Sir Oliver Letwin was Conservative MP for West Dorset from 1997 to 2019. He served as Minister of State for Government Policy in the Cabinet Office during the coalition government (2010-2015), as well as serving as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (2014-2016) and Minister for Brexit (Jun 2016-Jul 2016).

Tim Lamden (TL): Long before you made it into government as a minister, you spoke many times as shadow home secretary about the 'Neighbourly Society', as a way to beat crime, and specifically the role of civil society in this agenda. So, you were clearly inspired in some part by the sector and its potential. I wondered what it was about the sector that inspired you? And what made you want to work more closely with it in government?

Oliver Letwin (OL): Well, I think the essential point that I was making at that time was that the ability of statutory agencies to deal with complex personal problems and complex social problems is very much affected, inevitably, by the needs of a publicly accountable bureaucratic apparatus. Those include, in any properly organised society, the need for procedures that establish fairness and prevent corruption or discrimination, and the requirements to follow the specific procedures that are attached to the specific agency in question, rather than crossing the boundary into the terrain of another agency or another aspect of the state. And the effect of these constraints on the statutory agencies, which are necessary - they're not just happenstance, they arise for very good reasons - is that it's very difficult for a statutory agency to deal with a community as a whole, or even an individual as a whole. From the point of view of the tax authorities, you are a taxpayer; from the point of view of the social security authorities, you are a recipient of social security; from the point of view of the NHS, you are a patient. And the person is, of course, all these things, and many other things besides. The community of which they are a part is composed of people who are all these many things and has itself many aspects, both through the individuality of the individuals that compose it, but also through the social makeup and the social interactions that constitute it and give it its character. It's very difficult for statutory agencies, therefore, to deal with complex issues - complex social and complex personal issues - in a way that reflects holistically the nature of those communities and the nature of those individuals. And therefore, it is difficult for statutory agencies to find answers to what are actually their needs, which don't come packaged neatly in the classifications that the state inevitably has to impose.

Now that's true for all of us. But most of the time, for most of us, these rather rigorous bureaucratic procedures don't cause too much trouble, because if you're part of a society which is itself reasonably prosperous, and if you are not a vulnerable member of that society, but a reasonably well-established individual of whatever age, surrounded by family and friends, and in work, and so on, it can be very annoying that a particular statutory agency only treats you as a taxpayer, or as a patient, or as a recipient of something or other, but it's an annoyance and no more. You get on with your life, you deal with that agency for that particular aspect of your life and you're supported by the relationships that you have in your family and your friendships and your community and your work and so on. By and large, most of us, therefore, get along despite these inevitable inadequacies of bureaucratic arrangements. But, of course, not everyone in society is in this happy position of having these very large and deep emotional and social resources and support networks. And those who are most vulnerable, typically lack them most. Those who are lonely, those who are unable to communicate effectively with others, those who are poor, those who are ill. The people who are, in one way or another, very severely disadvantaged in a particular aspect, all too often are not merely disadvantaged in that aspect, but also in many other aspects - they have complex needs and they often live in communities which have complex social problems. This isn't inevitably the case, but it's often enough the case. And so the very people who most need the networks of family, friends, society and work that most of us have to support us, are most likely to lack these. And the bureaucracies, however well-intentioned and however well-constructed, can't really answer the needs of those who are in those ways vulnerable and who lack that kind of network of support, because they aren't designed to do that. They're designed to be fair, they're designed to be rigorous, they're designed to be accountable, they're designed to fulfil particular statutory roles. And the person, or the society in which the person moves, or both, resist the efforts of the bureaucracy to deal with them effectively, because the bureaucracy doesn't know how to deal with them holistically.

Now if you have a set of complex needs of a person, or social group, and the statutory agencies can't meet those needs because of these constraints - the inability to deal with the persons and the community involved in a holistic way - and these persons, or the social group, don't have the support networks that would enable them to have their needs met by families, friends, work, then who else is going to minister to those complex personal needs holistically, other than what is sometimes called the 'third sector' or 'voluntary sector'? The intrinsic advantage of the non-statutory support sector, if I can call it that, is that it is non-statutory. Of course, it has certain kinds of accountability, because there are rules designed to ensure proprieties of various kinds, but it is much less exposed to daily accountability than statutory agencies and it's much less rule-bound than they are. And it has the capacity to be constructed in a way that allows it to cross boundaries between different functions and treat people as whole individuals, or social groups as whole societies or communities, in a way that statutory agencies can't typically manage.

