There is one word which sums up what we’ve found as we’ve travelled across England over the last eighteen months. Civil Society Futures – the independent inquiry into the future of civil society, which I chair, has run community workshops from Sunderland to Penzance, Oldham to Shirebrook. Through their own stories and using their own language, huge numbers of people have talked to us about essentially the same thing: alienation.
They have told us that decisions are made about them without them. From housing to regeneration to community cohesion, often they feel they have the wisdom, collectively, to solve the problems they face. But they do not have the power to do so. Decisions are made by unaccountable people, far away, who don’t listen.
It’s not surprising. The UK has, by some measures, the most centralised political system in the Western world. We also have some of the biggest inequalities of wealth, both between richest and poorest, and between regions. And most people don’t need to dig through data to understand that they don’t have much power. One of the key things that Civil Society Futures has identified is that the future purpose of civil society needs to be about seeing more power in the hands of people and communities - connecting us better and humanising the future.
In a sense, therefore, the government’s civil society strategy launched last week is welcome. It recognises - citing our research among other things - the scale of this sense of alienation, and, importantly, that the government cannot solve it - or other major problems - on its own. The understanding of the central role civil society must play if we are to renew the country feels like a shift, and is welcome. It – rightly – defends the role of civil society groups in campaigning and raising concerns, including when they receive government funds: which is key if citizens are to have a voice.
Crucially, it moots experiments with some things which will be key to solving these problems.
There will be, we are told, trials of citizens juries, and other deliberative processes. Rather than falling into tech-utopian or tech-phobic traps, it’s exciting to read about how the government is going to try out both online and offline civic tech tools. “Many people” they say “feel disenfranchised and disempowered, and the government is keen to find new ways to give people back a sense of control over their communities’ future.” This is a good thing, and we’re proud to have helped steer the government in that direction
'A sense of control'
However, it’s important to read that sentence carefully. Because the key question for the government is whether they mean what they say: is their interest only in giving people “a sense of” control? Or do they actually mean that they want to give people control? Because if they wish to really give the communities we have spoken with the power to improve themselves, central government will need to relinquish powers over real and meaningful decisions as well - rather than simply requiring already weakened local authorities to involve people with decisions about the limited funds and levers of government they can still direct.
There are, after all, huge inequalities within places and between people that need addressing if deliberative democracy is genuinely to shift power, and not further entrench it.
'Give up some real power'
In other words, if Whitehall wants people to feel like they have real power, Whitehall will have to give up some real power - on the big issues that shape all our lives. And it will have to invest resources in making new processes work. We hope this will be part of the scope of new Innovation in Democracy programme the strategy references.
Similarly, if these processes are going to work, then they need to be done well. When they aren’t facilitated properly, it’s too easy for the same old voices to dominate. But when the resource is put in to ensuring that the usual power dynamics are balanced out, every voice really can be heard.
At the same time, though, it’s not sufficient for civil society organisations to blame the government for the feelings of alienation we have come across.
Charities absent from communities
If government decisions have felt far too remote for most people, Britain’s leading charity and voluntary sector organisations have almost all been almost entirely absent from the communities we’ve spoken to. And where they are present, they have often faced the same allegations: that vital decisions are made far away by people who don’t really understand.
And, so, if the formal charity and voluntary sector is to renew itself, and rebuild fraying trust, then perhaps we need to start by showing the government how it’s done. The evidence from experiments in deliberative and participatory democracy shows both that it leads to better decisions and that it builds the skills and empathy of those involved, and that’s something which everyone, including organisations as different as RSPB to Barnardos or Cancer Research UK to the Red Cross will be challenged by and could benefit from.