ARTICLES What 8 inquiries into civil society tell us about its future

Jigsaw puzzle

What 8 inquiries into civil society tell us about its future

You might not have noticed, but there are a large number of research efforts currently taking place trying to understand different aspects of how civil society has changed, is changing and should change.

Below you’ll find the insights from our meeting, about what makes an inquiry, what we’re hearing and how we’re hearing it.  What follows below are some of the common themes we are seeing as a collective – if you want to explore the in-depth research of individual inquiries, follow the links below.

Why did we meet?

Our aim was to develop and circulate an overview of the range of relevant initiatives, in essence a shared picture of civil society inquiry activity in the UK, which would:

  • avoid duplication of effort
  • allow different teams to collaborate at relevant points
  • develop ideas about what connections might be needed across the different strands of activity
  • help inform funders’ current and future activities
  • …and therefore help to maximise the collective impact of the various initiatives.

Who met?

The following inquiries / research initiatives took part:

What is an inquiry?

“An examination into facts or principles (research)
A request for information
A systematic investigation often of a matter of public interest
The act of asking questions in order to gather or develop information”

Cambridge Dictionary

The common approaches of these 8 inquiries  are:

  • They seek to research with people, not on people
  • They are using mixed research techniques, learning from practice and lived experience
  • They are future facing, addressing implications for the future, rather than only presenting a current analysis
  • Their focus is situated in the civil society realm (in its broadest understanding)
  • They can be broad (about civil society at large) or focused (about a subset of civil society)
  • They are deploying an exploratory, open mindset
  • There is a public benefit intended to their impact and legacy
  • They are not party-political
  • They seek to influence change

What are we learning?

…about civil society across our different explorations:

  • Renewed importance of place:  Whether it’s change in a locality, organisational activity or funding , we’re seeing a renewed attention to place-based approaches. Austerity has increased differences between places, creating challenges in areas which previously received funding and have now seen drastic changes. This highlights a renewed importance of looking at the implications and the geographies of public money, as well as philanthropic money. Beyond funding and governance, across the inquiries it’s clear that many people identify very strongly with the place they live or work and as a reason for people to belong and engage and do things together.
  • A focus on resilience, which is detracting from wider structural issues:  There is a sense that some policy makers and some within civil society are being over-optimistic about community resilience, and the ability of civil society and communities to deal with change.  In reality there are big structural forces like poverty, inequality and austerity that are having massive impacts on people’s lives – there simply isn’t the resilience within many communities to cope with it all. Civil society has often filled gaps and responded to immediate needs, but this doesn’t mean that other actors (such as business or the state) don’t have to take responsibility.   
  • The private sector / markets as enabler of civil society:  What meaningful roles can businesses play in a local area? What might good local business look like in relation to a successful local economy and flourishing civil society? What is the role of small businesses in this?  These are questions that are coming up in a number of places.
  • Relationships as the bedrock of civil society:  Strong, meaningful relationships with spaces for sharing, listening and understanding are essential for civil society. There is a desire for people to connect more and a need for spaces and places to encounter each other in small and uncomplicated ways.

…about the process of running an inquiry

  • The importance of the narrative(s) we are putting forward:  The inquiries and research processes are in a position to influence, craft and shape the narratives civil society tells itself in the coming years. The group discussed the need for civil society to make the positive case for change and to be on the front foot – “to be seen as holding the keys to the future”.

    However, this opportunity also yields great responsibility and we must spell out that civil society activity cannot replace statutory duties of the state, nor fully pick up the slack of market failure. The debate about the future role of civil society needs to address the different contexts in which civil society / markets / the state should take ownership and action, while acknowledging the need to strike a balance between that part of civil society involved with service delivery and the rest of civil society.
  • Levers of change reaching beyond policy:  Most of the inquiries are seeking to ultimately influence levers of change in local, regional and national government, as well as policy making processes. However, due to the current volatility of the political situation, these places of perceived power have very little bandwidth to engage with findings and recommendations. This also highlights that change is coming from other stakeholders – funders, civil society organisations, activists and movement builders – and is not restricted to policy alone.  
  • The need to interrogate and refresh our use of language:  ‘Civil society’, ‘civic’, ‘communities’, ‘empowerment’ are all seen as terms that the inquiries have been using for the lack of better alternatives. There’s an emerging diagnosis around the fact that a lot of the times, the language used alienates target audiences part of the wider public and a growing acknowledgement of the need to change the language of civil society.
  • Building explicit theories of change:  Many of the inquiries hold an implicit theory of change in regards to their goals, objectives, outcomes and means and activities for pursuing those. There is a need for these goals to be made more explicit and to work with and alongside the stakeholders we’re seeking to influence and inspire.
  • Maintaining a future focus:  Some of the inquiries have mentioned that keeping a focus on the future has been difficult given present challenges and current uncertainty (stemming from issues such as Brexit, impact of poverty and inequality) people are experiencing across the country. It’s stopping people being more reflective, which poses difficulties for the research processes being able to step into a more visionary future space.
  • Lack of comparative international research processes:  The current interest in the future of civil society in the UK, manifested through the existence of multiple research processes, is the result of many factors – from the impact of austerity and growing need for philanthropic funding, to impact of social media and new forms of organising. However, the inquiries are running the risk of developing this analysis in a bubble devoid of global context, given there is no comparative research projects happening internationally and only two of the inquiries contain an international workstream (however, even those are taking a ‘case study’ approach due to obvious budget constraints). This might mean that we might be missing out relevant insights – for example, in comparison to other countries UK civil society is much more focussed on people’s issues whereas in other countries there’s more of a focus on nature/ environment.
  • Repeating history:  Sometimes it is hard to tell what’s genuinely new and what is repeating what has already happened before. Some of the recurring themes coming up in these inquiries also tell generic truths (the importance of place, role of identity and belonging, etc.) that we seem to have forgotten. This poses challenges when it comes to the inquiries formulating recommendations, as well as looking at emerging / new models for the future – how do we know what is new and how can we tell what works and what doesn’t?

This moment can be seen as a once in a generation opportunity to shape and influence the narratives and paths ahead for civil society. We all aim to create ambitious, imaginative visions and roadmaps for civil society going forward. As inquiries there’s an opportunity to be bigger than the sum of our parts, so we’re looking forward to continuing to learn and collaborate with each other.

If you’d like to read the full report of the mapping inquiries process, please follow this link.

If you’re part of a live inquiry process that is adopting similar approaches or findings, do get in touch to be part of the next stages of our learning journey.  Contact Corina Angheloiu [email protected]