Where next for civil society?

Julia Unwin's inaugural lecture for the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) given at their AGM, 24 November 2016, at the Millenium Centre, Cardiff Bay

Where next for civil society?

This is an amazing building, a tribute both to the drive and commitment of Welsh civil society, and the confidence of a capital city marking its status as a place with a proud history and massive potential. It’s the perfect place to accept the challenge that I have been given by WCVA – to consider the future of civil society in 10, 20 and indeed 30 years’ time.

I come with no astrological chart to predict the future, no handy road map to the Promised Land. Instead I come with experience working in and around civil society, and at the end of my 10-year term leading the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an organisation that has spent over 100 years understanding the causes of social evils and perhaps even more importantly, searching for the practical solutions to those evils. I come the month before I take on chairing an inquiry into civil society in England which will need to be both wide ranging and deep. The WCVA invitation is as timely as it is appropriate.

I want to start by commending the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action. In setting me the question for this inaugural lecture they are demonstrating the essential leadership that our sector so urgently needs. In our current troubled environment, short term responses, freely mixed with panic, are easy and oh so tempting. Quick solutions. Rapid fixes. Saying what we’ve always said, and getting what we’ve always got. Protecting what is, lamenting what’s past – we have all done that. But our times are too challenging and too fast changing for that sort of glib reaction. Peter and Ruth have asked me to stay away from the obvious and look more deeply, and I hope more creatively, at where we are, and therefore where we might be. I come with far more questions than answers but that, I am convinced, is the right way to approach this huge issue.

This is the right time to do it, and this is the right place to start.

So why now?

My time as Chief Executive of JRF has been exciting, challenging and never dull. I am very proud that on 6 September we published a comprehensive, long term plan for solving poverty in the four nations of the UK. Proud because it is evidence based, proud because it speaks to individuals and families, communities, employers and investors, local, national and central government. But also, proud because it involved people in poverty – assessing the research, commenting on the recommendations, and launching the report. And I am proud because it speaks both to civil society and to the four nations of the UK.

On the 8 November, here in Cardiff, with the Bevan Foundation we launched the Welsh version. We did this not because we wanted something with a Welsh accent. We did it because one of the defining features of public policy, and I would say civil society, in the last twenty years has been the engine of devolution, the recognition that countries and regions have distinct identities but bring their own resources and capability to resolutions. I don’t know if it was ever possible, or right, for an organisation like JRF based in the north of England to speak and hope to be heard in Swansea or Llandudno in the same way that it might be heard in Leeds or Manchester. It certainly isn’t possible now. And that change is because of governmental policy, but is also because of the power of civil society, through politics, through activism, through the arts and through creativity, at community and national level, ensuring those voices are heard.

In Wales JRF has worked in partnership for nearly 10 years with the Bevan Foundation and supported by our advisers, first Viv Sugar and later Michael Trickey, to ensure that, as far as possible, we are able to respond to those differences as they manifest themselves in Wales and act in a way that is both credible and connected.

But let us move the focus from place to time.

My time at JRF has been book-ended by major game-changing (if you’ll forgive the cliché) events.

The 2008 financial crisis was probably the biggest wake -up call in our lives. And it changed everything dramatically. The inter-connected nature of our global economy – which we had all talked about for years – was suddenly revealed in all its precarious uncertainty. Housing activity in the rust belt of Ohio had an immediate and marked impact in the Ronda Valley. Wobbles on the Shanghai Stock Exchange profoundly affected the outlook for Port Talbot. And as we watched wealthy bankers, and their much less wealthy cleaners and support staff, vacate their offices in Lehman Brothers in New York, we knew that our world would change. As we watched queues of people outside Northern Rock branches desperate to take out their savings we knew that trust and confidence had evaporated. And as banks deemed too big to fail were rescued, amid rumours of cashpoints running out of money, we all knew that public expenditure would take a massive hit.

Fast forward to 2016 and the country votes to leave the European Union. A second wake-up call if you like, although like the global financial crisis, one that really should not have been a surprise. Shocked commentators in London told us how surprised they were, and politicians on both sides of the debate looked stunned. But those of us living and working in Wales, in Hartlepool where JRF supports a retirement community, in the overlooked and too often ignored parts of the country, knew better.

