I was so pleased to read Andrew Purkis’s response to my call for civil society groups to do more to give people power, and to witness the deep thought and care that had gone into thinking about what we have found in Civil Society Futures.
My biggest fear in launching the inquiry was that nobody would be remotely interested, so to see a long, thoughtful and detailed response was great. And I think he makes a lot of really good points. He’s not the first person to suggest that we may be asking civil society to do too much of the heavy lifting in fixing society’s problems. After all, civil society is not responsible for climate change, gross inequality, the impact of artificial intelligence and so on. Civil society is made up of organisations with a purpose, and what matters is how they are enabled to meet that purpose.
And I can see the strength in these arguments. Of course, I can.
But, firstly, civil society has never been less than ambitious about responding to major, global issues. Take, just by way of example, the explosion of civil society activity to respond to the squalor and misery generated through the industrial revolution, and the subsequent transformation of our cities. Take the ways in which civil society mobilised to support displaced people and refugees after the horrors of the two great European Wars. Take the ways in which gay men mobilised to respond to the nightmare that was Aids and HIV (and read David France’s book How to Survive a Plague if you have any doubt about the power of that amazing alliance between scientists and activists). Civil society saw major social crisis and responded. Powerfully, angrily and effectively. And what we have heard in the inquiry is about a similar scale of crisis-of disaffection, alienation and powerlessness.
Which brings me to the second argument about power and purpose. Of course, the vast majority of civil society organisations are not engaged in the essential shift of power to communities. That’s not their purpose. But just as Barnardo’s works hard to engage young people in charting their own lives and creating capacity and agency, so too Scope has re-structured itself to ensure that people with disabilities are agents of their own destiny and are demanding the shift in power that we talk about. So too, is the Church Urban Fund with its emphasis on building strong and deep relationships engaged with power at its most fundamental and challenging level. From housing associations, to arts organisations, advocacy bodies and community development, we have heard of the need for a dramatic shift of power – and I think that speaks to direct concerns, and yes, the purposes, of most civil society organisations. A recognition that an enduring purpose of civil society has been to connect: to connect parents of children with severe disabilities together so that their voices can be heard by those who exert power. To connect people forced to use food banks so that their experience can shape and change public policy. To connect people who often feel that they have no power, with those who wield it and need to be made to listen. And it is those connections that make possible the sort of profound shift in power which is going to be necessary in the future. A future which all of our analysis suggests, risks being very much less human. Our findings so far are that civil society has a major role to play. A revived, re-energised civil society can really help to lead the way on some of the biggest issues of our time: our faltering democracy, the degradation of our environment and the resulting crisis in our climate, and the social divisions that are so obvious.
And the final point I want to make is that this inquiry is about getting fit for the future. All of the trends we have looked at suggest a number of things that should make all of us passionate about civil society very concerned indeed. We know that the present is never a reliable guide for the future, and we live in a world that is changing very fast. In all spheres of activity, we see challengers disrupting existing markets, and I don’t see that civil society is so different. We know that networks, platforms and movements are gathering pace and momentum (no pun intended!) and are challenging institutions of all sorts. We know that many of the young philanthropists are directing their funding at enterprises and individuals, and now charitable organisations. And we know that in both geographic communities, and communities of interest, there is mistrust and a sense of alienation. We know that the boundaries between local authorities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises are increasingly – and perhaps properly – blurred. These trends cannot be ignored, and if civil society is to be relevant in the future, we need to think seriously and hard about where and how we need to change.
I think we are right to talk about power, and we are right to say that civil society needs to change in order to be fit for the future. And I don’t think that is either disproportionate or dismissive of the huge effort that are already going on. I think that a newly defined future of civil society will be testing for us all – but I think it is the best way of honouring the great traditions from which we come and making sure we do it in a way that makes it possible for us to address the equally great challenges ahead.