Lord Gus O’Donnell’s Warm Bath

1. The final report of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, chaired by Lord (Gus) O’Donnell (former Cabinet Secretary), who also chairs Pro Bono Economics which supported the Commission, was published at the end of January. To one prominent charity leader I know it felt like “a lovely warm bath” after years of relative indifference, neglect or hostility from national policy makers towards the charity sector.

Championing the social sector

2. For it champions the essential role of the sector in our national life, and its central message after two years of consultation and research is that national well-being and prosperity will continue to suffer unless the contribution of charities and community groups (which it calls “the social sector”) is better understood, recognised, measured, nurtured and supported, working in harmony with business and the public sector. Alleluia!

3. It is in many ways a heart-warming vision, expressed in an optimistic, can-do spirit, and accompanied by specific recommendations, some of which we must hope may gain traction from the distinguished and diverse people on the Commission and from what it claims to be its unique character as a tripartite body but one including business and prominent public sector servants. Perhaps, even if its arguments and recommendations are mostly not new, they might have more impact because they are advanced under such auspices? Let us hope so.

Some Drawbacks


4. There are, however, disappointing flaws and limitations that may mean that the vision will not have the impact it deserves.

5. As with any report about civil society (or charities), there are familiar problems of definition. It is not clear enough, literally, what they are talking about. They say they are talking both about civil society as a whole, defined in the most general terms, and at one point, for example, mention trade unions as part of it; and that for other purposes they are talking about the social sector, defined as charities and community groups. In various passages, the difference between charities and civil society gets blurred and lost. And when the Commission talks about “charities”, much of the time they are really talking about only the minority of charities with significant resources and staff.

6. They are not the only ones to do it, but such imprecision about the basic subject of the report is an own goal.

Big Omissions

7. So far as I recall, you can read the whole 100 pages of the report without coming across the words “church”, “mosque” or “faith groups”. This is an extraordinary omission. Churches and other faith groups are still there in deprived areas from which other institutions may have long departed, play an undisputed role in nurturing community, account for about one in every six pounds donated to charities, and nurture high levels of giving among their adherents. Did the Commission have no contact with religious organisations and religious leaders as part of this exercise?

8. And the brief mention of trade unions with their six and a half million members as part of civil society is sadly their first and last appearance. The Commission shows no interest in the potential for partnership between charities and trade unions, despite the obvious overlap of interests in areas from health, safety, welfare, child care and the needs of carers to human rights, including women’s rights and anti-racism.

9. In what is billed as a unique tripartite Commission, I don’t see a big hitter from the world of local authorities, who are so crucial in their interaction with civil society. This seems an unfortunate gap, and I think it shows in the quality of what the Commission has to say about the local level of partnership.

Historical amnesia

10. It is great to have the disciplines of economics and research applied to civil society by Pro Bono Economics, but how we miss the disciplines of history! It is a hazard for can-do people rolling their sleeves up to crack a problem, that they may not have the patience to learn from the past. The Commission makes some really important (if familiar) recommendations that are hampered by historical amnesia. The Commission advocates for long-term, unrestricted core funding for charities as a top priority: Amen! But the same has been passionately argued over decades, again and again. So saying it one more time is unlikely to effect change unless one examines why such calls have been ineffectual.

11. The Commission advocates for good infrastructure for civil society – so important indeed. But there used to be much stronger infrastructure, with special further efforts made under the Blair Government, so why did they have mixed results and why has so much of the infrastructure collapsed: if you don’t understand that, how can you be optimistic that arguing for the benefits of infrastructure will have any more effect now?

12. The Commission rightly argues for better habits of partnership and respect between government and charities, as previously laid out in the Compact, which has since collapsed. If you don’t analyse why it collapsed, why should similar efforts succeed this time?

13. The Commission advocates for more civil servants to be allocated to the civil society brief. But there is no consideration of why the Civil Society Unit (or equivalent) in powerful central Departments like the Home Office, and later the Cabinet Office, with a strong Minister as champion, has become attenuated and shunted into a siding in DCMS under a junior Minister with multiple other briefs. What happened and why? Silence. We just get the idea of a non-Ministerial Philanthropy Champion – which might well be useful but not surely a substitute for a strong CSU at the heart of government, for which charities have argued for many years?

14. The Commission advocates for vigorous exchanges of good practice and of the blessings of partnership between business and charities. Great. But did they not know that Business in the Community, with strong support of the then Prince of Wales, has been doing this for decades? Would they not have some lessons to offer? Enthusiastic rhetoric about the potential of business/charities partnership is not informed by historically-informed analysis of the constraints and difficulties.

