By Joshua.Chambers

03 Dec 2013

The PM used to talk a lot about the Big Society, but it was rarely clear exactly what he meant. Joshua Chambers meets Helen Stephenson, who’s been charged with turning his vague aspirations into tangible work programmes

‘Back to Basics’, ‘The Third Way’, ‘The Global Race’ – prime ministerial mantras are rather nebulous concepts, intended to give a broad idea of what a government represents without yielding anything specific about how it will achieve its aims.

This is particularly true of the ‘Big Society’, which –like the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ – is a concept that once used to enthuse prime minister David Cameron. Earlier this year the minister for government policy, Oliver Letwin, was asked to summarise the concept in a single sentence. He couldn’t do so, and his interlocutor, Lord Hennessy, recalled being told by “someone in government” that the Big Society is more of “a state of mind” than a specific idea.

Nonetheless, civil servants were tasked with making sense of this notion and creating the structures to deliver something concrete. In 2010, the Cabinet Office set up the Office for Civil Society (OCS), beefing up the Office for the Third Sector and merging it with the Strategy Unit. The office was first headed by Gareth Davies, who told CSW in 2011 that its purpose was to provide “thought leadership” around the Big Society agenda. He left government earlier this year, and the task was passed on to Helen Stephenson.

As a senior Cabinet Office official with experience working with charities and on the frontline, Stephenson has as good a chance of building the Big Society as anyone. It’s a sunny autumn day when CSW meets her for an interview, in a windowless room at the top of the Treasury. There, she sets out how her unit is turning blue-sky thinking into tangible reforms.

Big is beautiful
Stephenson is quiet, polite, and slightly nervous, but strongly defends the Big Society concept: “The prime minister still talks about building a big, strong, good society,” she says, “and those principles underpin all that we do.” Those principles, she adds, are: “Opening up public services; empowering people in their communities; and encouraging social action.” Stephenson’s office has developed three sets of tools to achieve those goals, built around social investment, social action and youth potential.

Social action here means augmenting public services through volunteer programmes. “We’re saying that government isn’t always your answer: it’s when government, communities and business come together to tackle problems that we see real change,” she says.

Stephenson’s unit has set up the Centre for Social Action: a £40m programme to invest in volunteering schemes that tackle social problems. It’s a partnership with the charity NESTA, and Stephenson explains that it’s looking to get volunteers involved in tackling tricky social problems.

For example, it’s set up the Dementia Friends initiative in the health and social care sector. “For people who live with dementia, having communities that understand and support them is really important,” Stephenson says. The government wants to train a million people to understand the disease, in order to spot and support people in their community who are suffering from it. Businesses have also joined in, training their staff to spot the symptoms.

Elsewhere, the centre is supporting the King’s College Hospital Volunteers to do “the kinds of activities that affect people’s experiences of hospitals, but that staff aren’t able to spend the time doing,” she says. For example, the volunteers walk with patients to get a newspaper, and sit with them before they go into operations. The hospital’s satisfaction figures have risen as a result, so the centre has provided funding to evaluate the improvement and help them involve volunteers in other parts of the hospital. Volunteers can also play a role in rehabilitation work, Stephenson believes, and there’ll be moves to increase this work over the next year. She cites mentoring programmes and other schemes to help ex-prisoners.

Big money
The second strand of the OCS’s work is on social investment: opening up capital markets to encourage investment in social projects. Commonly, philanthropic trusts invest in stocks and shares, using their dividends to bequeath money to charities – but the government is establishing social impact bonds so that they can invest directly in worthy projects, and receive money back when they’re successful.

In 2012, Stephenson set up Big Society Capital: a £600m investment fund designed to build a social investment stock market, investing in funds to encourage them to use social impact bonds (SIBs). So far, it has invested £56.6m.

In central government the Ministry of Justice has made most use of SIBs, establishing schemes which pay providers for reducing re-offending rates. Elsewhere, Stephenson adds, the Department for Work and Pensions is investing in SIBs projects that support young people at risk of falling out of education, employment and training.