Now, this isn't to say that every voluntary body either does or should engage in this sort of activity; there are vast multitudes of different kinds of voluntary bodies, and third sector organisations and NGOs and so on. However you describe them, they come in many, many different forms; they do many different kinds of things. Some of them are actually very large and crypto bureaucratic, some are very tiny and have very, very specific purposes. But in the middle, there is the potential for a large range of interventions from entities that can address the complex needs of individuals, or of communities, looking at them as a whole, and can sometimes tie together the activities of the state agencies in the way that otherwise your friends, your family, your work colleagues, people in your community, might do for you, if you were not so vulnerable, and if you had support networks of your own. So they can mirror the activities of family and friends and colleagues. That's a hugely valuable role for the voluntary sector, and one that I think makes it very special.

"So they can mirror the activities of family and friends and colleagues. That's a hugely valuable role for the voluntary sector, and one that I think makes it very special."

TL: That was the thinking that went into some of the ideas you explored with the Neighbourly Society. The focus of this interview is on what you saw, and what you experienced, as a minister in government. So I wanted to ask, as one of the architects of the Conservative manifesto in 2010, can you tell me in your own words, what the Cameron government's vision was for the voluntary sector, specifically, with the 'Big Society' initiative? What was it that the party had in its sights for the voluntary sector as part of that agenda?

OL: Well, I think, actually, my answer to the previous question is largely the answer to this question, in the sense that what we were trying to do was to build a kind of society in which the inevitable deficiencies of the statutory agencies in helping the vulnerable and in reinforcing communities would be filled instead by voluntary activity that was not constrained in the way that bureaucracies inevitably are. So, actually, the Big Society initiative follows directly from the ideas of the Neighbourly Society. It is the same idea expressed in different language. Both in my original idea of the Neighbourly Society and in the idea of the Big Society, as it became known in the lead up to 2010, part of the point was to seek to build social capital. So, it wasn't just a question in my original vision, or in the Big Society initiative, of trying to induce, help, support voluntary bodies into providing the kinds of holistic interventions that I described, to help people address complex social needs, but also a question of building, so far as we could, stronger social bonds in communities that increased the extent of, if I can put it that way, natural support, so that even those who didn't have the luck to have strong supportive families, good work colleagues and a network of friends, could nevertheless be supported by their communities beyond just the interventions of specific organised voluntary bodies.

To give you an example, if on an estate, or in a village or neighbourhood, people club together, maybe with the assistance of or under the inspiration of a particular voluntary body, and form a village shop, or community centre, or any number of different kinds of communal activities together, part of the point may be that they are answering a specific need of that community. But another part of the point may be that, actually, in doing this together, even if they are doing something which ostensibly is to help specific individuals, actually something at least as important is also happening, which is that the people who are doing the work together start building bonds with one another and become mutually supportive; they get to know one another. And so you turn an area into a genuine neighbourhood, a genuine community with strong bonds that can offer various kinds of support, onto which those who haven't family nearby, don’t have lots of friends of their own, maybe aren't in work, either because they are too young or too old, or unemployed or whatever, can fall back.

You can't legislate to create social capital of this kind; you can't put money in and buy social capital; it doesn't happen that way. You can create it only by inspiring people to work together and form bonds that they wouldn't otherwise have formed. And that's a role that voluntary bodies can certainly play; but it means that, instead of the voluntary sector having continuously to intervene, if it's a success then it becomes a lasting legacy for that community. And that's the essence of the Big Society idea. If social bonds are formed and social capital is created in areas where people otherwise might have tended to become very atomised and to live on their own, not only in a physical sense but in an emotional and social sense, then the likelihood of vulnerable people dropping through the statutory net very much decreases. Something that's more durable and more permanent is created.  

"Both in my original idea of the Neighbourly Society and in the idea of the Big Society, as it became known in the lead up to 2010, part of the point was to seek to build social capital."

TL: It's notable that in his first year as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has yet to sit down and talk to charity sector leaders in Number 10. I looked back in the archive and I saw that within six months of being elected, David Cameron hosted a roundtable at Number 10 with NCVO, the umbrella body, and sector leaders, which you attended, along with PBE's Chair Gus O'Donnell, who was cabinet secretary at the time. Looking back over your time as a minister, what was your overall experience of engaging with the voluntary sector?

OL: We had a lot of engagement because we were concerned to promote the idea of the Big Society and to make it more of a reality in a whole series of domains: in addressing social problems, in trying to rehabilitate prisoners, in trying to support the frail elderly — in many areas where otherwise it might have been the temptation of government simply to reach for state agencies, legislation, investment. We tried, in some cases alongside interventions by the statutory bodies, to mobilise the voluntary sector to intervene in the ways that I've described, in order to build social capital of one kind and another. And my experience was that, very frequently, the voluntary sector was very willing to step up to the mark.

