I was delighted to launch the Inquiry into the future of civil society at the NCVO Conference, and both invigorated and reassured by the response received from the voluntary sector in the room and on social media. There does seem to be a real appetite for a good look at how we are going to adapt and change in the future. And a recognition that we really don’t need to ask for permission. Although I said was daunted – and I am! – after a lifetime in and around the voluntary sector, it is so good to see such a positive, outward facing and determined response.
Outside the conference though, faced with a media and political conversation that focuses only on a snap General Election, and doesn’t look to the long term future at all, it is easy to feel marginalised and even helpless.
But there are a number of huge policy priorities which simply cannot progress, certainly not successfully, without civil society. We have an enormous opportunity to shape the national conversation about what sort of society we want to be. Indeed, I’d say without civil society actively engaging, there is little chance of that conversation having any validity at all. There will be lots of issues in that national dialogue, but just to illustrate the central role of civil society here are three top priorities that occurred to me today:
- The challenge of productivity and growth – what consumer protections, environmental and labour protections, do we really want to have in the future? They’re currently being negotiated, but there is a group of civil society organisations convened though the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust thinking about what a ‘high standards Britain’ would look like. Without their input, do we just endure a race to the bottom? And how do we craft an industrial strategy that works for all? Joseph Rowntree Foundation, where I was previously CEO, has done a great deal of work on the nature of inclusive growth. It is active, engaged civil society that will result in an industrial strategy that supports strong, cohesive communities, meets the pressing need for a different approach to social care, and changes the way we do business.
- the challenge of behaviour change – now a bigger goal for governments – national and local – than almost anything else. We all know a bit about the power of nudge and we are ably supported by the Behavioural Insights Team (now itself a hugely welcome part of civil society), but if we are going to learn to use less water, manage waste better, take more exercise – as a country we can’t do any of that without active, engaged civil society.
- and the challenge of what are loosely described as fractured neighbourhoods – communities where people feel isolated and ignored, places where loneliness breeds distance and fear, where hostility, and extremism can thrive. In those places civil society knows how to engage, how to bridge difference, and how to foster that strong social capital that resilient communities demonstrate.
All these pressing national conversations – and many more – demand a strong civil society, ready to engage and argue for social justice. It isn’t a question of begging for a seat at the table. It’s high time we invited others to sit at our table.