ARTICLES The civil society I know: Simon Duffy

The civil society I know: Simon Duffy

In our series of interviews with key civil society figures, we ask them about the sector they know, how it has changed and how it will. Here we talk to Simon Duffy, founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform.

What’s your biggest hope for civil society in the next ten years?

What’s your biggest fear for civil society in the next ten years?

Unless new courage and leadership emerges from within civil society structures then it will continue to be complicit with injustice, rather than acting as a check upon it.

What do you expect to be the biggest driver of change in civil society in the coming years?

I expect that civil society will continue to be divided between genuine community organisations and large organisations who seek to seize resources from each other as the public sector is further privatised. The dividing line between the local and the national will become sharper and current cynicism about politics and the media will extend deeper into civil society. Many people are looking for new ways to contribute, but they will increasingly reject the role of ‘volunteers’ or ‘donors’.

How do you think public attitudes to civil society have changed in the time you’ve been involved?

I am not sure that there has been any serious public discussion of the role of civil society during my career. I think most people outside the system still apply thinking from decades earlier: charities are deemed worthy but old-fashioned and possibly wasteful and the private sector is valued and feared. In my experience few people outside the sector have any idea of the massive changes that have happened since the late 1980s.

Which technological change has made the most difference to civil society over your career?

The internet has made possible new patterns for sharing information, innovating and for mobilising people. Having said this, the fact that things have got progressively worse for social justice since its invention means we should not expect it to make anything better. The internet seems to feed our best and worst instincts, depending on the food we seek.

What one political moment has made the most difference to civil society in the time you’ve worked in it?

The creation of the purchaser-provider split, the invention of commissioning and the use of standardised procurement systems to outsource services to charities and the private sector transformed civil society in the health and social care sectors.

At first many of us were optimistic, seeing this as a chance to increase innovation, community connections and to transform stale and disempowering public services. But we were wrong. The pessimists have been proved correct. Commissioning has reduced innovation, reduced trust and created a block of increasingly standardised services, provided by increasingly large and private sector organisations (or private-sector-minded charities).

“The pessimists have been proved correct.”

Even more importantly, the growing dependence on contracts for funding has led to a radical decline in the ability of civil society to speak out against injustice. After 2010 we have found very few large organisations prepared to speak out against the deepest cuts ever seen and against the vicious (non) reforms of the benefit system. Threats to charities by the government proved entirely successful. What resistance there has been came almost entirely from new grassroots organisations like Spartacus Network and Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC). Perhaps the only modest exception to this pattern has been in the faith communities, where some leaders have spoken quite clearly.

Which changes to social attitudes have had the most influence on your work in your time in the sector?

I think there are more people with disabilities willing and able to speak out for themselves and prepared to stand up against discrimination and injustice. More broadly I think many more are people willing to make the case for human diversity and to celebrate our differences. But at the same time the stigma associated with disability, low incomes and class has worsened. The media and politicians now feel they can express negative and discriminatory attitudes that would have shocked public leaders from a generation earlier. There has been a marked decline in the social attitudes of our leadership.

How have social-economic changes over your time involved in civil society affected your work?

Running In Control between 2003 and 2009, I found that central government control over funding for innovation and service development was both deathly and, for me, career-terminating. In the end the government spent £0.5 billion with no significant positive outcomes, whilst causing great harm to existing frameworks for innovation and collaboration. Centralisation, regulation and commodification have been the hallmarks of public policy over the past 25 years.

How else has civil society changed in the time you’ve been involved?

It is wonderfully easy to make things happen and to create new forms of citizen action. As long as you do not expect support from the government then real creative freedom is possible. More and more people, from very different backgrounds, are finding they can get stuck in and make something happen.

In the age of Brexit, Trump and austerity, is it time for civil society to tool up and get more political?

Yes. Yes. Yes. But if leaders of traditional civil society organisations do begin to demonstrate more courage then they will also need to reconnect with the communities that they should be there to serve. The last few years have left many of the natural leaders in our communities raging at the passivity of the large national charities.

Do we have a crisis of democracy, and if so, how can civil society help renew it?

The UK needs a new constitution and one that is equipped to support and sustain its welfare state. The welfare state is economically affordable, but politically unsustainable. It has become too easy for politicians to divide us with stigma and scapegoating. We will need to shift power back down into our communities while also creating checks, balances and protections. This will include a civil society restored to greater integrity.