What is ‘civil society’? Picture a three-legged stool: one leg represents the state, one represents the market, and the third leg is civil society: the connecting space of people and communities. Without civil society, just like the stool, our democracy and society would not function. Civil society therefore can have a profound influence, on belonging and identity, the shaping of decision-making, and in turn, the extent to which people and communities feel of value to wider society.
On the 9th August the Government published its Civil Society Strategy, recognising its role and value in creating ‘thriving communities’ and tackling some of the UK’s greatest challenges, and setting out how they intend to work with and support civil society. In the context of increasingly consumption-based and transactional ideologies across state and market, and within our culture more broadly, the strengthening and renewal of civil society is an important and exciting opportunity. At Church Urban Fund our work is dedicated to building up civil society from the grassroots. Earlier this year we submitted a response paper to the government’s consultation drawing on our values, our experiences in communities across England, and the perspectives of participants in a roundtable discussion we hosted.
Place: The strategy’s emphasis upon place and communities recognises the good that comes when individuals take responsibility for the communities to which they belong. The Innovation in Democracy Programme will support people to participate in the decision-making that affects their communities, and similar initiatives will enable communities to have a greater role in collective ownership and local decision-making. One of our key recommendations to the government was to recognise the value of ‘long-term, relational engagement in communities’.The strategy’s commitment to fund the training of 3,500 community organisers by 2020, supporting citizens to take-action on the issues they care about is a promising indication of an agency-centred approach to civil society that enables individuals to make and shape decisions about their lives and that of the communities and society in which they live; crucial to a healthy and thriving democracy. However, the lack of specific focus on the most marginalised and deprived places casts some doubt over whether the strategy will go far enough in contexts where civil society groups often struggle for financial resources and social capital.
Partnership: A key theme in our response paper was cross-sectoral partnership for the common good. For lasting change to be achieved within communities, creative and collaborative partnerships across all sectors; social, public and private; are needed. The government’s Place-Based Social Action Programme with the Big Lottery Fund, enabling communities to collaborate with local private and public sector organisations to create a shared vision of the place they live, is a welcome step towards this. We are similarly encouraged by the Government’s renewal of its commitment to the principles of the Compact, which sets out the principles and commitments governing the relationship between the social sector and the government. The real test of course, will be the outworking of these partnership proposals in practice, particularly those about the development of greater community-led delivery of public services for example.
Raising Our Voices: We welcome the strategy’s commitment to strengthening the voice of charities in shaping policy and speaking up on behalf of those they support . The strategy cites how grassroot charities’ advocacy has been pivotal in shaping landmark legislation like the Modern Slavery Bill. As our consultation response paper set out, functions like advocacy, innovation and community-building are vital for healthy communities and a healthy democracy. If civil society becomes over-burdened with service-provision, these will suffer. Maintaining the voice of charities in this way will ensure that space for dissent and disagreement; as necessary to a flourishing civil society as cooperation; are not crowded out.
Faith: Finally, we were delighted to see faith groups recognised as being essential to civil society. One of our key recommendations to Government was to ‘celebrate and nurture the diversity of civil society’. A nuanced understanding of faith groups’ contribution is vital for this. Too often they are acknowledged as being a major contributor to civil society in terms of their provision of services or charitable giving, but much less in terms of the valuable resources that can be used in seeking to understand what constitutes human wellbeing, both at an individual and societal level. It is exciting that as well as recognising the provision of services, particularly for marginalised and isolated groups the report also identifies the role of faith groups in ‘meeting the need for greater integration and community cohesion’, and their capacity to ‘speak out on important issues on behalf of those in need’. It is our hope that a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the contribution of faith groups to civil society will continue to be recognised, valued and drawn upon through this strategy.
Thinking back to our stool analogy, the government’s strategy clearly recognises the value and necessity of the civil society ‘leg’. However, as the strategy acknowledges, it is not always possible to draw clear-cut boundaries around civil society, since it is often in the overlap between the public, private and social sectors that much of its social value and creativity is to be found. Nonetheless, in a society in which statutory bodies struggle to provide flourishing for all, and in which market forces have exerted an often-damaging effect on the most vulnerable, protecting and growing spaces in which cohesion and belonging can thrive remains a vital and – we suggest – distinctive contribution of civil society.