Civil society should never just fill the gaps

Phil Bowen

Director, Centre for Justice Innovation

In one of the only self-reflective moments of his miserable failure of a reign, King Charles I lamented, “There’s more to the doing then the bidding it to be done.” He wasn’t the first person in a position of power, and he certainly won’t be the last, to recognise that the promulgation of a new order from on high does not magically result in change on the ground. In the bright-eyed, burgeoning days of my peripatetic existence as a Whitehall civil servant, I was witness to the frustration felt by ministers that, despite investment, despite new laws and policies, very often the outcomes and the behaviour of agencies and public services remained the same.  

This seeming resistance to change is not, in my view, because of those organisations’ bloody mindedness. Viewed from the perspective of public service agencies, who are asked to implement new policies all the time, it makes sense to watch and wait to see if the latest new policy is earnestly meant— or whether it will turn out to be yet another policy which is, in actualityperipheral and non-serious. Often, new spasms of policy lead to only ‘surface compliance’— organisations conserve their integrity, and demonstrate their ability to survive, by absorbing these changes with only minor alterations to how the organisation itself works and performs. 

This, in part, explains why it can be so hard to shift state organisations to adopt evidence-based practices from the top down. Even in healthcare, the public service system probably most committed to evidence-based practice, it has been widely reported that evidence-based practices take on average 17 years to be incorporated into routine general practiceIt is because of this that my organisation, the Centre for Justice Innovation, focuses most of its energy on nurturing communities of practice to sustain change from the bottom up and over the long-termrecognising that national policy interest will naturally wax and wane. For example, in 2013, we discovered that evidence-based early intervention taking place shortly after the arrest of children was under threat from a lack of funding and the neglect of policymakers, who were busy with other pressing needs. With the support of philanthropy, we have been able to build a wide community of practice – of frontline police officers, youth justice workers, charities and others – to sustain and spread early intervention across the country.  

Or take the work we have been lucky enough to lead on tackling parental substance misuse in child protection cases. A coalition of private law firms, wealth management firms and other philanthropists backed us to support the spread of a cuttingedge, innovative approach which works with families to get parents off drugs and to keep families together, where it is safe to do so. Through that work, we have partnered with Government to spread the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) model to new areas, and are now provoking more profound policy discussions about how that approach could inform the reform of the family justice system. This type of work, which yokes together the long-term commitment of philanthropy to good ends with the flexibility and creativity of the community and voluntary sector, allows civic society to play a role in focusing on better implementation, an issue that falls in and out of Whitehall fashion 

We are not unique within civil society in playing this type of roleBut it is one of the many reasons why civil society can’t be reduced to a role in which it simply fills in the gaps between where the state ends and the market can’t turn a profit. ‘civil society of the gaps’ is a woefully narrow conception, ignoring the role it plays in helping to transform the conception of what the state delivers, and how it does it. To take an example, a coalition of funders and voluntary organisations has, for decades, committed itself to supporting and spreading the use of the arts in helping people move away from crime. They have invested time, money and energy into documenting what works, and why; and, slowly, the probation and prison services have slowly adapted this work into their new emphasis on individuals’ capacity to form new identities for themselves, seeing this as the key to desistance from crime. That simply would not have happened without civil society’s unique contribution.  

Ultimately, even where civil society plays this more transformative role, it does tend to have an endgame in mind, in which evidence-based practice is finally adopted and rolled out by the state. It’s why I would love to see the Commission devote time to fleshing out the means by which Government and civil society work together— where philanthropy invests in riskier, innovative trials and then, where they prove their worth through sustained replication, it is understood that the state ought to absorb those innovations and mainstream them, where possible. Creating such a virtuous circle may well hold the key to transforming the state of the future and improving outcomes for all our communities.