TL: As part of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, PBE called strongly for more collaboration between not only the state and the voluntary sector, but also the private sector, in tackling the problems facing our country. I wondered what your experience was in the Cabinet Office of successful collaborations between the three sectors. And I wondered how you thought we could foster more?

OL: I think that the truth is that we didn't find it easy to overcome the cultural differences between the private, public and voluntary sectors, which is why, I think, over time they very frequently have not collaborated as much as many of us would have hoped that they would have done over the past centuries. If it had been easy, it would have happened naturally, more than it has. But having said it wasn't easy, I think there were ways of making it possible. So to give you an example, I spent personally a lot of time with Ronnie Cohen and others developing the idea of 'patient capital' that could be contributed by private sector investors, or private sector institutions, but which had what is sometimes called a 'double bottom line', where the financial investment could be used to have a social impact, as well as to have a financial return for the investors. We tried to achieve this ‘double bottom line’ partly through what are known as social impact bonds. I had various negotiations with some of the large commercial banks, which had not covered themselves in glory in the 2008 crash, and we found means of enlarging the amount of capital available for this sort of investment. This then enabled social impact bonds to be constructed in a way that enabled private investors to be funding and, very often, statutory agencies also to be providing elements of the whole package, with voluntary bodies often undertaking the work to achieve outcomes that led to them being paid by the investors in the social impact bonds, and with the state then coming in to provide those investors with a return that was geared to the achievement of the impacts that had been desired. I think that sort of quite complicated and sometimes quite intricate arrangement can sometimes deal holistically with things in a way that otherwise it's very difficult to do.

So, for example, if there's a charity that is trying to provide holistic support for people who are not just homeless, but also suffering from drug or alcohol dependencies, or have family problems, maybe a range of other problems, including very often unemployment, these individuals will be eligible for various kinds of grant payment interventions by statutory agencies. But trying to knit together the right kind of package for ‘individual x’, who suffers from a multiple set of problems, may well defeat the statutory agencies. No one of them can devote enough attention to the whole of ‘individual x’ to solve the problem. The charity can, but the charity doesn't have the means to do so; it needs a flow of funds to do so. If one can arrange things so that there's a certain flow of money from the statutory agencies, because ‘individual x’ is entitled to that set of flows, which the charity has arranged with them to obtain from the statutory agency, but then also the government can stand behind the achievement of certain goals for the rehabilitation of ‘individual x’, and the investors, meanwhile, put in the money which enables the charity to achieve those goals, and then the government's payments upon achievement become the returns for the investor, you begin to knit together something that enables that kind of charity to minister to those kinds of complex social needs much more effectively than it could do on its own, or that the statutory agencies could do on their own. So this is an example of what can be achieved through combining private, public and voluntary sectors in the right way.

I think what we discovered in all of that is that this is very difficult stuff. And it's slow. And it's very unsexy politically. You don't get great announcements, you can't have photographs of huge public works going on. There isn't a 'billion pounds being given to this' headline. This is slow, unremitting, difficult work that will only be carried out if ministers really want and are able to devote a very considerable amount of time and effort, and indeed the official machine too, and the voluntary sector, and investors. You need someone like Ronnie Cohen, sitting there in the private sector, able to mobilise these things and be passionate about it. So it's quite a difficult thing to put together. But it can be put together and if it is put together, it can be very powerful.

"We didn't find it easy to overcome the cultural differences between the private, public and voluntary sectors, which is why, I think, over time they very frequently have not collaborated..."

TL: As a minister, what was your assessment of the quality of evidence provided by the sector when it came to measuring their impact and making their case for support?

OL: I think this is very intrinsically bound up with the answer to the last question. This sort of arrangement that I'm describing as 'social impact bonds', or anything like it, can't be made to work unless there is, first of all, the fact of actual improvement in the conditions of life of individuals that one's trying to help and, secondly, robust evidence of the improvement. You can't have public money being awarded to voluntary bodies that have achieved certain goals unless you can demonstrate rigorously, and in ways that will withstand the proper scrutiny of a free press and the legal system and so on, that these impacts have actually been achieved. One of the reasons why, as a minister, I spent a good deal of time trying to develop the What Works institutions to measure what works in various domains - education, health and so on - was precisely because I was alarmed by the fact that the amount of robust evidence available to verify the claims made by voluntary bodies and, indeed while we're at it, by statutory agencies was very thin on the ground. Again, this is not easy. If you're building a tunnel, it's fairly straightforward to measure how much progress the tunnel has made; and when the tunnel is built, it's fairly straightforward to know whether people can use it. By contrast, it is much more difficult to ascertain whether the quality of life of a person with complex needs has actually substantially improved. First of all, you don't want to know about something happening at a moment; you want to know about something happening over a long period. Governments and, indeed, voluntary bodies are very bad at persisting long enough to obtain data that's actually usable, valuable and informative.

