The full text of Julia Unwin’s speech to NCVO’s annual conference launching Civil Society Futures
This is the right time and the right place to launch this major new inquiry.
It will not be an inquiry into how we are now – important though that is.
Instead, it will be an inquiry into what the future holds, into how we have to adapt to thrive, into how we can make sure that we play our part in shaping the years to come.
Because we know several things – in this room – and one of the most important is that tomorrow will not be the same as yesterday.
The past is no predictor of our increasingly uncertain future.
And equally important, we know that we were created through change, and that between us we have the tools, the capability and the values to shape the change that we are now so nervously contemplating.
This is the right place because NCVO is vitally important. The voluntary sector is at heart of civil society. And adapting to change and to challenging circumstance is what we do best.
The voluntary sector is not the whole of civil society.
We are joined by community and faith groups;
by social enterprises, those businesses which see deeper, past the bottom line, and seek to make a positive difference;
by everyone who signs petitions online, digital nomads campaigning for causes they are passionate about.
In a way, everyone is involved in civil society. But together, we in this room represent a major confluence of organisers and it is right that NCVO – with its long history of championing broader civil society – beyond the established voluntary sector – should both support this Inquiry, and help us to launch it.
This is the right time because we are 10 years since first rumbles of the global financial crisis, 10 months since the historic vote which revealed, if nothing else, that we are a country divided by generation, income, and place. We are one month from the triggering of Article 50 which, for good or ill, will shape the years to come. (And now, we have had two days since the announcement of an election in the most turbulent context for a generation.)
Never in my life has history felt like it’s running so quickly.
And it is right because we need to celebrate and assert the breadth and depth of civil society. We have never been a sector that has let others determine our future. Nor have we ever been a sector that could ignore our environment.
Now is the time to decide where next, in conversation together, and on our own terms.
Civil society is about everything that makes life worth living. It’s about how we collaborate with others, how we have fun together, how we show solidarity.
It’s allotment societies, and community choirs. It’s circles of support and art festivals. It’s conservation societies and Mosques.
It’s the groups we join and the protest we show. It’s the way we create and the way we support.
It springs from solidarity, and from kindness, but from anger and frustration too.
It is how we as a country come together to discuss and decide difficult issues. And it’s not always civil. It’s not always in agreement.
But where would we be without the campaigns for – and against – new housing, the angry parents demanding a better deal for their disabled children, without the church groups making plans to welcome in Syrian refugees?
Civil society is how we respond to the world – not passively accepting change but recognising that change is the constant.
After all, it is the drive for change that powered the creation of every organisation in this room and far beyond.
Civil society organisations are not formed because the market requires it. Nor are they founded because the law demands it. They are set up because somewhere, a group of people have come together and demanded better.
Change is in our DNA.
The desire for change is what shapes us. The need to respond positively, but never passively, is what moulds us.
And this is most definitely a time of change in almost every dimension.
Some of that change we can describe and recognise.
But a two year inquiry at such a time cannot just be a rough projection of the trends already unfolding.
We know that there will be things we have not even thought of yet, changing the ways in which civil society operates, influencing the demands we face, reshaping our environment.
That’s why we approach this inquiry with considerable humility. We don’t know what we don’t know.
But we do know that if we listen very hard, have difficult and challenging conversations, go to places we haven’t been before, we will hear things that change how we think, maybe even confound our dearest beliefs.
But we do know quite a lot, and what we know matters for our future.
We know that the state national, regional and local is changing.
Our city and county councils are being transformed from within. Waves of crippling austerity have affected the ability of local authorities to respond to people’s basic needs.
And in response, we’ve seen new, more networked ways of operating. Civic leadership has grown in so many towns and cities.
And so many of those same towns and cities are now arguing hard, and effectively, for more power and more capability.
Government has been forced to respond, with revolts on both left and right. Populism is on the rise across the Western world as politicians offer easy answers to tricky questions – affecting our public life and conversation in ways we could not have imagined.
And in England a long period of austerity, changing approaches to welfare and universal services, have changed both the behaviour of government – and public expectations of it – fundamentally.
Business and the market have changed too:
In less than a generation, vast firms and household names have crumbled and new corporate behemoths have grown up in their place. New, previously unimagined types of organisations have developed.
Wages in Britain have fallen by more than 10% in the last decade and ever more jobs which were once done by people are now done by machines.
The impact of automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be just as profound and life changing as successive previous industrial revolutions.
Insecurity is the prevailing feeling for so very many people and inequality within the nation has soared.
