Andrew Purkis: Strengths and weaknesses of the Civil Society Futures report

13 Mar 2019 Voices

Andrew Purkis reflects on the findings from of the independent inquiry into the future of civil society.

The Civil Society Futures initiative, generously funded by a consortium of grant-giving charitable trusts and supported by NCVO, reported its findings in November 2018. It was a very difficult assignment, because civil society is so vast and amorphous, and "the future" so boundless, that coherent analysis is really difficult. Now that some of the dust has settled, what are the strengths and weaknesses of what the initiative came up with?

The format of the reporting is quite fragmented, with busy happenings on screen as you try to read the report, and many different stories, blogs and case studies in different parts of the website. A fuddy-duddy like me found this quite challenging, and it is a serious caveat that I may easily have missed elements that might modify my judgements. Along with the vast majority of readers, I don't pretend to have read everything on the website, but I tried to read the main report fairly.

Strengths

I am personally sympathetic to the inquiry's political position that it is desirable for many people in our society to have a stronger sense of participation, power, agency and control over their own lives, with opportunities to contribute to society underpinning a sense of self-worth. Empowerment is one of the key contributions made by some parts of civil society. It is legitimate and inevitable that the Inquiry should be selective, define its own values and take sides, so long as this is transparent and explicit; and empowerment and the four elements in the "PACT" that it recommends - Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust - truly deserve more concerted attention and development by many civil society organisations.

Those elements are certainly relevant to addressing some of the key worrying trends in our society identified by the Inquiry, such as a sense of alienation and powerlessness, inequality and corrosive social divisions.

I also welcome the ambition of the inquiry for civil society - we are urged to aim high, to have confidence that if we do we can transform society for the better as voluntary organisations have done before. As part of that, the report shows rugged support for the campaigning role of civil society, giving voice to those who would otherwise be voiceless, helping to shape collective decisions. Another accurate emphasis is on bridging divides in society and helping "community" to be a living reality rather than a myth that masks atomisation and fatalism.

Among the relatively sparse recommendations as to who needs to do what to make such desirable outcomes more likely, is the valuable notion of a People Power Grid of social infrastructure, including a proliferation of people and organisations who connect  people and catalyse community development. This will indeed be a positive focus for a range of funders, other civil society organisations and state agencies, although it was not entirely clear to me how this relates to more conventional infrastructure such as councils for voluntary service, volunteer bureaux and the like, nor what the inquiry thinks about them.

There is also strong awareness in the report of existential environmental crises including global warming and diminishing biodiversity - although I found myself unsure how far the recommendations of the report are relevant to tackling these.             

Weaknesses

The report itself fails to engage with the huge problems of definition of civil society. I may have missed something but I was never sure who the report is talking about and whether, for example, trade unions were in or out. Nor is the report explicit about being deliberately selective, addressing certain key issues that apply to some organisations but not others, and not trying to be comprehensive. As a result its sweeping generalisations are inapplicable to large swathes of civil society and this becomes an irritating weakness:

“Civil society risks becoming irrelevant if we do not change.” But why should my local cinema club, football club, dance evening, women’s choir, gentlemen’s discussion group, park run, pigeon fanciers’ club become irrelevant?

“All of us in civil society” should commit to PACT. Really? All of the above? The Pitcombe cooking club must “revolutionise its approach” to accountability – so that its members are “more accountable to each other and to future generations?"

Bridging frequent social divides in our society “is the heart of civil society’s purpose”. Is it? Or just some kinds of civil society organisations? Many civil society organisations bring like-minded people or those with shared enthusiasms together for purposes of enjoyment and conviviality. Many others are, quite properly, contentious, promoting a cause that will divide opinion sharply. Others may be quite sectarian – think of the Christian Institute, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and loads of others.

There is “an urgent call for us all to behave differently”. All? This is even worse than the Charity Commission chair’s current rhetoric because it covers the entire civil society, not just 168,000 charities.

