Civil Society Futures logo

The future of civil society

By Julia Unwin 26 April 2018

Writing for NPC on the day of the launch of Civil Society Futures’ one-year interim report, its chair—Julia Unwin—reflects on her experience during the first half of the inquiry.

When first appointed to chair the Independent Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society I had two competing thoughts. The first was—’what an incredibly interesting time to be doing this’. As everything changes around us, how can we in civil society change too? And the second, just as strong, was—‘really, another inquiry? No-one’s going to be interested’.

I’m delighted to say that I was right on the first feeling, and entirely wrong on the second.

Launching the inquiry in April 2017 I called for a national conversation—for communities and for organisations to get together and think through their hopes and fears for the future of civil society. I pledged that we would be both humble—in listening to what everyone has to say, and bold—in ensuring that our response was equal to the challenge. I described the historic arc of civil society and how we have always changed and adapted in the face of changing circumstances. It is an incredibly interesting time, and although the scale of the challenge is daunting, the enthusiasm, level of input and engagement has been both inspirational and, yes, humbling.

Our digital hub tells you some of what has been going on—nine deep dives in local communities, 64 conversations, almost 57 submissions of evidence, and no end of blogging, tweeting, attending meetings, speaking up and exchanging ideas. The appointed panel has brought together people with varied experience who have travelled the country, meeting people, hearing their views and trying to make sense of the very different futures that they see.

We have been powered, supported and enabled by an amazing collaboration of four very different organisations. Led by Forum for the Future, the partnership brings together Goldsmiths University, Citizens UK and Open Democracy, and I think its fair to say that together we have learned quite a lot about collaboration!

We have had our share of highs and lows, of misunderstandings and culture clashes, of different approaches leading to different outcomes. And we have had to do the hard work of developing shared principles, reviewing decision making, developing transparent and shared budgeting. I learnt that, when it comes to collaboration, no one predicts how difficult it is going to be, how long it is going to take or how brilliant and transformational the results can be.

I have also learned so much from the team, from the panel and of course from wider civil society. After almost four decades in and around this sector, I am still amazed by what I discover every day.

Today, a year after our launch, we are publishing our first thoughts, with questions, suggestions for further exploration and a call for more engagement. We have learned a lot and we want to share it, but this is no black box inquiry with a dramatic conjurer style reveal at the end. The issues are too important for that sort of behaviour. We want to make sure that civil society can be involved as we go through this process.

Looking back, this has been an extraordinary year for civil society. The inquiry was launched just as a surprise general election was called. It has operated with the referendum vote on Brexit—and the stark divisions it exposed—as background. We witnessed the summer of horrors—the Manchester bombing, the London attacks, the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Events which highlight the best of civil society; our organising capacity, the human need to help neighbours and to mark tragedy, and the generosity of people willing to contribute both time and money.

But these events also showed that some of our approaches are creaky. That we don’t necessarily have the agility we need, and that relationships between national organisations and local communities can be strained.

We have also witnessed the exposure of bullying, harassment, and in some cases plain illegal behaviour at some major charities. We know that these revelations are neither the first nor the last. Charities are no more insulated from bad behaviour than other institutions, and public trust—perhaps our most valued currency—will be damaged by these events, just as it was by complaints about fund raising and chief executive pay in years gone by.

Against this backdrop, we have also heard of new networks forming, of different ways of engagement growing. We have heard of new types of activity—challenges to old models, new relationships being formed, and a real sense that in so many areas people and communities are really in the lead.

We have heard from local authorities about the absolute need for civil society as they navigate the dangerous rapids of deeply divided communities, not nearly enough money, and social care needs that will soon eat all their budgets. We’ve heard about new alliances, about boundaries shifting and moving, about young people engaging in entirely different ways.

And we have also thought hard ourselves about the purpose of civil society. Recognising that every era calls for its own form of civil society, I have been very struck by the evident need for deep and personal connections, for shared approaches to solving problems, for the insistence on the human in an increasingly impersonal and occasionally dehumanising environment.

We don’t have answers yet, but we do know that there is an appetite for change. People know that networks and platforms and movements can exist and interact with institutions and organisations, but that it is neither easy nor straightforward. We know that place matters to people, and that there are too few genuinely open spaces where people can get together, without labels, without difference to share their common views. We know that as the world of work changes, so too do attitudes to belonging and identity.  As a sector we must think hard about what civil society offers those who feel they don’t belong anywhere.

Ultimately, we know that all of this is about power—the connections between those with power and others who feel powerless. The power within civil society, and the different sorts of power we hold. The very many communities which know that they have the power to change but feel very far from the levers of power that others seem to wield effortlessly.

Mainly we know that change is in the air. We have witnessed huge changes in terms of the way the state operates. Its withdrawal from many areas of public need. The impact of austerity in so many places. The changing role of local government, the creation of metro mayors, and combined authorities. The divides between the cities and the towns. The urgent need to be ready for the fourth industrial revolution. To recognise both the benefits and the risks of our digitally enabled lives, to recognise the changing face of our high streets, and our back streets too.

All of this requires a civil society that is fit for purpose, and ready to play its vital role. At the half way point of the inquiry we have confidence that civil society is essential, is in good heart, and knows it has a major role to play; we now need to understand how it needs to change, and therefore be able to meet these massive challenges ahead.