Information is more accessible than ever – both to us, and about us. Britain is leaving the EU, and the constitutional futures of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and therefore England, are under more question than anyone could have imagined a decade ago.
Corporations are changing fast. The huge monopolies trading our data – that 21st century commodity as valuable as oil or diamonds – are changing how we do business, how we do politics, and how we make decisions.
In so very many ways, civic life – how we choose to spend our time when not interacting through the market or the state – has transformed too.
Fewer of us than ever before worship through organised religions or organise our workplaces through trade unions. Old hobbies are dying fast, and new – maybe more individual – habits are consuming our lives.
So, the contours of civic life are shifting. From technology to politics, from rapidly unfolding demographic trends and to the widening variety of family structures, from the climate to the economy, the constitution and even our identities, the world around us is rapidly changing.
Trust in institutions has collapsed, including corporations, politics, and the media.
And, before we get too smug, trust in charities and NGOs is collapsing too.
We know about the hits to our collective reputation. The scandal about some fund raising practices. The high profile failures. The sense that some of our services are not as good as they should be.
But we also know that trust and confidence are not eroded because of one – or even more than one – mistake. They come as the word changes, and trust has to be earned again and again.
Who we are, what we stand for, why we matter – how we behave: all part of the trust that is the bedrock of our being, and the most essential commodity. We are charged with protecting our charitable assets, and the greatest of these is reputation.
But there are big questions of definition, and of boundary, and in a fast changing world, it may be that these questions start to affect quite profoundly who we are and how we are seen.
Is the sharing economy an example of the monetisation of the sharing voluntary sector? Who first thought of sharing spare resource, between equals? Before they made such eye watering sums of money that was what air bnb, uber and ebay were doing.
Who decides that a young graduate running an arts centre in a room above a pub is in the market, or the social sector?
Who determines whether the sharing of meals on an estate is a social activity, or one that makes a bit of money?
Was the impulse that started to exploit the big platforms that power the sharing economy one of affiliation and collaboration, or one of profitability? Or was it perhaps a bit of both, and something we can learn from?
These changes to our context are not only challenges to boundaries or definitions. They affect a great deal of what makes us different.
At a time when freelance life, small business and self-employment is the growing mode, bringing both insecurity and freedom – challenging old norms of loyalty and belonging, what does this mean for organisations with deep roots in communities, with long and glorious histories, reliant on the loyalty and affiliation of others?
And the market is changing in other ways too. In the 1990s we talked about the disappearance of the job for life.
That did bring great freedom and excitement to many. But many experienced it as insecurity and felt left behind.
Now we are facing the disappearance of a whole other range of jobs as automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning change not just how we work, but the nature of work itself.
Where is purposeful activity when this happens? And where is the expertise in building engagement, and supporting well-being, if it is not in civil society?
Our sector knows that we need something more than the much-heralded basic income if we are each to fulfil our potential as humans.
So – boundaries shift, priorities change – the sector needs to decide its future.
Throughout history, our role has been to connect, convene and control.
• We connect people without power to those with power. And we connect disempowered people to each other to realise their shared power, so they can speak truth to power.
• We convene civic space to enable people to discuss, and to meet the challenges of the day. And in this time of hugely contested and frequently disappearing civic space, we couldn’t be more important.
• we support and enable people to take control and assert their demands – families with disabled children fighting for play equipment, tenants demanding a better deal for their estates, trades unions fighting unfair and exploitative working practices; farmers setting up equipment co-ops and students establishing housing co-ops: People through solidarity wresting control from both the market and the state.
So, change is in our DNA. We shouldn’t be afraid of it. We advocate for change, we react to change, and we influence the change itself.
We have lived before through troubled times. We have always adapted. We have always shaped those times.
I am indebted to Steve Wyler and the important work he is doing for Power to Change, in drawing my attention to the amazing activities of mill workers in Birmingham in the late 18th century.
A combination of poor harvests and the Napoleonic Wars produced dramatic increases in the price of bread.
And so the so called ‘lower orders’ formed flour clubs and milling societies. They pooled funds to buy grain in bulk, and they built their own mills and baked their own bread. In some cases, they used the most advanced technology of their time: steam power.
While philanthropy also played a major part in alleviating the dreadful hardship – and must never be airbrushed from the story – working people, through mutual aid, ensured that benevolence was not the only progenitor of thriving civil society.
At a time when the mere act of association was punishable in the most savage way possible, people organised to support each other.
Who says social enterprise is a new idea?