We could see that people feel abandoned and ignored, they feel that growth has not reached them and those they know and love. They feel that they’re paying too high a price for rapid change without receiving any of the benefits. So they voted to reject the recommendation of the political class, from big business and from commentators. They voted leave because they weren’t satisfied with what they have.

And because they didn’t feel able to change things.

Whether you think the vote was a triumph for sovereignty and the start of a bright new future, or you think it was a catastrophic error, or like the majority of British people, you are still not entirely sure – we can all agree that the vote provides us with certainty about one thing. Our economic future will itself be uncertain. For those of us concerned with the strength and depth of communities, who worry about the glue that binds us as a society – this uncertain economic future challenges our hopes and plans. An economic recession. A social recession. We can never disentangle them.

Then hot on the heels of Brexit – again confounding the commentators – came the vote in the United States to elect Donald Trump, the candidate who claims that ‘the forgotten men and women will not be forgotten again’.

Of course, there are differences between those two events and the newspapers, social media and instant publishing of the next few months will spell out in great detail the precise differences, but we can acknowledge some truths that they have in common:

  • there are people and places that feel excluded and marginalised, and believe that safety first is not safe for them
  • there are people and places who feel let down by what they see as the establishment, and betrayed by those they used to trust
  • that policy makers who make lazy assumptions about people and places they neither know or understand are doomed to fail.

The Crash of 2008, the Brexit vote, the Trump election. These events were of a global order. We can put a date on them. Reminisce about where we were when we first realise that the global economy was imperilled. Remember the surprise on the morning of 24 June when we realised that Britain had shifted course. But between those points there were other major changes that shape the voluntary sector and inform any consideration of the future of civil society.

For civil society, it has never been more important to look ahead.

But we need to do so with confidence in our history and our achievements. We can see so far now because we stand on the shoulders of giants. We in civil society have a long and honourable heritage. We provided the great civil institutions that made the massive transition of the Industrial Revolution tolerable. We responded to the moral panic of urban squalor in the nineteenth century by developing institutions for fallen women, and those of Dr Barnardo, and also by the trades union movement. The great philanthropists such as Bridget Bevan in Wales, Joseph Rowntree in York, and George Cadbury in Birmingham did not wait for permission. They identified a problem and marshalled their significant financial and intellectual resource to address it. The working men’s clubs, reading rooms and welfare organisations of the Welsh Valleys were created out of struggle and out of a determination to improve life for fellow citizens. The settlements and girls brigades, refugee associations, befriending societies – are part of our history and proof that we have a rich and effective history of strong civil society. We supported the new settlement at the end of the Second World War – a time when Europe was ravaged by war, dealing with displaced persons and refugees, austerity and rationing, by building and supporting new initiatives.

There is power and capability in civil society. We must never forget it.

Because times now are hard. Social capital is challenged; the bonds of solidarity are undermined. We need to identify and name the changes that have built social capital and supported civil society, but just as importantly we need to acknowledge clearly the changes that are currently depleting and threatening.

Insecurity at home

We need to acknowledge the high level of volatility and insecurity in our lives. A precarious labour market, at least at the lower end, with part time work and a new form of self-employment, as hyper flexibility re-created the old world of casual labour in many industries. And all in an economy which seems to show few signs of growth, but offers entrenched uncertainty and insecurity. A labour market in which the prospects for progression seemed vanishingly small and about which JRF was able to report that four out of five people who started work low paid, remained in poverty 10 years later. A decade in which food banks have mushroomed and the high costs of borrowing for the poorest shot up. An insecure housing market in which people in all tenures – renting socially or privately, or seeking to buy their own homes – feel (and indeed are) insecure and uncertain.

And in Wales we know that 25% of the population haven’t got enough to make ends meet.

That pace of change and consequent insecurity seems unlikely to stall. The advent of artificial intelligence, robotics and adaptive technology, brings huge advantages of course. But it brings uncertainty and change to individuals and families across Wales and beyond. We know from previous major economic transitions that the aftershocks persist through generations. And we also know that all of these changes to our economic security both imperil civil society and place massive demands on our stock of social capital.

