Richard Harries: Can we fix the social capital gap?

By Richard Harries, Associate Director of the Institute for Community Studies
on 27 June 2022
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For 20 years NPC has been helping philanthropists and charities to maximise social impact in the lives of the people they serve. To mark our 20th birthday, we’ve been talking to leading figures and people doing things differently to ask: Where next for social impact? In this essay, Richard Harries investigates how we fix the social capital gap. Opinions are the author’s own.

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Social infrastructure is not a synonym for social capital. Social infrastructure is the generator of social capital. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

Social capital is a slippery concept. So much of what makes life worth living depends upon it and yet no-one seems to know quite what it is. For social researchers and civil servants the answer is straightforward. Social capital is the “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups”.[1] Yet what does this mean? Where does social capital come from? Where does it go? Is there a social capital gap? How big is it? And how is it measured?

These are important questions. The answers will determine the success or otherwise of the Prime Minister’s grand plan to level up the country. It would be reassuring to think the government has a clear grip on the matter. It does not. In its recently published White Paper the government managed simultaneously to convince itself that “the distribution of social capital depends on how it is measured” (p. 69) and that “it is not clear what drives the differences between these measures” (p. 71), whilst also asserting with complete confidence that “there is a strong correlation between the most deprived places in the UK and those with the lowest scores for social capital” (p. 212).[2]

It is pitiful logic like this that leads Treasury Ministers and officials to roll their eyes whenever their counterparts across Whitehall propose ‘investing’ in social capital. Whether it is the £7 million Volunteering Futures Fund, targeted on “places with poor social capital” (p. 214) or the £2.6 billion Shared Prosperity Fund invested “in the places where social capital is weakest” (p. 217), the question must be: where exactly are these places?

The government does not have a clear grip on how to fix the social capital gap. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

None of this is new. Twenty years ago, when I was a jobbing civil servant at the Home Office, I was asked to arrange for the godfather of social capital, Professor Robert Putnam, to come and talk to David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, and his ministerial team. It was a great honour and a real insight into how to present social research in an attractive and persuasive way. To quote Putnam himself, his presentation had “inter-ocular impact” – it hit you right between the eyes. Ministers and officials left the briefing with fire in their bellies and a real sense of mission to build social capital into the very heart of the policymaking process.

Ten years later, when I was a slightly more senior civil servant working in the department currently known as DETR, DTLR, ODPM, DCLG, MHCLG, DLUHC, I was asked once again to arrange for Robert Putnam to come and talk about social capital. Once again, he gave a tour de force presentation. And once again, Ministers and officials left the briefing with fire in their bellies. And yet on a personal level I came away from this Groundhog Decade experience somewhat jaundiced.

Now, to be fair, this was most certainly not Robert Putnam’s fault. His original analysis was – and is – sound. And his two presentations were, as I have said, excellent. The real problem was that, for over two decades now, policymakers have struggled to turn his academic insights into practical action. For all the talk of bridging, bonding and linking social capital, it has proven extremely difficult to translate these concepts into policies that demonstrably make places better.

That last point is critical. Whether it is the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal 20 years ago or the current commitment to levelling up left-behind places, the aim must surely be to implement policies that demonstrably make places better, with a clear causal link between intervention and outcome. And this is where the Levelling Up White Paper offers a glimpse of hope, with a welcome acknowledgment that “there is clearly room to make greater use of experimental methods when understanding what drives local growth” (p. 150).

I’ll come back to this later, but I want first to take a short detour via a report commissioned last year by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport exploring local patterns of volunteering during the pandemic.[3] The report itself is a nice mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis which offers fresh insights into the relationship between social capital and levels of voluntary action. Much of the evidence comes from a programme of interviews and workshops with representatives from local councils, combined authorities, charities, community organisations, national funding bodies and volunteering platform providers.

Of course, participants rarely used the technical jargon of ‘social capital’.[4] Why would they? Nevertheless, their responses spoke to the critical role played by bonding and linking social capital (the latter being particularly important as new relationships were built with local authorities and other public service providers). An interesting side note was the lack of any reference to bridging social capital. As researchers often like to say, this calls for further research.

