Civil society futures

After two years it has finally arrived along with more blogs than I can count. But what does it mean?

Read the final reports here.

My initial thoughts is that we are shouting into our bubble and as such that there is a real danger of this becoming what Karl Wilding of NCVO calls shelfware

They talk about civil society, and do a good job of explaining this, but is it a concept that any outside our bubble understand and relate to. There is a lot to be commended in the report and it has tried to take a much more holistic view of what people think, it deserves to make a difference, and if it doesn’t it is probably because there is too much in it, but also because it is not something that will resonate with the pubic.

Whilst this is aimed at how Civil Society needs to change and adapt it can not do this in isolation, and other sectors need to think about how they interact with us. If the impact that the government Civil Society Strategy had on the recent budget are anything to go by then we have a problem.

If people and civil society organisations are to have power then power has to listen and yet they even dismiss the work of the United Nations when it says something they don’t like.


You have to wonder what chance the rest of us have in making a difference and righting societies wrongs without resorting to civil disobedience, which the report recognises as a legitimate form of ‘people power’ but is obviously not for everyone.

The section on identity has to be key, there is a sub report about race and I believe that we need to look class as well. But more than this we also need to look at how we deal with differences that aren’t simply down to class but are down to inequality as we see so dramatically in Cambridge where different wards have a ten year life expectancy difference. The report puts civil society at the forefront of bringing together different tribes, and I wonder if this is the norm for many groups. Too often we congregate towards ‘people like us’ and this can be seen in local groups, especially in areas that have a more homogenous population. Organisations need to find ways to embrace difference and make people welcome, many do, but many don’t because it does not occur to them.

“It creates the space for the fact that you and I have completely different lifestyles and ideas, but it doesn’t stop us doing certain things together.” (Peckham community workshop)

We have to acknowledge that differences have been growing and that Brexit has played a big part in this. But so have our politicians and the press and what civil society tries to mend can easily be broken by others. If Civil Society is to bring people together it will take time and will need to ensure others aren’t sabotaging things.

The report talks about how organisations overcome selfishness

“Me instead of we. We all build our own little empires, we all have our own little gates at the front of our houses.”   (Epsom and Ewell community workshop)

“We’re pushed further apart by competition for smaller resources and a desire to find our uniqueness, not our common ground.” (CEOs of Youth Organisations Conversation)

“We’ve got to get away from this every man for himself business.”  (Shirebrook community workshop)

This becomes harder as funds for small organisations dry up, and we see bigger contracts that exclude small local delivers in favour of big regional/national delivers. Despite this we have to find ways to come together, by doing so we can provide more holistic services or more engaging services. Local Infrastructure has a role in helping facilitate this. Lots has been touted about big charities helping small and I wonder if the disconnect between the largest and the majority is just to big. From a CCVS point of view we certainly echo this part!

“There is an awareness that ‘anchor organisations’ are required to locate activity in and coordinate activity from. Infrastructural support also helps to nurture small community organisations that can engender the trust of the community and be accountable to them. The lack of local linking organisations, such as local Councils for Voluntary Service (CVSs), leaves many groups disconnected from each other and operating in silos. Battles over scarce resources can turn people against those who ‘are not like us’. Facilitation is required to bring different groups together so that people can get to know the diverse groups and shared challenges that make up their communities, ensuring that these groups can work together to be more effective.”

There is much more detail in the report and much of it makes sense and will resonate with those involved in small charities and community groups. The report covers some big issues but I missed the recognition of the diversity in the sector, and the fact that there are organisations that do so many different things, things that do not necessarily seem big in the Civil Society sphere but they really important.

The report does not end with the usual recommendations but comes up with its PACT in their words “It is intended to support us all to thrive in the future, and to build on the very best existing initiatives across civil society.”

The pact covers

  • Power
  • Accountability
  • Connection
  • Trust

They see this as a map and I really quite like this. Whilst some of the narrative focuses a bit on the big changes we would like to see happen in society, and that might be the purview of some organisations but doesn’t sit with most small organisations, at least not as a primary purpose.

The PACT has some thoughts on how we can change, and this call for change is key. I think the need to change as a movement (if we are one) and as organisations is one we need to embrace, and generally we do that. How useful these maps will be to organisations will be dependent on the organisation, what it does and who is involved. As a society we have to address these issues and have to address the causes of problems that create bigger rifts, that is not necessarily a role just for civil society (however that is defined), it has to include politics and media as well as business.

I really hope this report does make a real impact but I don’t think it will. I think that real life will get in the way for most organisations, I think that changing society needs more than just us. I do think that there are things for organisations to learn, and I think this will make steps to improve society. If some organisations become more welcoming and diverse then that will reap benefits. If some organisations help people find their voice and take control then that is only for the best. If we can be open and increase trust this will bring benefits for the organisation and those involved with it.

If because of all these small changes we make society more equal, if these small changes reduce conflict, if these small changes bring people together, if these small changes empower people to take action then maybe I will be proved wrong.

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