Do you think it’s important for your government to involve the third sector in how it spends £800m in Scotland?

Do you think it’s important that governments across Europe involve civil society in how and what they spend €960bn on?

Well I do, and so do my colleagues across Europe who work in similar national associations to SCVO. That is why we decided to come together, 23 members from 21 countries, to record the story of how well our governments involve our sector.

Through the European Network of National Civil Society Organisations (Enna), we conducted a survey in 20 member states. The survey focused on questions such as the transparency and openness of the preparation process, the inclusion of partners, the availability of the draft documents, and the content of the managing authorities’ websites and partnership events.

The survey was conducted in two stages: review of the managing authorities’ websites and interviews with national NGO associations. We have produced interim findings from this initial piece of work and you can read the survey here. However, we are following the whole narrative of the negotiations and will produce a final report on who performed the best. We might even produce a league table… Do you think Scotland will be the best?

‘What’s the point?’ I can hear you all thinking. National governments will do what they want – they are in control of the money and we are disempowered. Explanations of why partnership is a good thing are listened to but not heard.

So, we must use the tools at our disposal. And we have found one with the help of the European Commission itself. Partnership has long been one of the key principles for the implementation of European Union Common Strategic Framework funds (CSF funds). It is, in fact, so important that the European Commission created the European Code of Conduct in Partnership.

The partnership principle implies close co-operation between public authorities at national, regional and local levels in the member states, with the private and third sectors. It states that partners should be actively involved throughout the whole programme cycle — preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Partnership is the key to a multi-level governance approach and the subsidiarity (decentralisation) and proportionality (an official measure must not have any greater effect on private interests than is necessary for the attainment of its objective) principles.

So, SCVO along with our colleagues in Enna delivered these interim findings to the commission in Brussels last week. These early findings show there are wide differences across the member states on application of the partnership principle, depending on national institutional set-ups and political cultures.

And if you scratch below the surface, even in the best performing member states, our sector is far from satisfied with the current approach. Quelle surprise!

The effectiveness of the partnership principle also depends on the technical ability of the partners to contribute substantively to the process, raising the question of capacity-building, ie government can resource itself to participate in the partnership but how do social partners resource participation? And if they can’t resource participation, who cares?

So what did the commission think? Do they really care? In short, yes they do. The commission sees this as a key piece of work and is committed to supporting it until the end. It will form part of the evidence that will either reinforce or counter every member states’ account of how they involve stakeholders. This is monitored by the commission in a very formal way.

Our direct input is timely and most welcome, but it is more than that for the commission. Europe’s future is dependent on growth and social cohesion, and one must not happen without the other. Social policy investment and social policy strategies must be prioritised to prevent an economic recovery with growing poverty and income inequality. Critical to these objectives is the third sector.

So the stage is set for us to be the key player. I am excited about the possibility of what critical mass can achieve by working with our colleagues across Europe to make change happen. Let’s convert these high-level arguments into real change as opposed to the abstract by using the tools at our disposal in a way we haven’t ever done before.