Regulation of Civil Society

Civil society is subject to the same regulation as other businesses and employers as well as regulations specifically for charities.  The aim of the regulatory requirements placed on the voluntary and community sector is ultimately to protect both citizens and voluntary organisations and to maintain confidence in the sector.  While a degree of regulation for the voluntary and community sector is both necessary and beneficial, complying with numerous legal or administrative processes that often seem to lack sense and reason can be a frustrating experience.  These regulations and processes can eat into volunteer time and organisational resources and detract from an organisation’s core function, such as the provision of services, facilities, sports and so on. 

The regulation of civil society has slowly grown alongside an increase in the regulation of the public and private sector - an increase that was inspired by societal changes which led to a greater perceived need for protection and a higher demand on the quality of services.  A declining public tolerance of risk accompanied by; an increase in health and safety measures aimed at reducing risks; an improvement in equality legislation; and greater concerns around child safety, are some of the issues which have contributed to this changing perception.

The slow and unplanned evolution of regulation affecting civil society has meant that many voluntary community organisations are subject to multiple regulation regimes which do not work effectively together.  One prime example of this is the criminal record bureau checks and vetting and barring regimes.  These do not work complimentarily together meaning that being cleared on one list does not exempt you from being required to go through the process again for a separate event, or to apply for further checks.  They therefore involve unnecessary amounts of volunteer time and resource.     

What are the implications?

  • The impact of regulatory burdens and bureaucratic red tape varies between voluntary sector organisations depending on their work and focus; organisations which own facilities or work with children for example will be subject to additional requirements
  • Often, voluntary organisations are caught up in regulation which has been designed with the commercial sector in mind and therefore does not understand the nature of the work of voluntary organisations and reflect their status as community organisations
  • Regulating and ensuring compliance have in some instances surpassed meeting needs and delivering the core aims of organisations –this is exacerbated by targets being defined in ways that are not  easily measurable or difficult to interpret a local level
  • Regulations and bureaucracy which seem to defy common sense, do not have a clear purpose, or are believed to be overly thorough in terms of the information which they generate on individuals can be incredibly off putting to current and potential volunteers
  • Similarly, concerns around health and safety, insurance and risk aversion can both discourage potential and current volunteers and also requires additional volunteer management and in some instances training
  • With some regulatory requirements, particularly those that result in becoming an ongoing scenario with e.g. a utility provider, there can be cost implications that threaten the future existence of the voluntary community organisation
  • Other regulations e.g. legislation around fundraising or access laws, can prevent activities relating to the core purpose of a voluntary community organisation from going ahead
  • For encouraging active citizenship under the Big Society to be a success, regulatory red tape and bureaucratic burdens will need to be removed
  • The desirable increased third sector involvement in the delivery of public services will also only be successful if volunteers are not discouraged by arduous processes relating to regulatory requirements
  • Better regulation should make people safer, and create more, and importantly easier, opportunities for people to volunteer

Moving forward 

The regulation of civil society is essential and can be beneficial to both the organisation and citizens if this regulation is employed in a way that understands the sector and the services which voluntary organisations offer. 

Widespread acknowledgement of the restrictions of regulatory burdens on voluntary organisations and commitments to reduce these will help this process, and a wider desire for community engagement may aid government understandings of the sector.

It is important that regulation does not obscure the function of voluntary community organisations or prevent volunteers from signing up.

A greater focus on reducing regulatory red tape may result in more effective regulations that will encourage volunteers, due to the ease and knowledge that their time will be spent on things which they are truly passionate about.   

  • Do you know what is expected from your organisation in terms of meeting regulatory requirements?  Are there organisations that can help and advise you on the regulations which impact your organisation and how you can comply with them?
  • Do you know what regulatory requirements currently hold you back or are counter productive?  Are there more efficient ways in which these could be tackled?
  • Is it feasible for you to argue for the simplification or reduction of regulatory requirements that affect you?  Are there opportunities for you to contribute to reviews or consultations on regulatory processes which affect you?

Want to know more?

The Impact of Regulation on Voluntary Organisations

Published by: NCVO

Date: December 2004

Format: PDF

What is it? A research report discussing the regulations which affect voluntary organisations from both a theoretical and practical point of view.  It includes considerations from voluntary organisations themselves, and makes conclusions and recommendations aimed at keeping the value of positive regulations without constraining voluntary organisations.   

How useful is this?  Although this is not a recent report, the topics covered within it are still relevant and include the basic principles of the scope of regulation that impact on voluntary organisations.  It takes a balanced view and acknowledges the advantages of regulations as well as the ways in which they can be burdensome.  It provides a good generalintroduction to the issues and includes case study examples and quotes to bring things to life.   

Big Society Red Tape Purge

Published by: The Cabinet Office

Date: August 2010

Format: Website

What is it? A news release from the Cabinet Office outlining plans to remove regulatory burdens from the voluntary sector

How useful is this? This short news release gives an outline of the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government’s plans to address the issue of civil society regulations in relation to the Big Society.  There isn’t much detail in this release but the Government’s line is clear and there are a number of quotes from key ministers. Useful as an overview of the sort of regulations that the Coalition Government is concerned about. 

On the Safe Side. Risk, risk management and volunteering

Published by: Volunteering England and the Institute for Volunteering Research

Date: 2006

Format: PDF

What is it? A research report focusing specifically on risk and risk management in voluntary organisations in England; it includes a literature review, surveys and case studies

How useful is this? This report focuses solely on risk and risk management as a regulatory requirement impacting on the voluntary sector, but makes some useful observations on how regulatory requirements can act as barriers to volunteering and prevent organisations from achieving their core aims. It gives a balanced view of the acceptance and need for regulations around risk alongside the danger of being burdened by bureaucracy.  


Last updated at 13:32 Tue 29/Mar/11.


How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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