However, the reason I mention this report is because it attempted – in a somewhat limited way – to link social capital with three of the other five ‘capitals’ identified by the government in the Levelling Up White Paper, specifically human, financial and physical capital. It did so by comparing the geographic distribution of over 4,000 mutual aid groups with levels of personal wellbeing, levels of GDP per capita, and levels of community asset ownership. To cut to the chase, the only consistent match found was between the number of mutual aid groups and the number of community assets in a region. And since the assets were there before the mutual aid groups, I’m willing to stick my neck out and suggest there might be a causal relationship here.

In one sense this should not be surprising. If people have a place to meet as a community, they are more likely to form a mutual aid group. However, if I am right about the direction of causation, it also speaks to the vital importance of social infrastructure as a potential generator of social capital. This is in marked difference to the government’s current conception of social infrastructure as little more than a synonym for social capital. The two phrases are bundled together as a portmanteau term in the Levelling Up White Paper on at least seven occasions.

And this brings me back to the one glimmer of hope that we might avoid another ten-year loop of wasted time and wishful thinking about social capital: experimentation. Recent years have seen the development of robust methodologies for measuring place-based change with meaningful counterfactuals.[5] Applied intelligently, such approaches ought to reassure Treasury mandarins that, yes, this ‘investment’ in that place definitively made it better in a measurable way. If the government is genuine about its commitment to “improved data and transparency, oversight and analytics, evaluation and experimentation” (p. xi) then there is the duty on all of us committed to social progress to support it in its endeavour.

Because there is a social capital gap in this country, but it is not primarily a geographical gap or a socio-demographic gap – it is a conceptual gap. Like the Watford Gap it is both real and mythical. There remain many in government and in senior echelons of the third sector who believe social capital can be ‘built’ and ‘deployed’ in a top-down, instrumental way to deliver specific policy objectives. I believe the opposite; that social capital is built by local communities and drawn down by them when addressing issues that matter locally. I believe the best thing that government can do is to invest in social infrastructure and other generators of social capital.

But beliefs don’t matter. We have the tools to measure social capital, to measure its distribution, to measure what works. What we lack are the experiments to test these beliefs, to fill the gaps in our knowledge, to make places better. This is where NPC can make a distinctive contribution. Its long history championing rigour, theory and measurement must be brought to bear if we are ever to break the cycle and fix the social capital gap. If we all pull together, who knows? Perhaps we really can level up the country.

Social capital cannot be ‘built’ and ‘deployed’ top-down to deliver specific policy objectives. Social capital is built by local communities and drawn down by them when addressing issues that matter locally. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

[1] OECD (2001), The Well-Being of Nations: The Role of Human and Social Capital

[2] HM Government (2022), Levelling Up the United Kingdom (CP604)

[3] The Young Foundation (2022), Understanding local patterns of volunteer activity during COVID-19

[4] Social capital is typically sub-divided three ways in the literature. ‘Bonding’ social capital refers to connections to “people like you”, whereas ‘bridging’ social capital refers to connections to people unlike you. ‘Linking’ social capital relates to connections that span institutionalised power or authority levels in society.

[5] Power to Change (2021), Empowering Places? Measuring the impact of community businesses at neighbourhood level

What should NPC be doing? 

We have the tools to measure social capital, to measure its distribution, to measure what works. What we lack are the experiments to test these beliefs, to fill the gaps in our knowledge, to make places better. This is where NPC can make a distinctive contribution. Its long history championing rigour, theory and measurement must be brought to bear if we are ever to break the cycle and fix the social capital gap. If we all pull together, who knows? Perhaps we really can level up the country.

 

We hope you find these essays and interviews engaging and thought provoking. We’d love to hear what you think the future holds, and what you believe NPC should be focusing on. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #20yearsofNPC or through our events. As a charity ourselves we rely on the generosity of those who value our work to help us to continue to produce research and guidance to support the sector in maximising social impact. Visit the 20 years of NPC page to find out more. 

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