Public expenditure and public services

Let’s face it, there has never been a time in my working life when people didn’t lament the reductions in public expenditure. The sound track of our lives has often been about limited resources, rationing and making do. But this is different. In 2010 major changes took place and continue to have an impact in spending round after spending round. The fundamental repurposing of local authorities – so that the best and most clear sighted frequently describe themselves as convenors and advocates, knowing full well that the days of delivering services are largely, at least for now, over. While the former Chancellor of the Exchequer could announce in London huge transfers within the economy, transformations in the way in which money is allocated, and in effect a dramatic reversal of old conventions about the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state – it is the local authorities and voluntary organisations of every part of the UK that have restructured, reorganised and in far too many cases, simply ceased to trade.

Hardship caused by financial decisions may – some will argue – be necessary, but it is hardship nonetheless, and voluntary organisations across the UK know the real cost and the real pain of these massive changes. They know of the neighbourhoods with vanishing services: the places where emptying the bins is as much as can be achieved; the dilapidated public realm; the isolated older people left unvisited; the chaos of so much of our social care.

Let’s just remind ourselves that the voluntary sector predicted that much of this would happen. We didn’t just complain about our own future and security. And we predicted it not because we are exceptionally clever, but because we have the expertise and the relationships to assess the impact of policy on people. For us it can never be an accounting exercise.

We also know that these changes spell a huge increase in the demand for social capital, and a big reduction in the support available to build it.

Global insecurity

The major drivers of migration – the power of technology, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the opening up of China and India, and the spate of trade agreements in the 1990s – are felt today in every part of the UK. While economists and business tell us that migration is an absolute good, and many of us know from our own lives that the movement of people has enriched and strengthened our communities, we must not be naïve or glib. Migration brings challenges as much as it brings opportunities. The highest increase in the numbers of people born outside the UK has, the always excellent Migration Observatory tells us, been in Merthyr Tydfil where the migrant population increased by 227% between 2001 -2011. That’s a lot of change to deal with.

The horrifying scenes from the Mediterranean and from the Jungle in Calais challenge any notion of ourselves as an open welcoming society. Cities of Sanctuary across Wales are an essential expression of positive open handed welcome and hospitality.

There are things to celebrate, but we should acknowledge that in 1997 just 3% of the population reported that migration was a problem. It is now 37%.

That too impacts on civil society, and places demands on our stock of social capital.

Our sense of ourselves, our sense of identity, and our view of what defines us – what bonds our communities and our societies will look very different in the future.

Breakdown of trust

As long as I can remember there has been talk about decline in trust. The great institutions of the country – the church, trades unions, the Royal Family, the press, parliament and the judiciary – have all suffered from a breakdown in trust, a growth in scepticism, an absence of the automatic deference which, we are told, they previously enjoyed. In the last decade we have witnessed this loss of trust for our sector too. Criticisms of charities in the press from politicians and from commentators are not new, but we need to listen hard: self-serving elite; a remote source of power; bodies variously paying themselves too much, or paying their poorer staff too little, and frequently both. Organisations which are hard to engage with and impossible to understand. Service providers offering pretty poor services. A sector that erects barriers to entry, stopping new ideas and approaches. Organisations that represent the loudest voices, and further entrench inequality.

In a digitally enabled world, reputation – as the leading businesses know – is even more hard won and easily lost. The power to investigate, to challenge and to expose is not just for those of us who see our role as holding markets and government to account. It is a challenge which we must also face.

Digital transformation

10 years ago it was easy to say that the digital revolution would change not just how we did things, but what we did. We were all excited about search engines and algorithms, the ability to self-publish and the power to communicate. But in the intervening decade the impact of the digital revolution really has changed everything and changed it very fast. Try remembering what life was like before we had a fully operating computer in every pocket. Laugh with me at how you have outsourced your memory to your iPhone. Notice the precisely targeted advertising that comes your way every time you look at your tablet.

Jamie Bartlett from Demos has demonstrated the ways in which this combination of accurate data analytics and powerful communication capability is changing the way we do democracy here. A supermarket loyalty card knows more about you than your nearest and dearest. Social activism of all sorts can be described disparagingly as mere criticism but it drives behaviour and drives change. Information and money goes round the world at the touch of a button. Knowledge shared, movements built, lies broadcast, and hate crime thrives. The post truth politics, the changed nature of evidence – the digital revolution has changed us.

