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Martin Martin Gollan - Support and Development Manager

Psychologists define cognitive dissonance as simultaneously holding two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. If you want to know what this might feel like have a skim through ‘Building a future that works for everyone’ the government’s new Civil Society strategy.

The strategy was issued in early August, during parliamentary recess and if when reading it you begin to think ‘some of this seems familiar’ that’s unsurprising. The strategy appears to be largely the work of DCMS civil society ‘tsar’ (and one-time speechwriter for David Cameron) Danny Kruger, who tweeted that the strategy’s roots are in 18thcentury conservative thinker Edmund Burke whose ideas informed Cameron’s Big Society.

Burke saw society as made up of ‘little platoons’ all doing good things but also, crucially, knowing their place in a hierarchy atop of which sat the aristocracy and the established church. Burke’s model of society has been described as paternalistic and it’s such thinking that surely informs the strategy’s ambition of enabling people to give ‘a lifetime of contribution’; but contribution to what? Filling in the gaps left by government driven austerity programme and the bureaucracy (and cruelty) of welfare reforms?

A similarly dissonant moment is to be found when the strategy acknowledges that charities have a long tradition of campaigning, references the ‘chilling effect’ of the Lobbying Act and commits to working with civil society and the Electoral and Charity Commissions to ‘strengthen civil society’s confidence in its campaigning and advocacy role’. However isn’t there something wilfully naïve in its argument that the provisions of the lobbying act are ‘necessary to ensure that an election outcome cannot be unduly influenced through excessive spending’ when considering revelations about overspending and illegal coordination between the various leave campaigns in 2016 EU referendum? Also this government introduced the Lobbying Act.

Throughout the civil society strategy, which I think can we can confidently describe as well-meaning, you come up against similar contradictions, conflicts and ironies.

The strategy might speak of empowering communities for lifetime of contribution, but when the Child Poverty Action Group reports that a single working parent earning the National Living Wage is now £74 a week short of the minimum income standard, how practically is that going to happen?

What the civil society strategy fails to adequately address is how families or indeed whole communities, experiencing poverty and social exclusion are to find the resources to take local action. That many do is remarkable and a testament to the drive and resourcefulness of communities the government and its media attack dogs have been happy to vilify.

The civil society strategy might signal a move away from such public maligning of communities that are economically disenfranchised and socially excluded because they have now become associated with supporting Brexit.

The tone may have softened and definitions changed as the government seeks to reset the parameters of its relationship with the voluntary sector and communities. Civil Society continues to mean individuals and organisations acting independently of state control; but now ‘socially purposeful’ private businesses are included while the voluntary sector and social enterprises become the ‘social sector’.

To be sure the social sector is described as ‘the core of civil society’ but quite why the strategy’s authors thought they could just give the sector a new name is mystery. However the word ‘social’ is clearly felt to be important.

Another innovation of the strategy is its attempt to stretch the definition of ‘social value’ beyond its current usage in public procurement where it is used to avoid contracts automatically being awarded to the lowest bidder, to describe what, for government ministers, must be the ideal – thriving – community.

These ‘thriving communities’ will have ‘sufficient stock of financial, physical, natural and social capital’. Unhelpfully, the strategy doesn’t offer us a way of measuring how much ‘sufficient’ is. It is also silent on whether these ‘little platoons’ abundant in ‘social value’ will be encouraged to redistribute some of it to those just about managing – or not managing at all – communities.

The civil society strategy may be well intentioned. Take a moment, however to consider some of the headlines in the press and media this summer; the chaos of new railway timetables, the problems in prisons and the failure of probation services (all of which have been subject of outsourcing to the private sector); local authority’s on the brink of collapse; growing inequalities, underemployment and precarious working conditions; food poverty and increased homelessness to list but a few.

Within this – admittedly depressing - context the civil strategy, for all its well-meaning intentions, its promises of new models of community funding, recognising grant aid is important and using dormant bank account money to fund programmes to get young people into work, seems to fail to really get to grips with the challenges many communities and organisations face.