"Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was “Oh no, not again”.
Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now."
Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Minister for Civil Society has launched a ‘listening exercise’ for the development of a new Civil society strategy. I immediately thought of a bowl of petunias. I'm sure I'm not the only person whose first reaction was that we've done this so many times already: shared a lot of carefully gathered views with some well-intentioned people to pool our ideas about how the [insert name of agency here] and the civil society sector [other sector descriptors are available] could work together and come up with a lovely document which looks not dissimilar to the last one and doesn’t get the slightest attention from senior decision makers because to them, civil society is either:
a) A bunch of yoghurt-weaving lefties with no head for economics or business;
b) A bunch of middle class do-gooders;
c) Both of the above.
Broadly, I’m not an optimist or a pessimist, I’m a meliorist: the world can become better but only through human effort. So while my first reaction is “oh no, not again”, I’m also going to look to the opportunity we’ve got here for a conversation which, in my view, is badly needed.
As the minister has made a video introducing this conversation, I will attempt to follow my own rule and start by listening:
There are some good things about this: I do believe there is a genuine desire to listen by the people doing this work. There is a welcome split of people, places and partnerships which is as good a way of looking at things as I’ve seen: particularly the link between places and people – which reflects that mix of neighbourhood, identity and experience in which we all weave our own sense of belonging and personhood. I like the focus on responsible business, references to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and exploring ways local people can be more involved in public services.
And yet reading the consultation document, I had a nagging sense of something missing. Eventually it dawned: it doesn’t seem to relate to anything else the government is doing or saying. There’s no sense from the way it’s written (and of course this may not be intentional) of how it fits or might fit into a potential set of government priorities. So while I am up for the conversation, and I would love to be wrong about this, I still find myself unconvinced it will really hold any clout within government.
There’s a reference to “financial and legislative challenges and pressures” which is fairly obvious code for “we’re not spending any more money and we’re busy with Brexit”. I am inclined to ignore this attempt to manage expectations. There are a few reasons why.
Firstly, I don’t accept there should be any reason for our sector or any other to moderate our message: if we know something works, we should say so. And we should ensure we’re able to prove it. That’s the tricky bit - can you actually prove it? (Mind you, many political assertions aren’t truly evidence based…)
Furthermore, whatever the end result of the Brexit saga is, Britain will change. The very nature of the debate has changed us. So as part of that national conversation and imagining what we want for the future, surely a debate about the role of community, of people and places is fairly fundamental? Whether we’re 'taking back control' or just moving into some new liminal space where our international relationships are re-shaping – this is not just fluffy community stuff, this is who we are, how we live and what we believe.
It comes back to that problem of the relationship to the rest of government thinking. This exercise is asking a lot of questions about how civil society works while not necessarily inviting us to address issues which civil society is working on and which could be tackled through government means. Often civil society steps in because of something which hasn’t worked in either the private or public sectors. A fairly blunt example: if the National Living Wage was equal to the Real Living Wage, the civil society sector would not need to do so much work on addressing poverty – particularly the increasing problem of in-work poverty. (There’s lots of room for debate on that but there is a case to be made: plenty of evidence is available to support this from organisations like Joseph Rowntree Foundation and New Economics Foundation.) This impact-of-policy discussion is ultimately the most important part of the dialogue between civil society and government. I’m not clear if that’s the kind of dialogue the listening exercise is inviting but I think we would be failing in our duty if we didn’t take the opportunity for making these kinds of points.
There are lots of limitations to this as an exercise, but then there always are. No engagement exercise is ever perfect. It’s great to hear a minister talk about empowering, enabling communities and civil society to act as a force for good. I believe we can demonstrate – as our Civil Economy work of some years ago showed – that it’s also part of the solution to those “financial and legislative pressures”. I think it is important to see it as an opportunity to say what we believe is important and to communicate that, not just to those in government but to the wider public too. Given all the issues about charities in recent years, the uncertain future of our country and what we believe is important, I think this is a useful catalyst for a broader debate about what civil society actually is and why it matters.
It's not a bad thing to restate what we believe is beneficial and important. And we don't need to damage any more petunias to do it.
We’ll be writing more on this in the coming weeks and it would be great to hear views - use the comments box below or find me on Twitter @MikeWildMacc
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Here’s the Office for Civil Society’s introductory page: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/civil-society-strategy-have-your-say
Here’s the response form itself: https://dcms.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6WD0fhMedwfg8o5
Note - The format itself is quite lengthy and although you don’t have to complete it all, even just one of the questions would be an entire thesis if you wished!
More background in this report from Civil Society Magazine https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/news/charities-minister-launches-consultation-on-civil-society-strategy.html