David Ainsworth: You cannot change civil society without changing the rules

22 Nov 2018 Voices

The Civil Society Futures inquiry concludes we need a change in our behaviour to deliver what is needed. This is both right and wrong, says David Ainsworth.

There's a lot to like in Julia Unwin's Civil Society Futures report, which correctly highlights that we need a great shift in civil society to make it relevant to today's society.

I’m responding to it slightly late, after a couple of days out of the office to look after a sick family, but it’s important enough that it’s still worth saying.

The core message in Unwin’s report is that we need to hand down power, increase accountability, learn to trust one another, and connect more closely. It’s also about doing this at every level of civil society.

It says that civil society risks being irrelevant if this doesn’t happen, and that we must make this change ourselves, by changing our behaviours.

This is all right, and at the same time, it’s utterly wrong.

Listen to the people

Absolutely, civil society is about handing down power. It ought to belong to ordinary people. Today’s great institutionalised charities don’t feel like part of that movement. They feel too big, too distant, too remote. Too rich.

The leaders of each individual organisation can probably take the actions needed to satisfy Unwin's strictures. Listen to the people. Hold yourself accountable. Always ask how you can do better.

But as a movement, as a whole, we can’t simply make this happen through behaviour change. We need to change the rules.

We’ve had a lot of reports saying that it’s important to do better. Somehow, even though we all nod and murmur our appreciation, nothing seems to change. And that’s because people will never change. We will always be people. Fallible, self-centred, evolved for a Stone Age world.

It's about incentives 

People will always respond to incentives. If the incentives are bad, people will be bad. But people want to be good, so we have to give them good incentives.

Civil society is in some ways a doomed mission - trying to recreate a community-based existence; trying to create a society which is essentially equitable, just and fair. My history is sketchy before the Norman Conquest, but I can tell you that people have been trying and failing to achieve our goals for at least a thousand years. Modern charities preach many of the same messages as the levellers of the Civil War, and of the economic revolution in the wake of the Black Death. When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?

We all want to be part of a little tribe, a warm and comforting community. It’s what we're built for, what we yearn for, in the same way we yearn for beaches and warm waters and rolling hills, and polar bears yearn for loneliness and cold and snow.

But we've built a world that is nothing like the one we’re shaped for. We've built a world of steel towers and teeming multitudes and instantaneous communication.

In some ways it’s a glorious world, offering long life and vast knowledge and 48 types of breakfast cereal. But it’s also a world we instinctively misunderstand. Because it’s so vast, it’s hard to change at human scale. And the fictions we've built - the ideas of money and limited liability and ownership - have inbuilt flaws in them which mean that they don’t work as they should to help the people who’ve imagined them.

Society, economy and polity

It feels to me as if we are citizens of three entities - a society, an economy, and a polity. Each of those impacts on us in different ways, and when they push in different directions, meaningful change is hard.

Changing society is hardest. You can only get social change by shifting attitudes, and that means causing people to voluntarily change their own minds, which they don’t like to do. There are tools to do it. Charity campaigners know those tools. Although, in many ways the easiest way to do it, as the physicist Neils Bohr said, is to wait until your opponents are dead.

Social change is not enough on its own, though. History is littered with social changes that come to nothing because social attitudes are not always more powerful than money, or power. 

And this is where we get back to the Unwin report. It is calling on us to implement social change in our sub-society, organically, by realising the failures of our behaviours.

Change the rules

But trying to change the world one person at a time is not going to work. The whole history of the human race tells us that people don't surrender power, don't make themselves accountable. If you want to change behaviours, you have to change the rules.

That is not to say that we should look to government to swoop in with the answers to our problems. It is not about government money.

At one level, we are pointless without government. The structural problems we are trying to address - poverty, housing, care for those at risk - can all be solved if this country was simply run for the benefit of those who live in it, and government can do that, if it wants.

But at another level, government can do nothing for us. We are about human networks. Relationships. Communities. And a government cannot build a community.

No. It’s not help solving the problem we need from government. We just need the right tools to do the job.

The problem is that the polity that we operate in has decreed rules to govern our sector which are inimical to the society we want to build.

It places the ultimate power over vast organisations in the hands of no more than a dozen volunteers. It mandates those organisations to account more to a handful of wealthy donors than to the general public they were set up to serve. It encourages competition and mistrust between charities competing for the same funds. And it inhibits, not encourages, community and communication and collaboration.

I've talked elsewhere about what changes we might want - greater accountability to the public, a more bottom-up structure of control, a much more powerful regulator. But the exact mechanisms are not the focus here. The main point is that if we are to serve the people, we must give them the levers to control us. And we cannot do that without forcing government to change the structures that govern us.

You cannot change our sector without changing its rules.

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