During the Industrial revolution, millions moved to towns and cities, far from the support, and the restrictions, of family and rural village life. The squalor in which they were forced to live, and the risks they took, inspired a whole new generation of civil society.
That period witnessed the emergence of the Trades Unions and the working men’s clubs, the friendly societies and the schemes for mutual aid.
The crisis of the day produced some of our greatest institutions, many of which are here present: the great childcare organisations, formed to rescue children left orphaned and destitute through industrial upheaval.
The education providers, the settlements, the beginnings of the housing movement.
The great development of civic churches – opening their doors and developing Boys Brigades, and Mothers Unions. All these came in response to a cataclysmic change that threatened the social fabric of the time.
The horrors of the First World War teach us the same lesson:
the formation of NCVO in 1919, the League of Nations the same year, the actions of the suffragettes to welcome refugees, the charities for disabled servicemen, the British Legion
– all were part of that vital optimism that a new society could be created –
one which would repel the horrors of the past, and enable people to live in harmony and fellowship.
And the Second World War taught us this too: Some of our greatest organisations first blossomed in the rubble of Europe.
Networks to support people who had been displaced, groups bringing comfort and aid to those made homeless, movements campaigning for a new and different settlement, for a land genuinely fit for heroes.
And of course, through the establishment of the welfare state a different form of politics flowered in the 60s and 70s. When immigrants arrived first from the former Commonwealth, and then from Europe, they contributed their own civil society:
the Somali centres in London, Birmingham and Liverpool. The West Indian centres, the supplementary schools, the Chinese community centres. Our sector was enlarged and strengthened by new associations, by different organisational forms and structures.
They fought against discrimination, founded new self-organising bodies, and shook the status quo.
We responded to the challenge of AIDS. In that terrifying time, gay men and lesbians fought and struggled and argued, creating a range of organisations out of fear, through tragedy, but in solidarity.
These were organisations that challenged governments, challenge health providers, challenged medical research, challenged attitudes…
And later they organised and mobilised again, so that not only have we deleted Section 28, we have all celebrated civil partnerships and equal marriage.
Alliances were forged between the disability charities and the organisations of mothers with prams to make sure that buses were accessible and never again did someone in a wheelchair need to sit in the guard’s van of an inter-city train.
It was civil society that changed the discourse about access. We created new alliances and new ways of working. We managed between us to change the world.
Truly we stand on the shoulders of giants.
And now we face another time of massive, uncertain change.
The sharing economy is amassing great wealth and information in a few hands. But its big platforms enable a different sort of collaboration and connection;
whether you are thrilled about online movements and global campaigns; or dismayed at echo chambers and fake news, digital technology has transformed the terrain of reality.
Our demographics are changing.
Modern medicine allows us to live longer than ever, and makes conditions which were once fatal chronic, meaning there are more older people and more disabled people than ever.
As the world shrunk, people are more likely to move, both within the UK and from other countries.
People feel less secure than they once did. And while this is experienced differently across generations, across income groups and across the country, people’s careers and housing situations are more precarious than they’ve been for generations.
And that’s before we consider the growing uncertainty about the shape of our economy for the next decade.
Though, it is worth remembering that in the referendum last year, people voted for something they were widely told was against their economic interests.
So perhaps it’s time to start asking what, and who, the economy is really for, and whether GDP is really capable of measuring that?
The country is more politically divided than it has been for a very long time, with attitudes fracturing by generation, income, place, and race.. But more and more people do seem to agree on one thing:
only 15% of us now think that the system in Britain works. We are experiencing what Edelman call “a total collapse in trust in the institutions that shape our society”, with trust in “an accelerating spiral of decline”.
Over the last year, there research shows trust in NGOs has collapsed from 50% to 32%, with barely a quarter of people now trusting the government and the media.
In this context, civil society has never been more needed and has never been more challenged.
And there are big changes ahead.
Facebook has destroyed newspapers because your friends know more about what you’re interested in than editors do.
Financial Technology startups raised over 22.3 billion dollars in funding in 2015, and threaten the great towering icons of the banking sector.
Across the economy, more fluid networks and new types of organisation are disrupting the old hierarchies. How established institutions respond will be a huge story of the next decade: and civil society organisations will be one of the protagonists.
Faith in formal democracy is in decline – in Stoke, 67% of people didn’t vote!
But at the same time, there seem to be more marches, more movements and more petitions than ever: people aren’t apathetic. They are alienated from the system. They don’t trust our political processes. And trust in charities cannot be banked, either.
The economic headwinds are harsh. For many people across the country, the recession which began in 2008 continues.
