By Charlotte Prothero, External Affairs Manager

Before Rishi Sunak called the General Election, I attended an event with Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, who were already on the campaign trail.  I asked them what charity they believed did great work in their potential future constituency, and if elected, how their party would work with them better. The responses were consistent across the board: each candidate spoke warmly about a recent visit to a local charity and praised the good work being done. While their admiration was clear, not one candidate articulated a clear plan for how their party would listen to or include the voices of these community charities if they were elected.

Most political candidates are eager to showcase their community engagement and express support for local initiatives. Upon entering parliament, they will select several charity-led causes to support and champion through the Commons for as long as they have a seat. But while all the main political parties have given their candidates clear lines on the importance of government partnering with business, fewer have any idea or plan for engaging with civil society.

At a time of deep, complex and overlapping challenges which are hitting hardest those in society with the lowest wellbeing and most unheard voices, partnership with civil society will be essential for the next government. Charities’ on-the-ground experience, their focus on practical solutions and innovative ideas, and their valuable knowledge stemming from their deep roots in communities, all make them essential partners. They understand the local nitty-gritty details and how policies play out in real people’s lives – and that should be gold dust for policymakers.

Getting to a place where charities and community groups are key partners for the new government requires change at multiple levels, as set out by the Law Family Commission on Civil Society’s final report. Following input from hundreds of individuals and organisations across the sectors, it proposed a range of policy recommendations to bring policymakers and civil society closer together. That included scaling up the involvement of charity sector representation on advisory bodies. It also highlighted the importance of civil servants being able to volunteer with, become trustees of, and experience secondments within civil society, to get first-hand experience of the sector and the people whose lives the sector is dedicated to improving. It also discussed the strategic relationship between charity infrastructure bodies and leadership, and the leadership of the government, because closer ties with government are needed both on issues like migration and disability and on the state of the sector overall.

But what would a strong and real partnership look like? There’s a world of difference between charities being treated as stakeholders and charities being treated as partners in solutions.

Engagement is not just about opportunities for charities to input on policy or formal consultation boards. It’s about government and the sector having a trusting, respectful relationship that allows them to navigate truly challenging issues well, together. It’s about thousands of ties between individuals who happen to have jobs in different sectors, but are both committed to making a difference to the country. And so, it’s about Ministers and charities being able to openly say to each other, “We have this problem. Respecting the limits we each have – resources, time, money, politics, bandwidth on either side - how can we work together to make a difference?” It’s about starting any policy with the charities that have insights on the change that’s needed and have a part in delivering it at the end. It’s about leveraging others’ strengths while understanding the role each other has when it's time to disagree.

In some areas, this is the relationship between government and the charity sector. But in far too many, it’s not.

And what difference would it make? Government would be able to hear issues that are developing early, and act sooner – because Citizens Advice and the Trussell Trust are first out of the gate to know when people are struggling, and charities working with people leaving prison understand what’s happening with reoffending months, if not years, before the official statistics are compiled. Government would be able to develop better policies more smoothly, because it would be warned of any issues in advance. Ultimately, it would deliver more effective change.

Those who will become new MPs are already engaging with charities on the campaign trail and will continue this dialogue once elected. It only makes sense to bring their views to the central government too.

Everyone wins by talking more, understanding each other better, and making smarter policies.