The final strand of the team’s work revolves around young people, she says – notably through the National Citizen Service. Launched by the prime minister in 2011, this provides volunteering opportunities for people aged 16-17 years old; a modern-day, optional equivalent of National Service. In its first year 8,000 people took part, Stephenson says, but this year that’s 50,000. The service aims to make the participants more confident, better able to work in a team, and committed to working in their communities, she adds.

Measurement matters
A common theme in all of these programmes is that the OCS wants to evaluate its investment before spending any more money. Charities don’t really talk about what works, Stephenson admits, but “if you’re going to make an investment in an organisation, you need to understand the impact that you’re investing in” – something particularly important in Social Impact Bonds. The Centre for Social Action, meanwhile, looks to see evidence of a return to the community when providing funding, and directly funds evaluation efforts to build the evidence base in the sector. And on the National Citizen’s Service, they’ve got a control group to measure against.

The OCS then shares this evidence with other departments, she says, helping them decide whether and how to work with civil society. And it also works with charities, keeping them updated on government agendas and explaining public service delivery changes.

The biggest change over the past few years has been government’s drive to open up public service delivery to a broader range of service providers. The OCS – which supports both charities and social enterprises – has a £10m investment and contract readiness fund, she says, “so we are supporting organisations to be able to get themselves ready through their business plans, and be in a place where they can bid for contracts or take on investment”.

Last year the government passed the Social Value Act, requiring commissioners to consider economic, social and environmental wellbeing when tendering public service contracts. Stephenson says that “we’re seeing real use of that Act, particularly at local level. This isn’t borne out by huge amounts of research – it’s kind of anecdotal – but we are seeing local authorities using the Act to get added value from contracts they are letting.” If it’s anecdotal evidence, do they plan to carry out proper research? No, she says – but they do have a ‘local investigations team’ working in the regions to find out what’s happening.

Making progress? It’s long been a government aim to get more charities and social enterprises winning government contracts. Stephenson believes that, this time around, progress is being made because commissioners are “working in really difficult circumstances, and need to work with organisations who can deliver.”

But many new outsourcing programmes are let as big, regional contracts, CSW points out, making it hard for charities to win the work. Stephenson disagrees: “I think we’re getting more sophisticated than that.” She points to the contracting for the National Citizen Service, where there are large regional leads, but 95% of the supply chain is made up of smaller charities and SMEs. That’s a small project; but at the larger end, the person heading up the MoJ’s probation reforms has said that “she won’t think it’s a successful unless there’s a really diverse supply chain, and the voluntary and community sector are a part of that,” Stephenson says.

The MoJ is using a tiered contracting system, Stephenson adds, under which large suppliers subcontract to smaller firms. The last tier of that contracting structure allows charities and social enterprises to be a part of the reforms, she argues: the key thing is tell the larger contractors that smaller organisations must be included.

Often with these tiered contracts, the smaller organisations complain that their profit margins are being squeezed out of existence by the larger contractors. How can that be prevented? “That’s about ensuring how risk is transferred throughout the supply chain. We’re worked hard with MoJ colleagues on the way that can be mitigated, and tried to ensure at all stages of the consultation – and the MoJ consulted widely – that we got good voices from the sector to articulate where the vulnerabilities might lie, and make sure we could shape the processes to minimise that risk.”

Listen up!
To support civil society, it’s vital that government consults before commissioning, Stephenson believes. In particular, civil servants should be “making sure you understand the business models for the voluntary and community sector, and therefore understanding what one needs to do to ensure that they can be part of the whole supply chain.”

Sometimes, government will be keen to implement reform quickly, and long consultations can slow things down. What’s the right balance? “I don’t see that they’re in opposition to each other, I think that you can consult, and we’ve got social media, we’ve got new forms of policymaking – it’s not all paper-based any more – so you can get people’s views really quickly,” she says. “You need a proportionate approach to consultation, so when you need to move quickly to do something, you do it, but you consult as quickly and effectively as possible. And there’s still room for the big, long consultations where that’s appropriate.”

