We knew what we didn’t want to do. We were determined from the outset that Civil Society Futures wouldn’t simply sit behind a desk somewhere in London and ask ‘important’ people to tell us what they thought. We didn’t want our inquiry into how English civil society can flourish in a fast changing world to consist simply of a group of powerful panelists meeting in an air-conditioned room for two years, and coming up with a series of recommendations.
We were clear that any attempt to understand the rapid changes unfolding across the country couldn’t be rooted in only one part of it. We were clear that in order to get to grips with what’s happening in civil society, we couldn’t take a narrow view of what it is: while the formal voluntary sector is important, it is only a part of what we’re looking at.
Here’s what we’ve done so far instead, and some of the things it’s got us thinking about.
1) We’ve produced a literature review, a trends map and evidence for a House of Lords inquiry
We started by reading widely around the subject, trying to understand how the country is changing and how civil society is responding. We’ve pulled together a comprehensive literature review and a research report summary, which we’ve used as the basis for a submission to the House of Lords Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement.
We’ve asked people how they think the world is changing, and produced a draft map of 50 trends we think will shape the next decade in England – a living document which we are refining as our research continues, and which we hope will be useful to civil society organisations as they plan for the coming years.
2) We’re taking a deep dive into eight places
To help us understand what’s happening across England, we’re taking a close look at eight places: Peckham, Barking, Mansfield, Shirebrook, Newcastle, Sunderland, Oldham and a seaside town. In each of these places, we are compiling social data maps, interviewing a range of people, and running workshops with people from the area. At each workshop, a group of participants has volunteered to continue the research by conducting interviews in their area. We’ve talked to people about how their communities are changing, how they’d like them to change, and what power they have to make that happen. We’re basing the process around the principles of participatory action research, which, broadly speaking, encourages collective enquiry and experimentation grounded in social context and lived experience.
3) Over 50 groups are holding Civil Society Futures conversations
We’ve put together a conversations toolkit, allowing people to host their own discussions about the future of civil society, and to tell us what they talked about. So far, there’s over 50 such conversations happening over summer and autumn, with people including major funders, business representatives, people from youth organisations, local CVS’s, charity law experts, as well as community groups dotted around the country. You can host your own conversation – download the toolkit here.
4) We’ve launched our call for contributions
Our call for contributions is a space for you to tell us about your experience, what you think is important and what you think we should be looking at. Please do contribute.
5) We’ve launched and run our online hub
Our online hub, civilsocietyfutures.org, provides a space for a broad range of voices to raise different angles, examine different subjects and raise new concerns. We’ve looked at, among other things, how civil society is structured across Northern Europe, how VR technology allows us to build solidarity, and questions of race and gender in management structures of voluntary organisations. Let us know if you’d like to write something – or like to see us commission someone else.
6) We’ve asked our panellists to provoke us
Our panel and team have met in person three times now, each time in an innovative civil society space: the Birmingham Impact Hub, the Pilgrim Church in Nottingham and Hack Oldham. Our panel is made up of people from a broad range of backgrounds, with different experiences of the world. They’ve each asked a provocative question, to get us all to think more broadly about the future of civil society – ranging from the moral challenges posed by automation to the future of the English charity model.
7) We’ve spoken with people across the country
From the NCVO conference in London to the Co-op Councils gathering in Oldham, we’ve spoken at gatherings of different people across the country, talking about the Inquiry and listening to what they want from us. Upcoming events include the Voluntary Organisation Network North East conference in Newcastle, and the Future Cities gathering in Bristol. Get in touch if you’d like someone from Civil Society Futures to speak at your event.
We’ve got much more coming up
Over the autumn, we’re going to have a number of one to one interviews with a range of people, will be looking at whether our qualitative research leads us to any specific quantitative research on top of the range of polls and surveys already out there, and exploring different ways of visualising civil society.
Throughout all of this, we’ve started to hear some recurring patterns and themes. These will steer our exploration over the next year. Here are a few of them. This isn’t a complete list, and it’s certainly a work in progress. But it gives a flavour of where we’re going next.
How can civil society encourage connection and discourage division within communities?
