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Nine things I’ve  noticed  this week

We’ve known that a global pandemic would come for decades, and it’s been modelled and planned for time after time. But when it comes it’s a massive and terrifying shock, and the implications will be felt for decades to come. Just now we’re wrestling with the health and economic impacts and learning things we didn’t know about ourselves, as well as confirming what many of us have always believed. And primarily it has confirmed, if it was ever needed, that global shocks hit the poorest people most badly.

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to say that this extraordinary period is variously as big in its impact as 2008, or 9/11 or 1945. But it clearly is a hugely important moment in our lives and will probably change everything. I feel it’s a bit too early to make dramatic predictions (after all, what use are they just now?) but it is probably the moment to notice accurately what is going on. I often think that change happens in the most unexpected places and when we are not really looking. This is one of those occasions.

  1. We’ve learned that we need strong, trusted institutions. After a decade or more of it being easy to throw brickbats at the NHS, the BBC and the civil service, at a time of national emergency those authoritative and powerful bodies are needed more than ever before. Just notice how often senior politicians invoke ‘our NHS’.  Remember that only 10 days ago the end of the BBC was called for, and carelessly compared to Netflix.  And we’ve learned once more that trust is, and always has been, the most precious currency.
  2. We’ve learned that people do look out for their neighbours and friends, and that a dense network of connections is keeping people going, supporting their well-being and offering practical help. Support really is local, mobile and social – and the outpouring of local support and friendship has been astonishing and heartening to see.
  3. But it has its shadow side and the panic buying, stripping of supermarket shelves, and shameless profiteering is a powerful antidote to those of us who like to think that crises produce the best in people.
  4. We need the state. Anyone who in the last few years has been tempted even for  a minute by the siren voices proposing that the market or the community alone can cope, now knows the absolute importance of a connected, capable and properly powered state.
  5. Experts matter. We need to be allowed to trust the science and the advice. The clear voice of experts rings through all the noise.
  6. But in a world where everyone has access to a publishing platform, we’ve also learned of both the dangers of rumours and false information and the extraordinary benefits of rapid organisation, and the ability to raise concerns from anywhere in the country.
  7. We’ve learned that 1:10 of us in the lower half of incomes can work from home, and 9:10 of us in the higher half can (thank you Resolution Foundation) and that really matters because it makes our economic prospects so hugely different. The Universal Basic Income has its detractors (and I’ve been one) but if ever here was a time for it, it is now. It is feasible, effective and could remove economic anxiety from a nation already massively anxious.
  8. We’ve learned how appallingly degraded our public services have become over the last decade of austerity. We’ve learned that 5000 ventilators for a population this size is the lowest in the developed world. And we’ve learned how very badly some companies have behaved. We’ve learned that even social landlords needed to be told not to evict people who couldn’t pay their rent, and others in the private sector have tried to by-pass this instruction. And we see that, and we will not forget and forgive.
  9. And we’ve seen the very best of what we can do as humans, as community networks and as big institutions, moving to support, to salvage and to save. The generous leadership, ability to organise, willingness to forsake brand and position and just make change happen, has seen the very best of us at the very worst of times.

It’s been a terrifying week, and it doesn’t look as if it will get much better very quickly, but what I’ve observed and felt will stay with me for ever.

 

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Time to get serious about civil society

The end of a decade is always a time to take stock, but in the UK just now it represents so much more. A General Election outcome, more dramatic than most had predicted, has created some certainty about the way ahead, and for civil society some greater certainty about what we need to do next.

We argued when we launched the final report of Civil Society Futures over a year ago, that we urgently needed a renewed reenergised civil society to meet the challenges ahead. Well those challenges have now only got clearer and sharper.

This second decade of the century is going to be both turbulent, and fast paced. Three things we know we will face
• A constitutional crisis that for all the constituent part of the UK will involve change, attention to the national story that we tell ourselves, and the weaving of a new narrative, along with new structures and accountabilities. And perhaps for England even more than the other nations, an urgent need to develop a new view of nationhood.
• Economic volatility as we settle into new and differently negotiated settlements, and find ourselves more subject perhaps than ever before to global flows of capital. There may well be some sunny economic uplands in prospect, but the route to them will be bumpy and volatile. We know the deep and, lasting damage done in the past by unplanned unconsidered economic transitions.
• Climate emergency having real and daily impacts. The floods of this autumn are now classed as the ‘new normal’ and we can expect throughout the decade to be responding to the desperate damage, largely to the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, brought by climate change.

There’s lots we don’t know, but it’s always worth articulating what we do know.

And we do know that civil society at its best, brings a number of vital things.
It brings –

  •  The ability to shape and develop a story that helps us understand and live through change. That’s what creative and artistic organisations do at their best, working closely with communities to articulate a new purpose, and renewed sense of belonging. It’s what churches, mosques, tempLes and synagogues do, bringing people together from different backgrounds and ages to think about how they want to live. It’s how universities, those anchor institutions with deep roots in a place can help to bring people together to tell their own story.
  • We’re good in a crisis – it is community organisations and neighbourhood groups that are first on the ground in a crisis, helping to plan, bringing emergency help, supporting and galvanising the helpers.
  • Our roots are in rights and resistance. We know that major change can have intolerable costs – we know how to organise to demand better, and to seek redress when those demands fail. We know how to intervene in fragile economies, how to develop skills and capabilities, how to assert repeatedly and skilfully the damage done most particularly to those who are too easily marginalised. We know  what is happening at the margins.
  • Much of civil society is in a place – both the big asset holders like universities and housing associations, the long-established local charities and so many others. And one thing we all now know is that place really matters, not in some sentimental way, but in a powerful and defining way it shapes who we are and what we care about.

And there are things we’re not so good at.

  • We’re too divided within civil society with vanishingly low levels of trust between small and large organisations, with too little money flowing from the large well endowed bodies, and too little sense that bigger charities will support their smaller colleagues.
  • We’re bad at collaborating, still too frequently worrying about brand, looking to funders, and government for approval, rather than focusing on our purpose.
  •  We’re still too timid about saying loudly what we know and what real experience looks like. This means we can look detached and far away from the communities we serve.

To be at our best we need to change. And in Civil Society Futures we were explicit about the strategic and organisational changes needed – across the country we see evidence of all sorts of organisations, taking this challenge seriously and making real and deliberate changes.

But times have changed.

In this new and exceptionally challenging decade, we will need new forms of focused accessible help.

This is not the moment for those with assets to sit on the sidelines and lament the lack of action in civil society. A few months ago I suggested three roles for funders in our troubled times, but things have got even more serious and much more urgent. this is not just about the funders – though they have an enormous role to play – its about all of those with power within civil society – universities, housing associations, richer organisations.

So just to start with a few suggestions, how about –

  •  A designated fund, available – without judgement and endless appraisal – across civil society to enable legal challenge to injustice, to allow for review of cases, to protect those organisations threatened with gagging. A fund, and expert resource,  that is as comfortable supporting necessary judicial review as it is in meeting the costs of a small organisation penalised for speaking out.
  •  A mechanism for responding to crisis. Moving money from the big organisation to the front line at the moment of emergency, not months later. We seem to have learnt how to do this after the major national emergencies. Isn’t it time we came to do this when there is flooding in a remote village
  •  Investment in the painstaking influencing of the endless trade negotiations on which we are about to embark – influence to protect and enhance environmental, consumer and workers rights at every step of the way. The costs of the deeply technical interventions might be large, but the value could be huge.

If this is to be the decade of deep connection, we need to start connecting the resource and the power to where it is most needed.