If a prisoner, who might or might not reoffend, hasn't reoffended for a week, it doesn't tell you very much. You need to follow the situation for a long-ish time to know whether they're really back in the mainstream. If a person has been homeless and unemployed, and subject to dependencies of various kinds, and you find out that there's a month when they're not dependent in these ways, then that's a good thing, but a month doesn't make a life. You want to know whether they're really back in the swing of normal life - where they have a home and they have a job and they're able to lead a non-chaotic lifestyle - and you want to know whether that's a permanent change, to the extent to which anything in human life is permanent. You have to follow them for a long time and that's really difficult. We found this, for example, with veterans. It's all very well to say, "How well are we doing in supporting veterans when they return from war?" But first of all, the veteran themselves has to want to be tracked. A lot of people don't want you tracking their progress all the time, for very understandable reasons. And then you have to have a system for doing the tracking, and then you have to have systems for checking whether it's being done accurately. You have to find a way of doing it that isn't intrusive, but is nevertheless effective.

So I'm not saying that this is easy at all. On the contrary, it is very difficult. But I think that in the absence of curing that problem, in the absence of being able to produce really robust, long-duration data that shows the success, or otherwise, of the impact of a particular voluntary body, it's very difficult for the state to provide the kind of accountability to taxpayers that's required in our society, and therefore very difficult for the state to make contracts and payments, and so on, that would support social impact investing and double bottom line investing and so on. So the whole of the structure I was describing really depends on the ability to construct robust, but extremely sophisticated data that actually really tells you the truth about whether the persons in question have had their lives changed for the better. I think we're still absolutely at the beginning of a long ascent up a very steep hill on that. I don't think we're anywhere near being good enough at it.

"Governments and, indeed, voluntary bodies are very bad at persisting long enough to obtain data that's actually usable, valuable and informative."

TL: I think our research would certainly echo that. As I say, I looked back in the archive over the last 15 years or so and I saw that a few months before the Conservatives came to power in 2010, you spoke at the NCVO conference. In your speech there, you said that the Conservatives were working out how to build capacity, to support best practice, and to increase access to capital for the sector. Well over a decade since you gave that speech, these are all still pressing issues for the sector. I wonder, do you feel you made progress in helping to tackle some of these challenges in the sector during your time in government?

OL: I think through things like social impact investing, yes, we did make some progress, some significant progress. But it was only the beginning of the story. I don't think that it's possible to have a society in which there is really the right relationship between the private, public and voluntary sectors in a matter of five years. This is something that, if we want to build it, requires a national will over decades, many decades. It's a generational thing, not a parliament-long thing. There's one advantage - although, inevitably, in politics people will try to find division lines and argue the other side is not as good as they are at doing something or other - which is that, actually, this is an area where I don't think there is really a significant political or ideological divide. I don't think most people in any of the three main parties - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat - disagree that it would be a good thing if there were more building of social capital and more support for those who who have complex needs from the voluntary sector, more involvement of the public sector in making that possible, and more involvement of the private sector in making it happen, and better evidence of impacts that would allow all that to happen.

So none of the things that I've been talking about are politically controversial in our society. And quite surprising people, people you might think wouldn't care about it, actually turn out to care about it. There’s a strong Conservative tradition, but actually there's a strong Labour and socialist tradition as well, in favour of these sorts of things. And whether you look back to Shaftesbury, or to Keir Hardie, it doesn't terribly matter, in the sense that there's just a very large group of people in our society over many centuries who've shared that vision of trying to enable people who are in the most disadvantaged situations to have a better life by involving voluntary efforts and public efforts and private efforts. So you would have thought that this is an area where, actually, governments could pursue, not necessarily unvarying, but, nevertheless, a pretty continuous effort to build up these kinds of links and these kinds of relationships between private, public and voluntary sectors in such a way as to create what I would call the 'Big Society'.

