Forum for the Future has been facilitating the Civil Society Futures inquiry for the past two years, trying to work out a thriving future for ‘civil society’ — that broad swathe of everything we do for good, from charities to churches, social enterprises to social media-fuelled movements like #metoo.
It’s been an extraordinary process to be part of.
For my own part, I’ve been confronted with a clearer sense of my position in society, and how a lack of action, or a willingness to accept a gradual pace of change in some areas of society makes me, in effect, complicit in the structural inequalities that I oppose. I have been challenged on how I “use my power” as a white male, I have been called out on my use of alienating and jargonistic language, and I’ve had to question how much I really support social and environmental transformation if I’m not living it out through all my actions. Talking the talk isn’t enough, and how I work and take decisions is changing as a result. I’m OK sharing this, as I have also been reminded of the importance of honesty and authenticity in my work.
The Inquiry has turned out differently from how we imagined it would. Our approach has been to take as wide a definition of civil society as possible, to be as open as possible and make a great effort to listen without judgement to as wide a variety of people as possible. We have tried hard to have meaningful conversations with people, rather than simply do research ‘on them’. We’ve had to adapt and change our approach many times, sometimes uncomfortably. In the end, we are telling a story that will already be familiar to some, as it is so in tune with many other concurrent efforts to understand the future direction of civil society, like The Future of Localism or Forum’s work with Power to Change on the future of community business.
It feels right to be urging people in a weakened civil society to work together to strengthen our voice, become more assertive and take control of the future. As members of civil society, we can choose to stand and watch as we gradually become less fit for purpose: reliant on government contracts; taking a lead from the private sector; becoming ever more marginalised from public debate; worse funded, less trusted, and more and more stressed. Or we can decide that now is the time for change, as many people and organisations have already, who are showing the way forward for England into a future that is resilient and hopeful, despite the overwhelming challenges we face.
We are proposing a PACT for civil society that can be applied at every level of civil society across the four areas of Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust. Relevant for individuals and organisations alike, it sets out the shifts in culture, attitudes and behaviour that are necessary for civil society to truly thrive.
Like all the organisations involved in the inquiry, my own organisation Forum for the Future will be working with the PACT to guide our future, exploring how the principles can help us to drive greater change in the world. Some aspects of PACT we are already doing. For example, we have a high level of trust and collective involvement in decision-making, and in much of our work we seek to connect people with different perspectives to debate and agree pathways to a more sustainable future. Other aspects of the PACT we can take on board relatively easily – I am already looking at how we can adapt our current three year plan to reflect the PACT.
Some areas will be difficult for us. For example, like many, many organisations in England, we are much less diverse than we should be, and we shouldn’t accept that. The Inquiry’s work on race sets out many actions that organisations can undertake, from ensuring that leadership positions reflect our diverse society, to taking responsibility for race inequality and raising it up the agenda.
Sometimes the work we do falls short and doesn’t lead to the change it set out to achieve. Again I don’t think we are special in that, but like so many others we don’t talk enough – internally as well as externally – about our failures and challenges. And we need to think much more deeply about how we understand power, how we may be reinforcing power imbalances as well as how we might create more change through a more sophisticated understanding of power.
The PACT is an aspiration for me personally and for us as an organisation. Adopting it will take time and will be far from easy. But the journey starts with being open about the changes we need to make, and making a commitment to be part of the transformation that the Inquiry demonstrates is so necessary.