Respecting existing organisations

15. The habit of ignoring history overlaps with a recurrent tendency, as in the case of Business in the Community (BiC), to neglect the cumulative expertise of current major players in the field. This too is an own goal, unless one takes the extreme view that those players are not worth consulting. In addition to BiC, there is little sign that the Association of Charitable Foundations was consulted with any care on the subject of grant funding by grant-giving charitable trusts, despite their key role in this area and considerable improvements in practice during and since the pandemic.

16. Nor does it seem that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) was brought properly into the venture, eg by involving its current CEO, despite being the premier infrastructure organisation with a large charity membership at national and local levels, whose bread and butter for many years has been the dissemination of good practice, the creation of data (used by this Commission), advocacy for the role and support of civil society and volunteering, partnership working, the defence of campaigning rights and so on. It is ironic that a Commission recommending collaborative approaches and partnership should fail to collaborate adequately with these and other umbrella bodies, and it must make it less likely that recommendations addressed to them will be received with enthusiasm.

17. There is a specific recommendation to create a new Civil Society Evidence Organisation whose remit would appear to overlap with that of a number of existing infrastructure and academic organisations. Human nature being what it is, if the Commission did not consult them carefully or explain how the new body would fit in with them, it will not be surprising if the response is teeth-grinding and low murmurs dissing the new kids on the block rather than something more creative.

Avoiding Controversy

18. One can understand how someone as versed in the art of the possible as Lord O’Donnell, and who aims admirably to secure a consensus across different political opinions and sectors in favour of the Commission’s vision, should try to downplay divisive issues. Tactically, that might be the right choice. But in some ways, this makes for rather anodyne, technocratic recommendations. Political elephants in the room haunt this report.

19.For instance, there isn’t a hint that the relative neglect of civil society by government might partly be due to the highly centralised nature of the British state. This forms part of Andy Haldane’s analysis, and Danny Kruger’s, and is keenly debated.  You might think that a major review of partnership with civil society would at least mention the topical view that pushing power downwards, so that it is nearer civil society, would be a precondition for transformative change. But shifting power is not for this Commission. There has been much effort in recent years to build support for using dormant assets for a Community Wealth Fund, but there is no mention of this.

20. Similarly, you can if you persevere find a recognition on page 85 of the report that the collapse of local civil society infrastructure (and the diminution of many local authority/civil society partnerships) had a lot to do with the radical cuts in local authority funding by central government, but this rather large point does not make it into any of the Executive Summary, the Introduction, the conclusions or the boxed key findings and recommendations of the report.

21.Nor would you know from this report that the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson had set out in an independent review his recommendations for how to mitigate the restrictive effects of the Lobbying Act – ignored by the Government. There are no recommendations about Whitehall gagging clauses (though the principle of not allowing criticism to deny charities Government finance is staunchly promoted).

22. We have seen that the progressive downgrading and impotence of Government’s Civil Society Unit also gets no mention.

23. The Commission is determinedly optimistic that there is “a strong bedrock of engagement and respect between charities and policymakers, as well as appetite among every group of policymakers to increase and improve relationships”. Well, that would be grand, but it comes across as Panglossian. It sits awkwardly alongside the recognition in the report (if you look carefully) that a very strong cohort of right-of-centre MPs and Government Ministers do not appreciate the campaigning role of charities, that the Compact died, and that charities have felt that they have been banging their heads against a brick wall in recent years to get a decent level of consultation and recognition.

Conclusion: All is Not Lost

24. You will not find a more vigorous assertion and explanation of the essential contribution of civil society to our country’s well-being and prosperity, than this Commission’s. Charities can be truly grateful that Lord O’Donnell and his team chose to use their time and formidable reputations and abilities in this cause. There is added value in the involvement of business, public sector and civil society joint representation on the Commission and the deployment of economic skills and concepts to help gain support and understanding among parts of society who have not been too successfully reached by the advocates of civil society before.

25. The Commissioners have not finished their work and promise to follow up their report to try to secure reform. Perhaps they are right that the prospect of a new General Election, and its possible aftermath, could create conditions for a re-set where their vision is more likely to take root; a time more favourable to well-informed technocratic consensus and partnership working.

26. For that to happen, here is my unsolicited advice to the Commission. Be clearer who you are talking about. Engage better with key organisations that have toiled in this vineyard for decades. Study the constraints and pressures that have frustrated aspects of the vision over many years. Be as collaborative as you argue others should be. Bring in the local authorities and the faith groups. Acknowledge some of those political elephants in the room. And please keep going.

Andrew Purkis

March 2023


One thought on “Lord Gus O’Donnell’s Warm Bath

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s