The problem, therefore, is not that this has been, as in some cases with other things, a political football, where each change of regime leads to a complete change of position. Rather, the problem has been that the enthusiasm for doing this emerges (as it emerged in the Coalition years after 2010), but then diminishes as other things come to the fore. We're all aware of the very large-scale things that have come to the fore recently: Brexit, Covid, the Ukraine war. Other things, like economic growth, which always matters, and tackling inflation, have come more to the fore recently. I don't get the sense that what I would call 'building the Big Society', or what you might call bolstering the voluntary sector and establishing tighter and better relationships between it and the public and private sector, is high on the political agenda of any of the three major parties at the moment. It's not that they object to it, it's just that there isn't a big thrust. And unless we continue to have a big thrust, it's very difficult to build these intrinsically arduous models of social impact investing, and the like, in a way that would become permanent.

"I don't get the sense that what I would call 'building the Big Society', or what you might call bolstering the voluntary high on the political agenda of any of the three major parties at the moment."

TL: Aside from the social impact investment example, which is obviously a very good one, can you give another example from your time in government that you feel best illustrates what can be achieved when policymakers and civil society work well together?

OL: My sense was that if there was an area in which there was something approaching national consensus, at least about the objectives, it was more likely that civil society and the state would work together productively. So, for example, I think almost anybody would agree that the ambulance service is under pressure, that it's always going to be under pressure, and that it matters a lot to have a fast response when people have medical emergencies. So almost anybody of whatever political persuasion will agree that if volunteers can get together and form a first responders team in an area, which for one reason or another - either because it's a very crowded urban area, or because it's a very sparse rural area - the ambulance services can't easily get to in time, that is a good thing. First responders: tick. They get the thumbs up from everybody. And that's because the objective is shared. Of course, you've still got the problem of cracking through various bureaucratic impediments or concerns on the part of the professional ambulance service about whether the volunteers are going to do more harm than good. Will the training be adequate? Is this really where we want to devote our resources? There are all sorts of problems that have to be tackled to get first responders units up and running and sustain them. But at least everybody's joined together in the objective. My sense was that where there is that kind of consensus about the specific objective, it's more likely that you can overcome all the intrinsic difficulties of getting the public and voluntary sectors to work together effectively.

TL: Conversely, can you think of an example from your ministerial career which exemplifies the challenges and obstacles that can get in the way of effective working between policymakers and society? And how can they be overcome? You have kind of touched on it there. Do you think it is often bureaucracy that is the problem?

OL: Yes. Bureaucracy, which I think people are often very cynical about, often arises for entirely understandable reasons. The same newspapers that one day will run headlines about 'bureaucracy gone mad' will the next day actually be demanding some form of accountability that is exactly what generates the bureaucracy to which they objected the day before. So we shouldn't sneer at bureaucratic processes. They are necessary in a liberal democracy where you want propriety and accountability. But the necessity of bureaucracy means that it is characteristically difficult to persuade the machine that the looser textured, less mechanical, voluntary sector can actually really do good. The paradox is, of course, that where the role of the voluntary sector is already established, nobody doubts it. So if you went to the Coastguard, or the Royal Navy, or the Ambulance Service, and you said to them, "The RNLI is going to disappear tomorrow. We'd like you to set up a lifeboat organisation around Britain that will respond immediately to any seaborne emergency with tremendous courage and effectiveness. And oh, by the way, we'd like you to train up all these people that are going to do this overnight because they need a lot of training.”, I mean, there would be horror, and what they'd all say is, "There's a Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), and they do that - they're a brilliant organisation." So here is a classic voluntary organisation, it's incredibly flexible, and it has a very, very low administrative overhead compared to the amount of effort that goes into it. It's been going a very long time, it works extraordinarily well. It's very low cost. Nobody in any of the professional services, that might otherwise be doing this job, doubt its capacity to do it. But that's not the attitude you get if it doesn't exist and you're trying to create it. So the real challenge is to persuade the official machine that the voluntary sector can actually do new things effectively.

I remember, in my own constituency, one instance in which I was dealing with a particular issue of library closures and there was a proposal to have a voluntary team support a local library. There were very grave doubts on the part of the official library service that this was manageable for the volunteers. "Poor dears, would they really be able to do it?" This was the attitude we encountered — until I pointed out that one of the volunteers was actually one of the most distinguished librarians in England. Then it looked rather different. And very often this is the case. If you set up a community shop, you'll very often find that there are people who know about the construction of the thing, the maintenance of it, the IT that goes with it. You'll find somebody who's had some experience of retailing. Actually, even in communities that are regarded as very challenged, often there's a great wealth of expertise of a relevant kind, if it's mobilised. You just have to try to persuade the official machine to give it a chance.