The trouble with civil society in Wales

Rebecca Rumbul calls for greater distance between government in Wales and the third sector.

Civil society in Wales is often neglected. The politico-economic landscape is dominated by publicly funded bodies and rhetoric on the need for a more thriving and robust private sector. It is, however, the hard-working and under-appreciated engine of public policy, responsible for high levels of service delivery, the plugging of gaps in publicly funded services, innovation in addressing cross-cutting policy issues and the provision of expertise and critical appraisal in the development of legislation.

Civil society is populated with inspiring and passionate people working in often low-paid and insecure roles, assisting the vulnerable, championing the environment and breaking news. It is a critical friend to government and champion for its diverse public. For all of its virtues, however, there is an inescapable tension between doing good work and maintaining organisational existence. And such good works must be paid for.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, generous low-maintenance grants from the National Lottery Good Causes and Objective 1, as well as the Welsh Government’s grant system, enabled civil society in Wales to grow and diversify, and to invest in professionalising alongside the development of devolution. This funding environment supported a rising plurality of organisations (considered by scholars to be a sign of a healthy civil society environment), in which multiple constituencies of expertise could inform debate and maintain a constant pressure upon government to improve the quality of legislation and policy delivery.

Those cash-rich days are now long gone, and civil society in Wales has undergone a contraction in its plurality. This has been exacerbated by the funding regimes put in place by the Welsh Government and its EU funding body WEFO, in which high value and high volume requirements for service providers squeeze out smaller organisations from receiving a share of the funding. This means services that are small, local, agile, holistic and innovative are lost. Our media has similarly contracted, with local news and regional news subject to ever greater cuts. Arguments against plurality are often based on cost, with opponents querying why Wales would need more than one charity for ‘young people’, or more than one ‘regional’ newspaper. Whilst questions of cost are valid, plurality guards against single interests being served, and it is prudent to examine who exactly is providing the funding to these dominant organisations that are singular in their policy area. Civil society organisations are mostly charities or social enterprises, and therefore many rely on a mixture of private gifts, service contracts and grants. News outlets rely on good contacts to provide them with reliable information. Developing and maintaining good relationships with funders and contacts is integral in ensuring an organisation is able to continue operating. In the service-delivery oriented sphere, it is the Welsh Government that provides the most significant funding to the dominant civil society organisations in Wales.

There is no question about whether government should provide at least some funding to civil society groups – it absolutely should, in particular to those that provide vital services. However, the distance between donor and recipient has been shown to be concerningly close in Wales, in particular with regard to those organisations that receive the bulk of their funding from the Welsh Government. Quite naturally, organisations do not wish to bite the hand that feeds. To criticise one’s benefactor is risky in the most benign of situations, let alone when you and your staff are vulnerable to an annual review of your organisation’s funding. Organisations are also painfully aware of the lack of dynamism in the political environment in Wales. Unlike in England, where a change of Government is quite possible every 5 years, and a change of Minister very likely every two or three years, in Wales, organisations must contemplate that the current Minister and their small pool of colleagues may be around for another two decades. This knowledge does not provide fertile ground for debate or criticism, however friendly the framing. A small civil society sector plus a small political class ensures that, if you work in Wales for your whole career, you are likely to work with the same people for over 40 years. In such circumstances it is unsurprising that civil society leaders are not often heard being fiercely critical.

The result of such timidity in expressing criticism of government policy reduces the quality of information and debate available to legislators, policy makers and the wider public. Civil society has the knowledge and expertise to question government, to challenge its actions, and to work with the media in publicising issues that might go against current government policy. If it is unable to do these things freely, the sector may stagnate, public money may be wasted on useless policies, and eventually citizens themselves may develop the same mistrust of civil society that is currently reserved for politicians and bankers.

Unfortunately, the losers here are the people of Wales. Without plurality in our civil society sector, and with perpetual organisational fear of funding withdrawal, civil society groups will continue to sanitise their views and limit their contributions to wider debate. The inevitable result of this course of action is that policy development will be stunted. Most concerningly, it will likely travel in the direction of the ideological preferences of Labour Ministers, rather than towards innovative real-world solutions that take advantage of Wales’ agility and showcase the best of its civil society talent.

Dr Rebecca Rumbul is Head of Research at mySociety. This piece first appeared in issue 55 of the Welsh agenda.

7 thoughts on “The trouble with civil society in Wales

  1. “and eventually citizens themselves may develop the same mistrust of civil society that is currently reserved for politicians and bankers”

    I arrived at this point MANY years ago!

  2. Reading this excellent article conjured up images of an army (horde?) of zombie jobsworthies lumbering through our land with random bits of them dropping off. At the start, I wasn’t quite sure of what the ‘civil society’ was made up of, but now, as the article has made somewhat clearer, I imagine it to be made up of non governmental groups entirely dependent on the government or EU teat. Most I’m sure are very worthy in their activity.
    It also seems clear that Brexit would be an unmitigated disaster for these groups as there is absolutely no way that the English government vampire HQ will ever divert any savings from EU contributions back to support ‘civil society’ in Wales. It just won’t happen. The zombie army will starve and start eating themselves. Will this spectacle persuade me or not to vote for Brexit? I don’t know. Zombie movies are so ‘last year’.

  3. The first paragraph and the last three are both very important and very brave. It is a pity that elsewhere the principle of whether a true civic society should rely so much on public funding is not questioned more aggressively

    It seems to be a general trend, not just in Wales, that the ‘third sector,’ by whatever name, is getting closer to the public sector. This trend is exacerbated in Wales by the lack of a strong private sector.

    It is undoubtedly to the benefit of the public sector to use arms-length organisations to delver services cheaply and flexibly, and third sector managers like easy money without the hassle of conventional fundraising, but the price has been the development of a sort of dependency culture among them – and they are particularly vulnerable to public sector cuts. There is also the loss of political independence mentioned in the article. Too many respected charities have effectively sold their souls to the state.

    There are no easy solutions to this problem, but the article does well to draw attention to it.

  4. All very true and regrettable. My membership of Friends of the Earth lapsed decades ago but in the seventies and eighties environmental groups were clearly independent of government and almost always opposed to its policies. Today the situation is somewhat nuanced especially when grants and future careers are at stake.Empty gestures and targetless policies are frequently lauded and no doubt the loyal chorus gets its reward.
    Rebecca offers no solutions and JWR concedes that there are no easy answers. Well here is a suggestion which could help. Why does IWA not set an example and insist that authors of its published articles declare their interests. They may be making very valid arguments in favour of some new government proposal but the reader should know if their employment is directly or indirectly funded by the state.

  5. Good idea JOJ. I’ll second that and it’s something the IWA could implement on its own initiative straight away.

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