include grappling with the appropriate role of government in better supporting elements of the online sphere, and the integration of recent immigrants. Many of these issues are ones which the existing OCS Social Action programmes have already found to resonate with and inspire passion among communities. Others are ones in which colleagues in DCMS have insight and experience.

03/ New sources of collective funding

Thirdly, as the components of public co-investment in social infrastructure become more clearly articulated, I think the UK will require new systems of long term funding and new dedicated organisations to manage these resources. Civil society requires funding that comes from society’s collective resources, is ultimately accountable to the public but insulated from short term political changes and fads.

DCMS already has experience in this regard. The last significant strategic development in this area was the establishment of the National Lottery by the predecessor of DCMS in the early 1990s. It has achieved much and will continue to do so. However, Lottery resources cannot cover what’s needed to renew the UK’s social fabric, and its source of funding from Lottery ticket sales is not one which should necessarily be expanded.

To establish sustained, collective investment of several billions of pounds in Britain’s social fabric will require sources of new or reprioritised resources. Some of the options could include:

  • Transferring inheritance tax from general taxation to a separately managed, hypothecated stream of funding dedicated to strengthening communities and supporting young people – probably some of the needs which people would most value a proportion of their estate to be used for.
  • Introducing a significant new levy on online advertising to support local arts, cultural and learning activities and online civic engagement. This sector owes its existence to our collective knowledge and interactions but does not easily fit into the traditional forms of sharing the economic benefits more widely through employment or corporate taxation.
  • A small extra levy on National Insurance contributions for those who have recently moved to live and work in the UK, in order to support English language and other integration measures.
  • Modernising the system of very local ‘precepts’ which village and town councils already raise in some areas (more generally, local government also has an important role in this area and OCS should consider how best to champion more sustainable funding for local authorities).

Alongside such new forms of revenue, important decisions would be needed on local or national distribution and oversight. I suggest that the best model would be to provide distribution bodies with sufficient certainty to take long term decisions, whilst also ensuring ultimate public accountability. Ten-year ‘licenses’ and drawing on models such as the BBC Charter renewal provide some useful learning from within DCMS.

Seize the opportunity

None of these developments would be easy for OCS. However, there is sometimes a moment to respond to concerns and opportunities which have been latent for many years. Now seems such a time to address the need for a new model of investment into our social fabric, and so I hope they rise to that challenge in their new setting.


Ben Jupp is a Director at Social Finance. He helped lead the Office of the Third Sector as it was established in Cabinet Office. This blog is written purely in a personal capacity.