Comments on Danny Kruger’s Report to Government on capturing the community spirit mobilised by the Covid crisis
The Cabinet Office’s 2018 Civil Society Strategy provided a reasonably comprehensive overview of aspirations, factors and case studies relevant to its strapline of “building a future that works for everyone”. Its chapter headings were “People”, “Places”, “the Social Sector”, “the Private Sector”, and “the Public Sector”.
It is barely referenced in the report, “Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant” by Danny Kruger MP to the Prime Minister, published in September 2020, with chapter headings “Power”, “People” and “Places”. This highlights an essential point about “build back better” initiatives, which is that the entrenched socio-economic problems they seek to address did not start with, but were magnified by, the Covid-19 crisis.
Danny Kruger, as a former CEO of the West London Zone social enterprise, is qualified to lead a discussion on civil society reform and innovation and he has manifestly applied himself with energy and imagination in three months of consultation and writing. However, the politicized starting point is still apparent and a 51 page report, on such era-defining issues, produced in such a short time, could not reasonably be expected to be more than a mixed bag of high level ideas, any one of which would (or will) need serious detailed application and a much deeper level of consultation to become a reality and even then a series of profoundly wise and balanced judgments, along the way, to become a success.
The mandate from the Prime Minister was to build on the public spirit manifest in the response to the pandemic and to “develop proposals to maximise the role of volunteers, community groups, faith groups, charities and social enterprises” in relation to “the government’s levelling up agenda”. There is a mass of great work on such issues, as our civil society responds to the increasingly consensual truth that the neoliberal economics, which have ruled the past 40 years, (in the words of the Report, “exacerbating existing inequalities”), need to evolve into post, or mature, capitalism (depending on your political persuasion).
Some parts of that cause of our age are, as far as they go, captured in the Report. For example, “Social Value”, or “Public Value” is recognised as central to, rather than an adjunct to, public sector commissioning, which is, in principle, a critical shift away from the marketization of public services. But what is captured, then needs much more to lead to real change. Social Value is now common currency, but that entails the risk that it will be absorbed into the prevailing system, rather than transform it. The Kruger recommendations on this and other subjects say nothing about overcoming the massed forces, of status quo interest, complexity and inertia that easily resist good and vital reform.
This is particularly indicated by three notable contradictions running through the report.
Most of the Report’s focus is on empowering communities, recognising the need to replace “the dominance of remote public and private sector bureaucracies”, in a “bottom-up” reformation, based on “community spirit”. A new covenant between government and communities is declared to be the overall objective. But the series of recommendations that follow are typically, even in some cases prescriptively, “top-down”, most conspicuously a “Volunteer Passport”. Danny Kruger is alert to this, so states, in relation to several proposals, that, to implement them, community consultation would be required, but how does central government meaningfully and productively consult with local communities? The Report does not mention regional government, places no emphasis on the role of local government and is surprisingly fleeting about a new deal with community groups, faith organisations and charities.
More strikingly, while the failure of the Big Society initiative of the Cameron government is attributed, reasonably, to its co-existence with the same government’s policy of austerity, there is no consequent suggestion that some reversal of cuts to local government funding could be a factor in levelling-up.
Thirdly, the other big problem with Big Society is still present, as the diversity, strength, vitality and value of the public benefit sector is still not embraced as a genuinely third and equally important sector alongside the private and the public. Volunteering is part of the spirit of civil society, but its cohesive substance is organisations dedicated to purpose, collaboration, public value, local community and sustainable through the investment of public and private funds.
On finance, the Report is disappointingly fragmentary. For example, there is no mention of the 2017 National Advisory Board on Impact Investing Report “The Rise of Impact: Five steps towards an inclusive and sustainable economy”, or the Impact Investing Institute it generated. These were notable socio-economic steps, along the potentially sector-integrating pathway towards public value impact and reasonable investment return as a unitary concept, which would benefit from a next level report.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge good ideas in the report which may well merit further development, for example: higher quality data, digital infrastructure, specific areas for regenerative innovation projects; support for youth engagement and horizontal connections to seek to integrate public policy silos. There are also some new funding proposals. But the Report is of a political world, as indicated by some mainstream conservative ideas, Victorian Philanthropy and more mundanely by some directly supportive references to controversial current government initiatives.
Julian Blake co-authored the 2016 publication “The Art of the Possible in Public Procurement” which is cited in the 2018 Civil Society Strategy and is personally referenced, in the 2020 Kruger report, as advocating that “contracts for human relationships should be “working relationship agreements”, between commissioners and the people who will work directly with the client group”.