We can talk about the power of digital transformation with breathless excitement, but we need to acknowledge that it is not all good. It has unleashed a whole new set of power dynamics and has enabled the agglomeration of wealth just as surely as previous industrial revolutions. Global monopolies controlling information and connectivity have power that we simply could not have imagined. The apparently cosy names of Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Twitter and Deliveroo hide companies which have got infinitely wealthier, where conditions of work have been eroded, by companies who hold that commodity which is now infinitely more valuable than diamonds or oil – information.

Big changes and some eternal truths.

Our continuing failure to take seriously the very real threats to our planet and to our ever more scarce natural resources has been given license by our distracting economic and political crisis. Our ageing population, never better educated, never healthier, but at the same time containing more people with disabilities, more people suffering from mental illness, more people recovering from diseases – sources of celebration, of course, but also drivers of change.

Finally our increasingly fractured and worryingly divided communities. Communities that are split on generational lines. Places where race, ethnicity and faith splinter and divide, where people struggle to find the common good. Places where solidarity is diminished and overlooked, where we seek identity in what distinguishes us, not that which brings us together.

That’s why I say now is the right time to look again at the purpose of civil society. To spend some time considering what role we can play in the future. A future which seems more uncertain than it ever has been, but one in which we have tools, talents and capability, much of which has been provided by changes.

Civil society does not exist in a vacuum: the changes to the state, its legitimacy, and its power shape us. So do changes in the market and the way in which capitalism operates. The major shifts in power, the vast inequality around us, the very real risks to cohesion, the ever-present prospect of civil unrest, are all expressions of the highly politicised world we inhabit.

We know a bit about what it takes to build strong civil society, and its close cousin social capital. We also know quite a lot about how to destroy it. In our current highly insecure world, in which trust is a precious commodity, and in which division flourishes, we need to think carefully, openly and creatively about what strengthens civil society, and how all of us can work to make sure that we are ready to contribute wholeheartedly to the challenges that lie ahead.

If, as I have argued, our future will make demands on social capital and civil space, I’d also like to argue that it is civil society that can pose questions, and may help provide a route to some of the answers.

But before I go on, I do need to acknowledge how hard this is. Building civil society is not easy or fluffy. Associational life is challenging and messy. The promotion of the common good requires complicated and uncomfortable trade-offs. It requires us to ‘speak of unspeakable things’. It demands levels of self-awareness, and commitment. A willingness to engage where it is difficult. To face the complexity of life, and our contradictory needs, wants and aspirations. Civil society is not for the faint hearted, the sloganeering or those who simply want to call for a better way of being. It is for those who really do want to create lasting social change, and a more sustainable society.

That’s why I say now is the time to take stock. The market has changed. The state has changed. The economy has changed. and our operating environment has changed. Now is the moment for civil society to look at itself and say –should we change? And if so how?

For too long we have as a sector looked outside for approval, for validation, sometimes for permission. We have sought UK wide answers to questions that are best addressed locally. We have challenged the infrastructure to support us better. And all these things matter but at a time of devolution, at a time when the central state, although we are still hugely centralised, is at least considering the devolution of power and in many places power is being seized, isn’t this absolutely the right time for civil society to look to its own future, set is own course and challenge itself about where we go next?

Discussions about civil society all too often end in recommendations that are either entirely transactional, or risk being platitudinous. We veer from saying that the answer lies in some different contractual relationship between local procurement authorities and the organisations of civil society, or we call on all of us to be nicer kinder people.

In thinking about this I am struck by a quote from Parker Palmer, the American Quaker:

We have to stop swinging wildly between corrosive cynicism and irrelevant idealism because these two states result in inaction. We have to learn to hold the tension, and live into the paradox.

Parker Palmer

This encapsulates the tension in our sector. We can demand better contractual terms. We can argue that if only our regulatory framework was more appropriate all would be good. We can say that the funding ecology is not fit for purpose. We can gripe that we are not suitably respected. And in all of these statements we were correct. We are seeing our future in fixes, and in process change. Changes that we need, but when we pursue them at the expense of all others we are corrosively cynical.