For a report emphasising the need for radical shifts of power, with an experienced advisory group, it is extraordinary that the analysis is ungendered. There is virtually no mention of systematic, patriarchal bias against the rights of women. The voice of women’s struggles is virtually absent, unless someone else has noticed it on other parts of the website. This seems an embarrassing, puzzling omission. “Our society is divided between urban and rural, between north and south, between young and old. It is still deeply divided on racial and class lines.” Anyone spot the missing division? Feminists, eat your hearts out.

In so far as we are talking about measuring up to the massive challenges of inequality, damaged democracy, climate change, alienation etc, there is little recognition of the vast importance of the state and politics. It is not right to load too many expectations onto civil society’s own activities alone. Julia has gone out of her way to tell charities they mustn’t expect the government to do everything and should pull their own fingers out but this can tip over into vitiating the balance and realism of the Inquiry. Scandinavian countries who do very well on indices of happiness and quality of life have relatively stronger states and less well developed civil societies than we do, but this is not explored. Similarly, the report's history is sometimes one-eyed: "When the industrial revolution transformed our cities, it was civil society that organised to combat the squalor and chaos" - er, only up to a point. Major transformation had to await the intervention of the state, for example Chadwick's sewerage and public health systems, at last putting an end to grotesque epidemics caused by foul water, just as later it was the state that transformed education, health, working conditions in mines and factories and many other facets of life.

The report places inordinate weight on existing civil society organisations transforming themselves. “Civil society will not be able to do this (put itself at the heart of tackling massive social and political challenges) without changing itself.”

This analysis  involves three problems:

  • An untenable level of generalisation
  • Portrayal of current civil society, overall, as predominantly jaded, in need of massive injection of energy, rebirth; not fit for purpose, lacking confidence, skills and credibility.... I think this is too negative. It is a very mixed picture, of course, but there is plenty of surging life, energy and innovation in many civil society organisations. Good organisations regularly review their strategy and external environment and seek to renew themselves in their regular cycles of strategic review. Many people in our sector have been worrying away about how to be more responsive to users and about issues of power, accountability and community development for many decades. Different solutions come and go in waves over the years.
  • Vagueness as to why many civil society organisations, eg big specialist charities, should want to transform themselves when they may be achieving their charitable objectives well already. Their objectives may not include empowering local communities. If RSPB were to make adjustments to how it listens to its members (how?) why would it make more than a very marginal or zero difference to the challenges enumerated in the report? Ditto CRUK and many others?

Implicit vague smearing of big charities. At the centre of alleged jadedness and wasted opportunities in the report are, by implication, anonymised big charities. We are told they need to change the fastest as part of the necessary revolution. But we don’t know who they are. The only ones mentioned explicitly by Julia Unwin in a previous article are Barnardo's, RSPB, British Red Cross and Cancer Research UK. I have already challenged Julia to explain exactly what kind of transformation of these organisations can properly be expected that would advance their charitable objectives in a blog post.

She did kindly respond with a blog, but in my view left some points unanswered. Who are the others that need to change fast? Why should Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth change, if global warming is to be combatted? Why should the Ramblers be transformed – what exactly do we want that very democratic organisation to do differently? The Church of England, with all its community building activities? What is the nature of the recommended revolution in such charities and why is it likely to be key to the big challenges of society? Is the challenge the same for big charities comprised of local branches as for centralised ones? Local activists may feel CRUK and Barnardo's and the rest do little for them. Maybe that’s because it isn’t their job? If we are going to assign pride of place in the revolution to big charities transforming themselves, we need more careful distinctions about charities of different structures, governance, and purposes; and much greater clarity on what the nature of the challenge to them is.

Vagueness on building trust. Trust is “our core currency and foundation”, says the report. (Many professions and other occupations would say the same.) We are supposed to devote time and resources to building trust (exactly whose trust?) and “earning trust by staying true to our values, standing up for them, and trusting others with vital decisions that affect them”. One can only agree, but who is NOT staying true to their values – is this supposed to be a general problem throughout the vastness of civil society, or is it all those big charities or just a few of them who have allegedly lost their vision? What really are we talking about?

All in all, there are really admirable elements. But there are also too many of these problems and weaknesses. One might see it as a polemic - passionate, interesting, but flawed. As a result,  the “urgent call for us all to behave differently” doesn’t seem likely to cut through.

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