Two years on from the vote to leave the EU, the decision is still casting a huge shadow over the political landscape. Politicians and their parties fight endlessly about what kind of Brexit they want. Meanwhile, civil servants tasked with the monumental job of rewriting decades of legislation struggle to have time for anything else.
Against this backdrop, it is frankly remarkable that the Office for Civil Society (and its parent department DCMS) managed to find the space and political will to conduct the biggest review of the government’s strategy regarding civil society in at least a decade. Kudos to them for making it happen.
Prominence of 'place'
One thing that comes as less of a surprise is the prominence that “place” has in this strategy. Locality and place have always played a big role in Conservative thinking. From Burke’s “little platoons” to David Cameron’s “Big Society”, there has long been an interest in decentralising power away from traditional structures of government, and down to people and local communities. The current government’s interest in place was clear in the original call for evidence, and this has been backed up by subsequent events and roundtable discussions.
Although this interest may well be part of a rich historical tapestry, it also seems likely that Brexit has helped to focus attention more keenly. As more and more people become frustrated with the bottleneck in central government, they are looking for ways to bypass it. In many cases this means looking for new centres of power and new ways of doing things - so there is an appetite for decentralised approaches.
We are expecting the government’s full Civil Society strategy to be published before too long, and it will be very interesting to see how their enthusiasm for place manifests itself.
However, our interest in the power of place should not begin and end there.
While it is encouraging that the government is supportive of place-based funding and civic philanthropy; that is only one piece of the puzzle. There are many more reasons to think these ideas will play a prominent role in coming years.
Many funders already take a place-based approach to their work. Some do so because they are based in a certain place or have historical ties to it. Others do so for more pragmatic reasons: perhaps that is where the need is greatest in terms of their charitable mission, or perhaps they want to act in a defined location to limit variables and thus make their impact easier to measure. (We explore the range of motivations for taking a place-based approach in CAF’s Giving a Sense of Place report).
New centres of devolved power
There are also many new centres of devolved power emerging, which offer opportunities to drive the development of civil society at a local level. The introduction of directly-elected mayors could be particularly interesting in this regard, as the soft power they are potentially able to wield makes them ideally-placed to act as a focal point for building a vibrant culture of civic philanthropy. (An idea we explore in detail in CAF’s Chain Links paper).
To get a sense of how powerful the role of a mayor can be, one has only to look at the example of Michael Bloomberg. Not only did he use his own tenure as Mayor of New York to make the city’s already-healthy culture of philanthropy even stronger, but he has remained a staunch advocate for the role that mayors can play.
In Bloomberg’s latest “Annual Letter on Philanthropy”, he argues (as I have here) that local areas and the politicians that represent them can play a vital role in keeping society moving forward at a time when national governments are incapable of doing so for whatever reason.
Bloomberg also makes it clear that civic philanthropy is not about being backward-looking, or taking a narrow-minded view that “charity begins at home”. Rather it is about seeing localities in their global context. This plays into the idea that in the future, cities will play a much more prominent role on the world stage – potentially upstaging the nations in which they sit.
'Role of technology'
Having a forward-looking vision for civic philanthropy means acknowledging the role that technology is playing in shaping our world, and understanding how civil society can harness its benefits whilst helping to mitigate its downsides. Bloomberg acknowledges this: hence the other key strand of his message is about the role that cities and their leaders can play in collecting and using data.
We are told that in the age of artificial intelligence and automation “data is the new oil”. Thus how we collect and use data will be a vital issue across civil society over the coming years. Taking a place-based approach could be a big advantage here; as it might make the job of creating consistent, accessible data sources on a wide range of topics more manageable than it is at a national level.
Focussing on place might sound appealing because you genuinely believe it offers new opportunities to address challenges through civil society; or you might simply fancy the idea of side-stepping the Brexit impasse in central government and getting on with things. But whatever the reason, one thing seems certain: place is going to be a big part of the conversation about civil society for the foreseeable future.