Third pillar, not gap filler

A glance around your neighbourhood will show you civil society everywhere. It’s there on your street – in the woman at number 6 bringing the paper to the man at number 9. It’s visible in people volunteering as tutors and governors in schools, to drive the elderly and sick home from hospital and helping staff while they’re there, and as street pastors ensuring folk get home from an enthusiastic night out. It’s in collection tins by shop checkouts, the friends of the local park and religious buildings – as well every service run by communities: halls, meeting places, cafes, libraries, sports clubs and more.

But our public discourse tells a different story. For example, looking at the occupations of panellists on the BBC’s Question Time debate show between January 2019 and October 2020 reveals a stark discrepancy in sector representation. Charity CEOs accounted for just 1% of participants, compared to the far greater number of business leaders (7% of participants) and politicians (59%) who appeared on the popular show to discuss the issues of the day.[1] While other civil society actors did appear, these were largely figures working directly in the political sphere.

This absence of civil society is also reflected in our politics. When was the last time you saw a prime minister or a chancellor give a speech about civil society? Comparing the relative presence of civil society and the private sector at the Cabinet table tells its own story too. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (the department that has responsibility for civil society) attends just two cabinet committees to collaborate on broader government strategy. Again, civil society’s showing here compares unfavourably to the eight meetings attended by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.[2]

The relative lack of engagement with civil society across these forums suggests that the sector may be somewhat overlooked in both official policymaking and broader discussion about the state of the country. Civil society seems to have a limited voice in public debate and limited opportunity to make its voice heard across Whitehall.

Over time, the side-lining of civil society, in favour of business and the state, runs the risk of weakening the very aspect of society – the community – that the private and public sectors aim to serve. This imbalance is liable to damage both the economy and society more broadly.[3]

In this note we connect civil society’s limited place in the policy debate to a broader misperception of the sector as a residual social agent that is secondary to business and government.

We suggest that ensuring civil society gets a fairer say begins with demonstrating the distinct and invaluable contributions that it makes to society writ large. In opening up this conversation about the social functions of civil society, we focus on:

  1. Civil society’s enabling role with regards to the functions of government and business, and
  2. The scale and nature of its own contributions to society.

By examining what civil society provides that government and business do not, we aim to make the case for civil society to sit alongside, rather than exist as an afterthought to, the other sectors in the policy debate.

[1]List of Question Time episodes’, Wikipedia

[2] Cabinet Office, ‘List of Cabinet Committees’,, 19 November 2020

[3] R Rajan, The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind, William Collins, 2020