Lots of people are telling us they fear division and isolation within their communities. They are looking to civil society to play a role in addressing that. Movements and organisations within civil society have often developed around single issues, or in response to inequalities faced by people with particular single identities. We rarely question whether this is an effective model (partly because there is still lots of inequality faced by these groups).
Some of the work around cohesion and integration has shown that social policy, funding and community work that is exclusively provided to particular communities can exacerbate division and tensions between communities. From book groups to community centres, food co-ops to sports clubs, local campaigns to national NGOs, is English civil society structured in such a way as to break down the boundaries of difference between us, or does it reinforce them? In the wake of Brexit, with the spike in hate crime which followed it, the country is searching for a narrative of integration which emerges from the bottom up. From the formal voluntary sector to informal community groups and activist networks, how can we balance the need for oppressed minorities to organise with and champion the rights of others like them, and the need to bridge the gaps in our divided society?
How can anger be channelled into positive change?
Huge numbers of the people we have spoken to have been angry: frustrated with economic changes, with inequality, with the closure of civil space, with austerity, with the feeling of being shut out from decisions, and with the impacts on their lives of specific choices they feel they’ve had no say in.
When organised and channelled well, anger can be useful. It can help deliver change and can lead to hope; change rarely happens without some kind of conflict. But anger sits close to aggression – and, at its worst, can slip into violence. Frustrations expressed in an angry tone can lead people to avert their eyes – and our reactions to anger are tinged by race, class and gender.
If civil society acts as a space for us to negotiate difference and organise for change, how can we as a society get better at encouraging open discussion, at drawing out productive anger? How do we draw on the useful elements of anger and conflict and channel it into change? Where do we draw the line between legitimate rage and harmful aggression? How do we avoid listening most to those who shout loudest?
How can civil society make England more democratic?
A consistent theme of our conversations has been the sense people have that decisions are made about them without them. What’s the role of civil society in contributing to – and ending – this sense of alienation?
Are our civil society institutions democratic themselves? Where does power lie within civil society, and to whom is it accountable? Are civil society institutions innovating and trialling new forms of democratic process? Should our large membership organisations be learning more from those building tools at the cutting edge of radical democracy? Is civil society a training ground for democracy? To what extent do the structures of civil society provide space and opportunities for people to rebuild our skills as citizens rather than just consumers?
Does civil society hold power to account where it is actually located in England now? Why isn’t the formal voluntary sector more active in demanding democratic reform? Should it be?
What is the potential for mutual aid? And what are its limits?
We’ve heard that human relationships and exchange really matter to people and so our attention is on mutual aid and self help: what is its potential, and what are its limits? What might be the new structures and systems that would enable mutual aid to flourish in the future?
How does civil society relate to the places in which it exists?
We already knew that people are increasingly interested and focused on place. But this is easy to say and hard to do. As local authorities shape their roles and their services, what does this mean for places? How do people understand the narrative and identity of the place they live in, and what does civil society contribute? How do we share leadership in places, but still take responsibility? After the tragedy of Grenfell Tower we know we need to think even more deeply about the bonds of place, and the shared responsibilities we have.
What stories do we need to tell about the past, present and future?
In our workshops across the country, we’ve heard anger, fear and loss. What are the stories that we can tell about ourselves, our groups and society in order to counter this?
How can we best acknowledge, celebrate, grieve and learn from the past? What narratives do we need to develop in order to create a shared sense of ownership over the future?
How can the inspiring stories we don’t hear be recognised and spread? What does it mean for people to confidently tell their own story?
We’ve heard that language really matters. So what is the language that can help us create change, to really shift power? How can we reclaim our narratives and the power and ability to act?
If work no longer creates a sense of belonging, can civil society?
The nature of work is changing rapidly. Automation has already destroyed hundreds of traditional low-skill jobs and is now eating away at high-skilled work. This is a huge economic issue, but it’s something else too: for millions of people, employment is key to identity. It gives us a sense of purpose and belonging. As work disappears, can civil society find ways to replace that key sense of identity? What examples are there of this already?
This is just a sample. We’re also looking at the growing need for community resilience, the impact of digitalisation, the ways that civic space are being limited, and much more.