When we launched our report into the future of civil society – based on a two-year inquiry – we wrote about the deep divisions that we had witnessed, the feeling many people have that their voices are being ignored, and a growing sense that the old ways of doing things are no longer working.
Since then we have witnessed a shift both in public opinion and government pronouncements (if not priorities) about the climate emergency. The crisis of division that threatens our communities is acknowledged and we can identify a real and well-founded fear of that division. We know that we need a new approach to developing understanding, a more deliberative and more participatory democracy.
If ever there was a time for a renewed and reenergised civil society it is now.
Since writing that report we’ve also witnessed so much that is positive and shows the real stretch of engaged civil society. For example:
- foundations and philanthropic organisations are exploring better and more appropriate ways to support civil society
- we are seeing an increased uptake of ‘asset-based’ approaches to community development
- ground-breaking debates about the future and purpose of local government are taking place – the New Local Government Network, for example, has set out a ‘Community Paradigm’ that encourages local authorities to hand over significant power and resources to communities
- civil society is exploring new ways of accessing and sharing resources. A group of public, private, and voluntary sector organisations have formed an alliance calling for a new multi-billion pound national endowment to support deprived communities
- we are seeing movements bringing together people from across society to work on issues of pressing social concern (Social Care Futures, for example, is bringing together people with a shared commitment to bring about major positive change in social care)
In the ten months since our report was published, we have tried to support civil society to bring about these changes by facilitating conversations, encouraging debate, and supporting reviews of existing best practice. In particular, we have developed a programme which helps organisations in four areas that were identified by the Inquiry as being fundamental to creating a new civil society: shifting power to local people; becoming more accountable to the communities they serve; building deeper, closer connections to communities; and promoting trust in civil society.
It’s clear that civil society has the power, knowledge, and desire to take part in rebuilding our fractured society, restoring our democracy, and addressing the massive challenges of the climate emergency. In responding to these challenges, civil society will have to adapt and think in new ways. In particular, we – all of us –need to:
- think differently about leadership within civil society. We need to broaden popular conceptions of who a ‘leader’ is, and we need to support and value new types of leadership
- reduce stubborn, long-term race inequalities by measuring our progress on this issue and holding civil society to account for that progress
- lay the foundations for a People Platform that will connect communities within and across different parts of England and will ensure more inclusive engagement with social infrastructure
- become champions for a new way of working that connects civil society, local authorities, and ordinary people so they are able to co-produce services and shape decisions about resources are allocated to improve communities. This will involve enabling cross sector collaborative working and helping funders understand their place in this new ecology
Our new report (downloadable below) further explores these issues, outlines what we’ve done, and sets out a call for pioneers willing to take part in our new development programme.
The challenges we’ve outlined above are pressing, so there is no time to waste. This is urgent, but I hope that the Inquiry has shown just how much can be done.
Download the report: What next for Civil Society Futures