How do we strengthen community and well-being in a context of stagnation, falling wages and disappearing jobs?
And the regulatory context is more and more difficult. I’m sure you could all list ways that different laws restrict you – and some of those rules are probably quite right.
But given Theresa May’s announcement earlier in the week, let me touch on one for a second.
For a huge chunk of the voluntary sector, the 2015 election was marred by the lobbying act. The changes to the law which restrict the ability of our organisations to speak on behalf of those we represent in the vital weeks before an election prevent us from providing one of our most important roles.
But, again, history teaches us that the state has always wanted voluntary organisations to help but not be heard. They have always tried to stop us asking awkward questions.
And yet we have torn off every gag they have bound us with. We have always fought to ensure that those whom we represent have their voices heard. And as another election approaches, we must be bold once more in telling our truths to the powerful.
Civil society, after all, has always been the turf on which public debate takes place.
We surely have a vital role in reviewing, reviving, revitalising our democracy.
This is the context in which I was asked to chair our Inquiry. It couldn’t be more timely.
I’d like to applaud the wisdom of those foundations who decided to support a major inquiry, and who put their trust in me to chair it.
And above all put their trust in us when we said, we don’t know the answers, we don’t know where this will take us, we haven’t got a route map which will result in easy recommendations.
Luckily I won’t be doing it on my own.
I am so fortunate to have been able to appoint a panel of people who bring such different perspectives, vast knowledge, and amazing commitment to this task.
and we have appointed a secretariat which brings together four important, grounded, skilled and knowledgeable organisations.
Now how we approach this really matters.
we want to be humble. Humble about what we don’t know. Humble in recognising that knowledge and insight is held in so many different places. Humble in knowing that no one has all the answers.
But we also want to be bold. Bold in the questions we ask. Bold in the people we engage with. And bold in making recommendations that will challenge all of us.
Humble but bold.
All of us are clear about the approach we want to take. This is not a black box. We are not going to sit and think for two years and then tell you our conclusions. Our process is full engagement. We will do our best to listen carefully to all of you, and refuse to pass on the other side where we see difficult questions ahead.
We want to hear from all parts of civil society, in all sorts of ways.
Today we are launching our online hub and want this to be a place of conversation and exchange. A place where people within and without the sector, try out ideas, challenge each other, think the unthinkable.
We invite you all to host your own civil society future conversations. And we’ll provide the questions, and the frameworks – but we want to know your hopes and fears.
We want to be told things we can’t possibly have thought of ourselves.
We hope that across England there will be conversations about the future of civil society.
We hope that every CVS in the country will host its own conversation, that groups of advisers will have their conversations. that the Impact hubs and digital campaigners, the churches and the activists, will make time to talk about where next for civil society – and tell us.
We hope that the professional associations will have their conversations, that the Local Government Association will host one for their members, that major charities and small ones, regulators and fundraisers, will contribute too.
We will be issuing calls for evidence, and we will be going to neighbourhoods across the country with Citizens UK, listening hard and hearing what people want to tell us.
I expect all of us to be hugely personally challenged by this exploration, and I know that the panel are ready for that.
But if we as civil society want to shape our own future, we need to be ready to change.
I started by saying that I come to this huge exercise with few preconceptions. but I would be lying if I said I had no thoughts.
I start by thinking that:
• civil society has power through membership, through affiliation, through a sense of belonging. And we have not understood that as well as we should.
• that place matters to people, and that when public policy ignores the importance of place we make big mistakes.
• and that difficult conversations about the shape of our society, and the nature of our country, are desperately urgently needed. We can’t have them without an active, intelligent and fully engaged civil society.
That’s why I think it matters so much.
And why I think it matters now. The millions of daily transactions that are the lifeblood of civil society require us to face these challenges.
In 1995 the game changing Inquiry led by Nicholas Deakin addressed both the sector and government.
It changed our environment.
This inquiry will, I hope be as significant – and just as timely.
I am massively ambitious for the inquiry, but cannot do anything without those in this room.
But we also need the active, enthusiastic engagement of the vast majority of civil society that is not in this room, who would never come to this conference, but without whom we cannot succeed.
Our world faces huge challenges. Research shows again and again that people are worried about the future. From the economy to the environment, more and more of us are looking ahead with fear.
But history shows that civil society has always taken on the biggest of challenges. We have always adapted and grown to meet the scale of the crises before us.
So be assured: we will learn from each other once more, we will change once more, and we will, once more, meet the new challenges before us.
Because that’s what we’ve always done.