Or we can rush to irrelevant idealism. We can argue that our contribution is worthless while we still face economic inequality. That until poverty and hunger are relieved, we can only paper over the cracks. Or alternatively we can plead with people to be better, and somehow nicer. To imagine that the hard work of building community can be done through exhortation. Idealism is always vital – it is the life force that gets us out of bed in the morning. But irrelevant idealism, that dismisses pragmatism, that seeks only perfection, is as paralysing as corrosive cynicism.

As a sector we are at our very best when we hold these two in tension. Seeking the practical, the effective, the change, while keeping our eyes resolutely on the destination.

So where do we go? How does civil society become the strong force in our society that enables the flourishing of human capability? The bookends of my time at JRF have been the global financial crisis, and as I come to an end there, the decision to leave the European Union. This evening I have celebrated our history of achievement. I have explored how society has changed in that time. I have demonstrated that poorer people and places face crippling insecurity. I have said that communities are more divided than ever before. I have said that there are huge opportunities in our changing population, and in the digital revolution, to really make a difference. I have said that all of these changes both challenge civil society, and demand more from us. I think we now need to ask some pretty fundamental questions:

  • do we know what our purpose is?
  • do we understand and value the role of place?
  • are we really building relationships and connecting between people as we need to?


So starting with purpose. You may think that this is self-evident. Organisational theory Level 1. Don’t we start every strategic away day talking about purpose? Those of us leading charities can recite our founding documents, we know the heads of charity, and we know that we need to demonstrate public benefit. But I mean something much more profound than that. I mean the consideration of what we are really here to do. Much of civil society is based on the idea of belonging, of affiliation. Many of our most powerful and long lasting organisations build associational life. They do it either as RSPB Cymru, or the Cambrian Male Voice Choir, a new self-build sustainable community, or a neighbourhood watch scheme, or any one of the thousands of voluntary and community organisations in membership of WCVA. Building connections between people. Building a sense of belonging, as a community of place or a community of purpose. Linking people without power to people with power. Sharing problems. Jointly developing solutions. The origins of all of our great institutions – including the one we meet inside today – come from groups of people getting together, assembling resource, and jointly making change for themselves and for their fellow citizens. That builds trust. It gives direction. It enables growth.

I make the point about affiliation and associational life not just because it’s true and important, but also because our origins as places of affiliation and membership seem sorely tested

In part it has of course been the resource environment. What talk about civil society could avoid talking about funding and resource? There have been restrictions on funding for voluntary and community organisations, and this has inevitably had an impact on the effectiveness of those organisations. Of course that’s true. But it’s not the whole story. There is also the way in which that funding has been available. A focus on outcomes was of course important. I remember arguing for it, and being impressed by the quality and depth of the arguments. I even wrote a book about full cost recovery, making the case that the overhead costs needed to be paid as well as the unit costs. Did that focus on outcomes change not just how we worked but what we did? Did that risk monetising our beneficiaries? Did it blind us to the wider context in which people’s lives are shaped? More worryingly of all, have we confused accountability to our funders – a technical and important accountability – with accountability to our members and to our beneficiaries, a true sense of connection and engagement?

I think we have a number of purposes, and they are not only the ones that are listed in most of our founding documents.

We have the purpose of connection, of bringing people together, of fostering affiliation, and membership; connection which builds bridges between people, and further bridges between them and power.

We have the purpose of voice. Not speaking on behalf of people, not wringing our hands about unheard voices, but making sure that in everything we do we provide a platform to ensure that the dispossessed cannot be ignored. That will take us to angry and difficult places. It will challenge our precious professionalism, but if we have learned nothing else, we have learned people need their own voice.

And we have the purpose of mediation. Of recognising that our lives are always and everywhere made up of competing priorities. There is tension between the preservation of green space, and the need for new housing. There is tension between people who have lived in a neighbourhood for generations, and their new and maybe challenging neighbours. The tension between generations. Civil society in all its forms can create tools to enable people to speak, and to listen, can support those whose voices are ignored, and can support people through the really difficult decisions that we will need to make.


