The Civil Society Futures 2-year inquiry published its findings last week. And Community Southwark played its part by holding its own conversation. The final report comes at a time of great change and uncertainty. But despite the difficulties, groups are rising to the challenge. It is recognised that civil society alone cannot hope to deal with the all of the planet’s ills, but it can organise, innovate and respond.
Civil Society, the state and the market depend on each other, but it is often civil society that is working at grass roots level and can best listen and understand the impact of government policy or the failure to act or of ignored warnings. Many groups often feel excluded form decision making and participation which leads to a level of mistrust.
The report sends a strong signal that organisations coming together in collective endeavours will enable civic society to become stronger and more powerful. Connecting groups with each other and to those in powerful positions, like local authorities, enables people to be seen and heard. It is important that groups start to reconnect once again. Often its seen as a luxury and non-productive especially when organisations are stretched delivering their core activities, but it is essential that organisations do not become remote or distant and begin to build real relationships again. People are coming together in looser networks and these need to be embraced and valued although they may look and feel different to traditional structures.
By building those relationships organisations will shift focus back on to the communities they support and serve rather than the decision makers and funders.
Shifting this focus back to local people and communities should help build and invest in trust, which is viewed as one of civil society’s biggest assets. This requires a greater degree of honesty within civil society, about being truthful about successes and failures and calling out injustices when they occur. This in turn may repair some of the loss of faith in the sector that has occurred in recent years.
So the report does not make recommendations to Government, but asks civil society itself to take a long hard look at itself and to commit to behave differently in order to meet, not just today’s challenges, but those that will arise in the future.
These ideas have come together in a linked series of shared aspirations known as the PACT (Power, Accountability, Connection, Trust) which commits to:
The great power shift
• Too many people feel unheard, ignored, frustrated. Imbalances in power are often at the heart of the issue: who gets listened to, who makes decisions, who is in control.
• Change in society begins by changing ourselves in civil society, all of us.
• Everyone having the chance to make the contribution that only they can.
• Addressing inequalities and conflict by seeking to understand power and oppression, recognising the power we have and supporting others to discover theirs.
• Practice shared and distributed models of decision-making and control, such as citizen juries, community ownership and participatory grant-making.
• Do whatever’s needed so all those who want to can play a full part in the things which matter to them – not least those who have been excluded – so they can bring their wisdom.
Be accountable first and foremost to the people, communities and causes we serve – where necessary, standing up to funders and government
• Be willing to be held to account, not just expecting others to be accountable to us but being accountable to them and developing new and more challenging ways of being accountable
• Commit to building relationships, putting in the time and effort to seek feedback, genuinely listen and change
• Co-design our accountability systems and practices with those we are accountable to
• Recognise our responsibility to future generations and act accordingly
• Adhere to common public standards on critical issues such as safeguarding, health and wellbeing
• Only when behaviours, attitudes and practices change will civil society be in a position to shape the next decade.
• Extend and renew our ability to connect people.
• Build real and meaningful relationships between people, meeting as equals within and across communities – especially where it’s hard to do.
• Bridge divides across race, gender, generations, social class and more – learning from the past, experimenting with new approaches and listening deeply to different people.
• Our infrastructure for connecting groups and organisations is outdated, under-resourced and falling apart and there are too few connective networks to join up civil society locally or nationally.
• Create and invest in better ways to connect and collaborate that are fit for the 21st century, combining welcoming and energising physical spaces, with online forums which encourage us to share and to discover – a national people-power grid energising and universalising social action across communities and across our country.
Restore and increase trust in civil society
• Stay true to our values and do what’s right, however uncomfortable it may be, knowing it may mean being unpopular.
• Defend rights and call out injustice. Civil society is political: challenge those in power – even if they fund us – and work with others to change systems of inequality and powerlessness
• Prioritise building trust with people and communities. Devote time and other resources to relationships, taking the time, commitment and care that’s really needed. Find ways to measure trust and reflect it in how we evaluate success.
• Trust people, and other civil society groups to provide insights, make decisions and run things – recognising that they often know best about what they need and what can be done.