Boris Johnson recently said that we need more ‘whack-a-mole’ strategies. It’s a curious choice of phrase.
With a strategy, you review the evidence, look at where you want to go, make some assumptions about how things might perform and target your resources. Yet this game conjures up the image of a constantly reactive state - hitting things that randomly pop up in front of you, as hard as you can. The reference had me raising my eyebrow given that it’s oft used to describe superficial and piecemeal problem solving resulting in only temporary or minor improvements. Not exactly evocative of the concept of ‘building back better’, which paints a picture of a society grabbing the opportunities to permanently reshape positively for the future, is it?
For too long this piecemeal and reactive approach has been inherent in Government’s thinking when it comes to charity. Budgets came and went with little or no reference to the sector. And where we did feature it was in the less than strategic funding decisions such as the distribution of Libor funds to specific causes and measures like the tampon tax.
Charity related policy, outside of these fiscal events, is often to right an unintended wrong. Or address an outcome that’s proved to be unpopular. We’ve seen that what the population gets behind, or the celebrities like Marcus Rashford highlight, gets addressed. Yet the failure to secure a significant, all-encompassing outcome for every corner of the sector is cast as being as a result of charities failing to agree or speak with a single voice. I think that’s a lazy narrative and let’s those with power off the hook for not thinking strategically.
I’ve repeatedly stressed the sector is a loose union of many and varied organisations from multiple sectors held together simply by their desire for the world to be a better place. The expectation that we have just one set of solutions to multiple problems is unrealistic. But it’s also not the problem. During this crisis, we have more often than not been able to find common ground and speak with a unified voice. But still ‘whack-a-mole’ prevails.
It’s not that successive governments necessarily set out to undermine charitable endeavour (though I am sure some will identify examples where that arguably appeared to be the intent) but rather that ill-thought-out policy, or policy designed through the myopic lens of business, fail to take into account the social change sector.
So what is behind this lack of strategic thinking?
I said back in 2012 (during a Civil Society Media run question time https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uch8v_CfreA) that charities are an afterthought and not a first thought in policymaking. That we frequently pick up the dire unintended consequences of policies designed not with charities in mind. Sadly, I have seen little evidence that this picture has changed over the intervening years. Too frequently, as a sector, we are pointing out and rescuing the bodies in the water - not working with Government to prevent them from falling in in the first place.
This lack of big picture thinking leads to constant complaints that its funding commitments are too little, distributed too slowly and not strategically focused to prevent harm. Government may not like this – but if you refuse to co-create solutions with the people who know the problems intimately, this outcome is inevitable.
Cameron’s Big Society promised much. The Civil Society Strategy of May’s tenure offered a tempting glimmer of strategic thinking that could give appropriate weight to the role social change plays at the heart of communities. Yet neither delivered much. With Danny Kruger’s review, the same alluring promise hangs in the air. There has been no end of warm words; acknowledgement from the very top with both the PM and the Chancellor recognising the critical part that charities and the voluntary sector play.
But words are not enough. There is an opportunity to do things differently - to not slip back into the way things were before. However, if that is to work and the Government is genuinely going to create lasting solutions to the wicked problems that society faces it will need to work with the sector and embrace it as part of the solution.
That means genuine engagement.
That means listening to increase understanding not listening to fit what we say into an already half-formed reply.
On the eve of a fiscal event I hope, but do not expect, charity to feature in Rishi Sunak’s considerations. Without financial support, charity will be unable to play its vital part in building back better. But even more –I hope for strategic thinking and less ‘whack-a-mole’.
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