Place matters. The global elite may talk about having no sense of place, of being happy to settle wherever they stop. Of proudly being citizens of the world. And in many senses they are right. We are all migrants and we all move. But where we live matters, and place matters hugely in two ways. It matters because there are places where poverty is locked in. Where transport has vanished, and there are no jobs. Where the routes to employment are blocked, and people do not even get the jobs on their own doorstep, as recent JRF research demonstrated. But there is also the other sense of place: of place as a sense of identity, of belonging, of being part of something. Places where the public realm depresses rather than inspires, where the high street is dilapidated and the implicit message is that people who live here don’t count, they don’t deserve better.

Civil society can elevate place both through the power of transaction and the power of emotion. Civil society bodies are economic actors. But we can also inspire. Bring beauty to places that are overlooked, make culture something available to all, not just the elite who can afford to go to Cardiff’s opera house. Strong place based civil society engenders confidence and pride – that’s what we’ve always done. Are we doing it enough? Do we know enough about the power of place and the way in which solidarity is forged, or destroyed? This too is a challenge to our sector. Place making is in our DNA. The vast majority of civil society organisations are in places. From universities to housing associations, to community foundations and neighbourhood groups, place matters to us, and the prospects and opportunities for places matter. They matter because they provide a sense of hope and a sense of belonging. They matter because people in places with prospects feel safer, and are more inclined to participate. Places matter because our public life is a conversation – and it’s a conversation that starts locally, and involves people concerned about place.


And finally people matter. Every part of civil society has been animated by a relationship. By an engagement between two people. And yet to speak of such things is to risk the shuffling embarrassment when we talk about kindness, and loneliness and the other things that we know really matter to us all. In a JRF programme about loneliness one respondent said – and it moved me deeply:

I’d really like to talk to someone who wasn’t paid to talk to me.

Respondent to a JRF loneliness programme

Isn’t that the heart of civil society? The giving without reward. The fostering of good relationships. The mutuality which is neighbourliness. The kindness of strangers.


My decade leading one of the bigger civil society organisations has taught me that there are things we desperately need as a society which we know how to do. We need to support affiliation, we need to foster connection, we need to learn to mediate difference. To do that we need to recognise that our roots are in place and that places really matter, but so too do the relationships we foster.

We have powers and capabilities that the founders of civil society could only imagine. We have freedom and we have capability. The digital revolution brings us new ways of connecting, and gaining control. It enables the voices of the dispossessed to be amplified and their experience understood; our organisations bring knowledge and experience. We know how to develop new organisations and support and enable them. We know what our purpose is – it is to connect people to each other and so build a stronger more sustainable society.

Our sector at its very best is a connecting sector. It connects people without power to places of power. It connects within communities, and between them. It connects those who need with those who can give. It connects people with a shared interest. It enables voice and contact. It provides a welcome for the stranger. At its heart it provides for connection in our society.

In concluding let’s remember that the referendum result was achieved by a slogan – one which you can be sure was tested and examined in great detail. One which clearly had huge resonance both in the focus groups, and later in the ballot box.

‘Take back control’

We are the sector that promises control. That talks about self-governance. That holds in our midst the cooperatives and the mutual. That values associational life above all else. That knows in our bones that it is people taking control of their own lives that builds confidence and self-determination. That knows that agency matters for individuals and for places. That values self-organisation. It is our sector that has enabled groups of parents of children with profound and multiple learning difficulties to press for a better deal. It is our sector through trades unions and community action that have highlighted the slavery in our supply chain, and have provided both support and comfort, as well as achieving vital changes to the law. It is our sector that has brought together the people in the most dispossessed communities, fighting to change the environment in which they live. From Men’s Sheds to Impact Hubs, from neighbourhood renewal to allotment societies, from community drama to mentoring schemes – it is our sector that has championed the need of people to take back control.

To assert their values over a remote state, or a careless market.

It is our sector that has over decades connected communities, provided opportunities for engagement, and worked with others to ensure that injustice cannot survive. And it is our sector that has over so many decades organised and agitated to make sure that no one, and nowhere, can be overlooked.

And it’s never been more needed.

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