One policy that’s required further consultation is the so-called ‘Lobbying Bill’, a piece of legislation that’s come from the Cabinet Office. Stephenson agrees that “it’s certainly had some significant challenges from the voluntary and community sector, and we’re working both with the sector and with colleagues who are working on the Bill to try and understand those issues and work through them.”

Get out to get on

Volunteering provides an effective way for civil servants to better understand the needs of charities, ensuring that legislation is better drafted in the future. Stephenson is a “passionate advocate” of civil servants volunteering, both because it’s a way of giving something back, and because they “don’t half learn things, as well!” The Cabinet Office nominates a charity each year – currently the British Heart Foundation – and staff are encouraged to volunteer for it. Cabinet Office employees also get five days a year that they can use for volunteering, and this is picked up in their appraisal processes.

Stephenson believes that more civil servants should go on secondments into charities. “It’s absolutely crucial,” she says, that “civil servants have frontline experience in charities, and that means they will take that experience into their departments, and we will have a cadre of people who understand the voluntary and community sector.” Equally, she thinks, charities should be encouraged to second people into Whitehall on placements. Secondments are a part of the Civil Service Reform Plan, but the One Year On report rated progress as red. Stephenson says she hasn’t experienced any problems, though.

Another part of the Civil Service Reform Plan is open policymaking, which Stephenson thinks creates good opportunities for charities to feed into government. “I think there are real opportunities for all parts of civil society to be involved in policy development,” she believes.

Handily, open policymaking is managed by Paul Maltby, who jointly runs the Cabinet Office’s Government Innovation Group (GIG) with her. This means that, if there’s an open policymaking initiative that would be great for charity involvement, she can nudge him to involve them, she says.

The GIG brings together government’s open policymaking, open data, and civil society work. “As civil servants, we don’t have the levers of regulation and spend” any more, she says, so the group is looking for new solutions – such as using behavioural economics. Whilst Stephenson and Maltby have their own lines of accountability, they take it in turns to sit on the Cabinet Office’s Executive Management Committee and split their contributions to it. “We bring two different approaches. We meet regularly and jointly run our senior management team,” she says.

Stephenson’s way
Stephenson is interested in diversity and ways to support women in the workplace. Prior to joining the civil service, she wrote a PhD thesis on the first group of women who were ordained in the Church of England, to see whether there was any evidence that they operated in a different way to men working in that institution. “The general feeling was that there is no conclusive evidence that women work differently from a male style of activity,” she says. The same is true in the civil service, she believes, although she adds that “I don’t think women put themselves forward in the same way that men do. I often encourage women who work for me to make sure that they’re being clear about what they’ve achieved, and articulate that as effectively as male counterparts. We could sometimes be better, more confident, at telling our own stories about what we’ve done well.”

She’s found mentors helpful in her career: “I’ve sought out more senior women who have got higher than me, and have learnt from them. Even now, I will go and try to meet director-generals who’ve gone higher than me, and learn about how they did it to get perspectives on my career.”

In three years’ time, if we were to do another interview, what would she like to be able to say has been achieved? “I’m really excited by social investment,” she says. “That’s game-changing. You don’t often get the chance to be working on something that, in ten years’ time, you can say: ‘That was something that changed the way that society operates.’”

David Cameron has called the Big Society his “mission”, and “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.” It would fix our “broken society,” he claimed, entailing getting parents to bring up their children properly, stopping sales of alcohol to people underage, and making it easier for people to take over their local pubs.

The Conservative commentariat have long been embarrassed by the idea, which has slowly been replaced by the “global race” concept. But it’s clear from this interview that, while the Big Society’s become a little smaller in scope, these days it is also far more focussed.

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