New Government: New Opportunity – But will the sector grasp the nettle?

What would you offer the Prime Minister if he walked into the room right now?’

This was a question we put at a recent joint event to 20 third sector CEOs from a range of charities and social enterprises from up and down the country as we sought to find out how our leaders see the future under a new Conservative government with a formidable majority.

CEOs broadly fell into three camps.                                                                          

First were the Opportunists’.  These CEOs were apolitical in approach and recognised that many Government Departments want to kick on after Brexit to deliver on manifesto promises, particularly to deprived areas in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ constituencies.   Capitalising on this, the Opportunists want to fill the policy shelf with their own wares and use their moment with the PM to sell their charitable ideas and programmes to a Government short on hard-policy after years of Brexit-focus.

Second were the ‘Community-Builders’.   These CEOs believe that there is a moment right now for the third sector to play its role alongside other sectors, in rebuilding the notion of community after the division of Brexit and the bitter medicine of austerity.   The way to do this, the Community-Builders believe, is to allow extreme devolution of funds like the Dormant Assets fund and empower communities to spend them without the guiding hand of the state.   This would gift the PM, they contend, a kind of ‘Brexit-Reset’, a chance to help people ‘take back control’ of their communities in very practical and pro-social ways. 

Thirdly, there were the Advocates’.  This group of CEOs saw the principal role of the sector as ‘standing up’ for social justice in the face of Government and ‘speaking truth to power’.   This group is more obviously political in that its account of social justice is based more on ideas from the left than the right of politics.  The Advocates were less optimistic about the future and more deficit-minded when reflecting on the current state of society.   A typical Advocate-response to the PM stood in front of them would be to remind him of how little progress had been made on certain issues and to underline the Government’s obligation to find a solution.

Which group of CEOs will be the most effective over the next five to ten years? 

The Opportunists will certainly win the early years as a Government keen to lay the ground for electoral success in 2024 opens the taps for the fortunate ones who won’t be critical and can present solutions to electoral challenges.   The Community Builders are playing a different game, reminding the PM and his Government that if people and communities are to ‘take back control’, power needs to be keenly felt at the most local level.  Community-Building, as kind of super-charged ‘Big Society’ type idea, may or may not gain political traction and, as such, it’s a high-risk strategy.  The Community-builders probably have two years before the customary pre-election caution kicks in and any risky ideas hit the long grass.    Finally, the Advocates will probably be ignored at first (the price of being ‘right’ in their own estimation) but as the Government’s political problems increase over time (as they always do), the Advocates might shame a weakened administration into action on social issues. 

So it’s not clear which CEOs and organisations will have most traction over the next 5-10 years of Conservative-led Government.   

How did our own group split out between Opportunists, Community-Builders and Advocates? 

What we noticed was a perceptible move, led by some of our best-known third-sector leaders, towards a positive engagement and ‘can-do’ approach and away from gesture politics.   The Opportunists and Community Builders, in our small sample, just about outnumbered the Advocates in a way we certainly didn’t see, say, a decade ago when both of us were in senior roles with major charities.  As one well-known CEO put it ‘Now we have to put society together again, that’s our role and it’s what Government wants too.  We have to get on with it’.

Whether the rest of the sector will grasp that particular nettle, only time will tell.    

This article has been co-written by Craig Dearden-Phillips MBE, Founder and Chair of Social Club and Darra Singh OBE, Senior Partner for Government and Public Sector in EY.