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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

A Renewed Approach to Civil Society?

A new year traditionally offers the chance for radical renewal and a change of approach. But, as the Prime Minister’s botched reshuffle shows, the status quo can be surprisingly hard to shift.

With regard to civil society (the rich and informal network of organisations and networks that is often thought of as existing separate from the private and public sectors) it seems that a major rethink is already underway.

Tracey Crouch, Civil Society Minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, has recently launched a new civil society strategy that will look to change how public sector bodies interact with the charity sector.

There is also the high profile Civil Society Futures project, fronted by Julia Unwin, which launched last year, as well as the Localism Commission, which is soon to publish its findings.

Taken together, it appears that there is a growing consensus that civil society is at an important juncture. Certainly, this was thinking behind our own programme of work on the Future of Civil Society in the North which has been running now for more than two years.

So where are we heading? Here is some of what we have learnt so far that others could build upon.

There seems to be a growing enthusiasm for thinking more about movements rather than organisations, and for systems rather than individuals. There is a lot of importance placed on the merits of collaboration, on place and local context as determining factors and on the opportunities and risks afforded by new technologies, new business models and new institutions like the metro mayors.

Throughout, there is reference to the severe and fundamentally uneven impacts of the government’s austerity programme, the failings of local and national procurement practices, and the huge uncertainties associated with Brexit, which risk undermining the business models of many trusted third sector organisations and, more fundamentally, mean that local areas have seen drastic changes to the spaces and funds available to local areas and their communities. As always, the impact of these changes is falling hardest upon the most vulnerable in society.

These were strong themes at the recent VONNE Conference , and CEO of VONNE Jane Hartley set out that "the impact of austerity and welfare reform has been felt more sharply in the north than other part s of the country and the fall out from that is that the civil society is experiencing a ‘perfect storm’ with unprecedented demand for support from the most vulnerable versus reduced resources to provide it".

But one crucial message that recurs again and again is this: rather than an after-thought, a strong and healthy civil society should be considered a foundation on which a successful local economy is built.

At the moment, much of mainstream policy thinking tends to put it the other way around: The accepted model was to deliver growth first, then to redistribute the returns to those communities and places ‘left behind’ by the onward march of the economy.

This has played out at a national level through years of London-centric policy-making, and is an implicit feature of the government’s austerity programme – where public expenditure is seen as a cost to the exchequer rather than an investment to deliver a well-functioning economy.

But it is also apparent at the local level – where the discourse around economic growth is often dominated by a reliance upon inward investment, talk of transport infrastructure and skills systems, with little attention paid to how to invest ‘upstream’ (as CLES have put it) in communities to ensure a degree of resilience that is a starting point for any successful local economy.

And, without getting too carried away, it is also about having a serious conversation about what a ‘good’ local economy looks like. As we have seen for years in London (and are now starting to see in other major cities such as Manchester), the presence of construction sites and foreign investment is no guarantee that the social and economic health of the wider community will benefit.

Some of this is now being explored under the ‘inclusive growth’ moniker – but to date there has been relatively little exploration of how civil society fits under this banner.

But the links between civil society and the wider economy are clear:

Firstly, civil society itself is an important economic player in any local area. To take one example, the Third Sector Trends survey found that the third sector in the North is a significant employer, and contributes an estimated economic value, by salaries, of £4.75 billion.

Secondly, there are well-documented and strong links between business (supposedly the wealth-generating sector) and civil society, and by the growing social enterprise and B-corps movement, which effectively blurs the already grey line between socially responsible business and successful civil society organisation.

But finally, and most importantly, a healthy civil society is both symptom and cause of a strong and resilient local community – which is itself a foundation for a wider economy.

As such, local economic policy should include investment in good civil society as a first step towards a successful local economy as well as a desirable aim in and of itself.

What might this look like? In our latest #Civilsocietynorth report, we set out what part of this might look like. We consider case study examples of successful organisations that play a key role in nurturing and curating civil society and put forward a case for public sector leaders to recognise that investment in this type of support is an essential element of a diverse, connected and healthy civil society that plays a foundational role in the economy.

This change is, as ever, hard to achieve, and old habits and attitudes are hard to shift.

Convincing economic policy-makers in local government and other public bodies to recognise or acknowledge the foundational role that civil society plays in the economy is no small task – but already there are some signs, such as in Greater Manchester, that leaders are starting to ‘get it’.

Likewise, many elements of civil society itself may be resistant to being associated with economic policy for fear of aligning themselves to what they perceive to be the narrow interests of economic policy.

Although a degree of scepticism is healthy, this has to change. And, as per our recent report, this is where we believe that there is a key role for the civil society support organisations to act as leaders in this area. 

The increased interest in rethinking the role of civil society, from government and beyond, is warmly welcome. But time will tell if this leads to the kind of change in approach that is desperately needed across many parts of the country.

Jack Hunter is a research fellow at IPPR North. He tweets at @JackIPPR