Unleashing social power

Sue Tibballs OBE

Chief Executive, Sheila McKechnie Foundation

At best civil society builds the relationships, trust, engagement, hope and momentum that make change possible – what we call ‘social power’. Reform is woven into everything it does. But recent governments have sought to limit charity voice and control civic space. Civil society cannot play its full role if it is reduced to a mute extension of the state.

Civil society has always played a central role in social change – whether helping an individual turn her life around or shifting social norms. From securing better working conditions, improvements in judicial process for rape victims, or equal marriage, it is civil society – not government – that drives much of this change.

However, its capacity to drive change is being constrained. Civil society is being pushed into an increasingly transactional model in which it is being asked to help pick up the pieces of an increasingly unequal and divided society, while being prevented from having a say in how that society could be organised – or transformed – to prevent those problems arising.

‘Stick to the knitting’ is how a former Charity Commission commissioner put it. But, as I will argue in this essay, if we want civil society to play its full role in levelling up, it cannot be confined to just providing relief. It has to be allowed to play its full role in reform.


What do I mean by ‘civil society’?

Before going further, it is important to spell out what I mean by the term ‘civil society’. It is a slippery concept and perhaps necessarily so: it isn’t a ‘sector’ and its boundaries are blurred. To my mind, it is when people with shared interests or values come together in pursuit of a common good or ‘social value’. Civil society sits outside the state or the public sector. It is distinct from the profit-driven private sector (note the government includes the private sector in its definition). Nor is ‘civil society’ synonymous with ‘charity’ – even though the terms are often used interchangeably.

Civil society is sprawling and diverse, from community groups and social movements to legally registered charities, co-ops, Community Interest Companies, and Companies Limited by Guarantee. Technically, it includes faith organisations, trade unions, political parties and educational institutions – though these are often left out because they are large enough to be sectors unto themselves. I will use the term ‘social sector’ as the aggregation of constituted organisations that sit within and enable wider civil society.


How does civil society drive social change?

When we think about how civil society drives reform, we tend to think about the heat and noise of protest, petitions and the lobbying of ministers. Yet, if you look at how civil society actually drives change – as we have done[1] – you can see that reform is pursued through a more complex and nuanced set of activities.

The vast majority of time and energy in civil society is expended working with individuals, families and communities. Some of this is relief – food banks, crisis loans, support lines, refuges, hospices and so on. Most is aimed at reform – helping turn lives and communities around so that people are less dependent, more mutually supported, and can enjoy a better and more sustainable quality of life. Civil society brings a huge amount of creativity and resourcefulness to this work, not least by securing the support of nearly 20 million volunteers each year. Its deep and myriad responses to Covid have been revelatory to many.

“Reform is not just the noisy stuff – it is woven into everything this sector does.”

It is also this experience that civil society then uses to drive wider systemic change. It works ‘behind the scenes’ to help statutory service providers and commissioners understand what is happening ‘on the ground’ and acts as an early warning system for ‘bad’ policy. Civil society also helps people access their statutory and legal rights and protections, and connects them to the democratic process.

When necessary, civil society will also use this experience to act in the public realm. It will challenge where it sees policy do harm, or where it believes existing laws, rights or protections are being breached. It also works to influence public attitudes and build political pressure for change. This work – helping shift the so-called ‘Overton window’ – is vital to government. William Hague talks openly about the central role activists played in helping him secure the Disability Discrimination Act[2], for example.

So reform is not just the noisy stuff – it is woven into everything this sector does. Our direct experience of working with people and communities provides both the impetus and the case for change. This means service provision and campaigning cannot be separated, as we are encouraged to think. It is impossible for civil society to ‘stick to the knitting’. Doing so would cause everything to unravel.

This wide-ranging role in reform means the relationship with government and the state is one of tension. And so it should be. Both left and right feel discomfited. The left tends to dislike ‘charity’ and want to co-opt the sector into the state. The right is suspicious of the politics of the sector and prefers its scale to be small. Both are uncomfortable with the power civil society holds but need that power to improve lives and communities. So, they want civil society to do more but control how. And here – for government certainly is the rub: how can we unleash the inherent power of civil society without letting go of control? The answer is that you can’t. It is precisely this insistence on control that is constraining civil society power.


External control: civic space

There is a powerful narrative in political circles that charities in receipt of public funds should be precluded from using that money to campaign.[3] The stated concern is that such campaigning is too often in pursuit of issues that do not enjoy public support, or in the charity’s own interests. Recent administrations have sought ways to limit charity voice. The measures introduced have been very effective.

The Lobbying Act, introduced in 2014, requires charities to register in the run-up to elections if they plan to campaign politically. Unlike private companies, charities are already prevented from being politically partisan by law, so it’s a heavy-handed response to a vanishingly small problem. And it has had a marked impact on the sector’s campaigning, as we have evidenced.[4] In 2016, the Cabinet Office introduced ‘anti-advocacy clauses’, to government grants to stop the funds being used for campaigning, advocacy or even ‘awareness-raising’.

“Government is losing invaluable testimony, experience and wisdom from charities working close in people’s lives and communities.”

Aside from being wrong in principle – I think it is a good use of public money to enable civil society to be active in public and political debate – these measures are also wrong in practice. They tend not to stifle the voices they don’t want hear – big and well-resourced charities can navigate these measures. But they are silencing smaller and often local charities that can’t afford professional advice, and are closer to their public funders. This means government is losing invaluable testimony, experience and wisdom from charities working close in people’s lives and communities.

