Imagining better: prioritising people and planet over growth

Vicky Browning & Kristiana Wrixon

CEO & Head of Policy, ACEVO

Government misunderstands civil society as something that takes more than it gives. Empowering civil society requires understanding it as a set of relationships – between people, places and sectors – and an essential partner in creating social value.

“When we act not for profit nor because the law requires us to, but out of love or anger or creativity, or principle, we are civil society”[1]


Civil society is community

In the minds of many parliamentarians, civil society has developed a reputation as a group of organisations that takes more than it gives. This is the opposite of what we know to be true. Civil society is an act of community, it is an exchange between people of time, ideas, resources and skills that creates public benefit without private gain. It is not about give or take; it is about relationships.

However, civil society may have inadvertently contributed to this negative image by using labels to group the people we most often interact with that sound fixed and transactional, but are instead very fluid and transformational. Words like ‘beneficiary’, ‘donor’ and ‘volunteer’ describe an act rather than a person, and in the world of civil society people don’t fall discretely into these categories but can occupy multiple groups simultaneously. People give and receive services, time, money and support at various points in their life – sometimes even at different times of the same day.

When we think of civil society like this, as community, it cannot be surprising to know that the majority of people in the UK are actively engaged in it. 19.4 million people volunteered in 2018/19, and with the mass mobilisation of local volunteering groups in 2020, it is possible that this year that number is even higher.[2] 65% of people gave money through sponsorship or donations over a 12 month period[3], and almost half of people engaged in social action by signing a petition.[4] Almost nine in 10 households have used a charity service at some point, and three quarters have used charity services in the last 12 months, although three in 10 did not realise the service they accessed was run by a charity.[5]


Despite this, many politicians do not take civil society seriously

Given that civil society as a whole is so deeply embedded in communities, and MPs’ primary role is to serve their constituents, there should be a more symbiotic relationship between parliament and civil society. Yet, as has been much talked about over the last decade, civil society has found its political influence waning. Why? If civil society represents communities and is willing to offer its insight and expertise to policy makers, then why has it been so hard to get a foot in the door and a seat round the table? Why do representatives of the business sector get taken seriously on concerns about policy decisions which negatively impact businesses but the same cannot be said for the charity sector?

It is a reasonable assumption to make that this is in part because many people, including some senior politicians, do not value labour that does not result in a wage. Whether unpaid labour in the home, or volunteering, it is not given the same importance as labour which results in the accumulation of personal or organisational wealth.

Unpaid labour, such as childcare and housework, is the foundation on which the paid labour market is built. In 2016 the value of the UK’s unpaid household service work was £1.24 trillion[6] and overall unpaid household service work was equivalent to 63.1% of GDP. Women carry out an overall average of 60% more unpaid work than men[7] and on average people in lower income brackets carry out more unpaid work than those in higher brackets. If the government prioritised unpaid labour based on how much it contributed to GDP, women and people on low incomes would be high up the political agenda. But that is not the case.

The backbone of civil society is also unpaid labour in the form of volunteering. From trustees to St John’s Ambulance volunteers, from PTAs to the Samaritans, volunteers give their time freely to causes that they care deeply about.

But while there is value in knowing, measuring, and shouting proudly about how much volunteering contributes to GDP, this knowledge alone won’t bring civil society out of the political periphery. There has to be a parallel exercise, asking politicians to invest time and money in values like community, sustainability, safety and dignity.


Is improving impact measurement the real lever for change?

There is also an argument that more civil society organisations need to provide better cost-benefit analyses of their work in order to demonstrate how investment in a service now will save money further down the line. Engaging in this kind of work is useful, but we don’t believe it holds the answer to unleashing the potential of civil society. Many individual charities have for years been able to demonstrate how smaller short-term investment in preventative services reduces the need for much larger spending on acute services further down the line. But for much of the last decade, and certainly through austerity, it has been funding for preventative work that has been cut quickest and hardest. All that remains in many places across the country in subsectors like mental health, domestic abuse and prison rehabilitation is crisis provision.

If we are to look outward to local and national government and ask how we can change our relationship with them, then the question is as much about aligning values as it is in redesigning policy. As we look to heal and rebuild from the trauma of the pandemic, we need to answer and act on the question of which values we choose to base our economic model on. Civil society is tackling some of our biggest social issues, issues that will lead to a better quality of life, it is at the forefront of medical research, it is facilitating connected, healthy communities, but because these outcomes are not monetised and often not seen as essential, they are pushed down the political agenda.

But another approach is possible. In 2019 New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ‘well-being budget’ at the World Economic Forum. She said “we’re embedding the notion of making decisions that aren’t just about growth for growth’s sake, but about how people are faring.” It is this kind of thinking that is missing for current discussions about the economy and is one of the biggest reasons in why the social sector is not seen as an important partner to the Treasury.


We would like to see politicians develop policy based on a different set of values

Last year ACEVO published a general election manifesto with a difference. ‘We Imagine Better’ asked those elected to serve in government to root their work in seven core values: equity, opportunity, safety, community, love, dignity, and sustainability. And in 2020, it is the actions that have arisen from these values, not just in formal civil society settings but in individual and community action, that offer us hope for building back better.

These are values we see embodied in civil society. They can be seen in the dignity offered by hospice workers to those at the end of life, in the love shown through fundraising efforts of Sir Captain Tom Moore and Dabirul Islam Choudhury OBE, in the safety provided by domestic abuse organisations, the community shown in mutual aid groups and foodbanks, and the passion shown in the campaign by young people to ensure they received fair exam grades.


Lockdown has shown us what we value

Lockdown has thrown a light on the things we value most, things that are too often dismissed as luxuries but are instead the mark of a well, healthy, happy society. Theatres, dance, access to green spaces, museums, community choirs, the local Scout, Woodcraft folk or Girlguiding troops; these are all part of civil society. When he was Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS), Matt Hancock called his department (home to the Office for Civil Society) the ‘department that makes life worth living’. Civil society is already valued deeply by the public but only in lip service by the politicians that represent them. Bridging that gap will be a key question for this Commission.

If the potential of civil society is to be unleashed then power and resources have to be transferred to the people, places and communities that know how to use them to create the biggest possible difference. For too long politicians on all sides have been preoccupied with the short-term and the easily quantifiable. Ambitious, large-scale, long-term policies are needed to tackle inequality and harm, and to create sustainable, thriving communities.

To unleash the potential of civil society it cannot be treated as a passive benefactor but as an essential partner. There needs to be investment in activity that is based on shared values and the creation of new definitions of success which prioritise people and planet over growth.

[1] The Story of Our Times: shifting power, bridging divides, transforming society, Civil Society Futures, November 2018

[2] L Hornung et al., UK Civil Society Almanac 2020, NCVO, June 2020

[3] UK Giving 2019: An overview of charitable giving in the UK, CAF, May 2019

[4] Ibid.

[5] Charity Street III: The value of charity to UK households, CAF, September 2018

[6] C Payne & G Vassilev, Household Satellite Account, UK: 2015 and 2016, ONS, October 2018

[7] “Women shoulder the responsibility of ‘unpaid work’”, ONS, 10 November 2016