That the Government is now turning its attention to public protest and the judiciary suggest that attempts to limit the voice of civil society have nothing to do with the responsible use of public money, in fact, and everything to do with controlling public debate and reducing challenge. It has described Extinction Rebellion as a ‘criminal gang’, is looking to weaken legal instruments such as judicial review, and has started to decry ‘activist lawyers’ and ‘do-gooders’.

The party of ‘free speech’ has now threatened civic space sufficiently for it to be listed by Civicus as ‘narrowed’.[5] Last year, 87% of civil society campaigners said they thought the space to campaign was under threat.[6]


External control: money, value, and accountability

There are other drivers that are also pushing civil society into a more transactional model – less witting but no less effective. They involve the ways in which the sector is being understood, valued, funded and held to account.

Under New Labour, public investment into the social sector grew through a rapid increase in commissioning. Social sector organisations are well-placed to deliver services but must bid on the same basis as private sector providers. Yet civil society does not work in the same way as the private sector. It works in ways and goes to places that both the public and private sectors struggle with, often where traditional market models simply do not work. Both the model and price offered are distorting the sector, forcing money to the top as bigger organisations use reserves to underwrite tenders.

These trends have been exacerbated by a focus on impact measurement, largely driven by investors looking to understand optimal return on investment. I have no argument with attempts to understand impact but, again, approaches have been based on commercial models that aren’t fit for purpose. Some outputs are relatively easily converted into £ signs, such as volunteering, but such approaches struggle to account for the reforming work of civil society, where the value resides in intangibles like relationships and trust, or the shifts in policy, attitudes or aspiration that civil society’s reforming activity secures.

It is useful and timely for this Commission to think afresh about how to measure the true value of civil society. My encouragement would be that this is based on all that civil society does – not just the services it provides or the volunteers it recruits. Even better, the Commission should ask what role this sector plays in the economy as a whole.[7]

It’s also time to re-balance and grow public investment. Since 2010, commissioned income into the sector has remained stable but grant funding has rapidly declined. This is the money that helps support the core activity of civil society, and helps ensure its independence. We need more of this type of investment, particularly in areas that can help develop and strengthen the sector such as tech and innovation, just as the state invests in the private sector.


A new settlement with government

Not all the constraints to civil society power are external, of course. There are things that the social sector itself needs to be better at, and it is right that we are asking ourselves some pretty challenging questions at the moment (look at the report of the independent inquiry into the future of civil society led by Julia Unwin, for example).[8] But this Commission is an invaluable opportunity to engage externally, so I want to focus there.

If the Government is serious about ‘levelling up’ (and we need it to be) then it is absolutely right to look to the social sector and wider civil society, and the private sector too. Each has a role to play as the state continues to creak and the ‘safety net’ fractures. But civil society in this country cannot play its full role if it is reduced to a mute extension of the state.

We can see the possibilities if we look at local government. There, the urgent needs created by Covid have started to transform the relationship between civil society and local government. Officials could see that local charities and voluntary organisations were much better placed to step in quickly and effectively. This encouraged a ‘letting go’, a suspension of some of the red tape. We have heard of local authorities talk about themselves as not a controller but an enabler of civil society – signposting people to local organisations providing support, for example – working in mature partnership to respective strengths.

This could be the national relationship too, but it seems not any time soon. That the current UK Government has a dim view of civil society could not be better illustrated by its response to the sector during this crisis. Just £750 million made available against an estimated £10 billion (and growing) gap.[9] Those in a position to know say that this is in large part because the Government just doesn’t understand the sector, as well as having an instinctive distrust.

One of those who knows is Danny Kruger MP, who wrote the last Government’s Civil Society Strategy. His recent report calls for what he calls ‘Community Power’ and it makes some useful recommendations. Unfortunately, it does not address the explicit threats to civic space, nor the growing rift between civil society and central government as all doors remain firmly closed.

With entrance barred and the mood music so negative, it is inevitable people will look for different ways to make their voice heard. Already, civil society actors are turning to legal action, public protest.

We are in febrile times. It is an act of gross negligence to encourage such a stand off. It simply doesn’t work to seek a positive relationship with civil society at a local community level but shut down engagement at a national level. Nor to ask for our help with relief, but to close down our role in reform.


Unleashing Social Power

At best, and when working without constraint, civil society is a place of extraordinary creativity, resourcefulness and determination. At best, it unlocks resources, realises assets, gets upstream of problems, and builds capacity and resilience. It builds the relationships, trust, engagement, hope and momentum that make change possible – whether in an individual life or for the whole of society. My organisation calls this capacity ‘social power’. And it is our firm belief that social power holds the keys to tackling some of our most urgent and critical challenges, from tackling knife crime and obesity levels to polarisation and the climate crisis.

Unleashing social power means recognising and protecting the independence of civil society, allowing it to act and speak freely. It means treating the social sector with respect, recognising how it works, where its value lies and funding it appropriately. It means being allowed – and having the confidence – to stand tall and work not as a poor relation, but as an equal partner to the public and private sectors.

[1] Social Power, Sheila McKechnie Foundation, June 2018

[2] The Reunion, Disability Campaigners

[3] C Snowdon, Sock Puppets, IEA Discussion Paper No. 39, June 2012

[4] The Chilling Reality, Sheila McKechnie Foundation, June 2018

[5] Civicus Monitor, Civicus

[6] SMK Campaigner Survey, 2019

[7] K Evans, “Value beyond money”, Children England, October 2016

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

[9] H Whitehead, “Charities face £10bn funding gap over the next six months due to Covid-19” in Civil Society News, 10 June 2020