Unleashing the power of civil society

In every corner of our lives and our country, civil society can be found. In every community and every city and town, civil society plays its vital triple role: bringing people together, campaigning to solve pressing problems, and providing services – particularly to those who are otherwise marginalised and overlooked. And from improving the nation’s health to boosting economic growth, when it comes to achieving the change that everyone agrees is needed, civil society is essential to each and every goal.

Over the last decade, the role that civil society plays has become ever more fundamental to life in the UK. The Covid pandemic shone a spotlight on just how critical civil society is, with the seemingly spontaneous growth of mutual aid groups, the support the sector provided to the most vulnerable, and the momentous efforts of the volunteers who made the vaccine rollout a success. The current cost of living crisis has highlighted it even more starkly, as charities strive to stand between people and the worst consequences of poverty.

Yet sitting behind these recent events are substantial changes to the way civil society operates – some for the better, and some for the worse. As spending on numerous public services and local authority budgets declined at the start of the 2010s, charities, community groups and voluntary organisations found that their funding models changed and people turned to them for help in growing numbers, in new ways. To meet this challenge, civil society organisations changed and grew too. Jobs in civil society have been increasing at almost twice the rate of the rest of the economy, with the workforce recently reaching a record level of almost 1 million employees. In the charity sector, almost one in five organisations now provide social services such as domestic violence shelters or services for disabled people, the elderly and disadvantaged young people.

The ever-accelerating importance of civil society to the UK’s social and economic fabric has not yet, however, been matched by recognition at national level. Since the days of the New Labour Compact and then the ‘Big Society’ under David Cameron, there has been little sense of a strategic vision for civil society’s role and its relationship with either government or business. Though the government’s 2018 Civil Society Strategy and the later Kruger Review, looking at the contribution of charities and volunteers post-pandemic, both provided some frameworks for progress, neither were able to provide a truly ambitious vision for the role of civil society or its relationships with government and other sectors. Instead, political debate continues to focus tightly on the balance between state intervention and market freedom, overlooking the importance of a sector which operates across both and provides the underlying civic foundation for any political vision.

The time is now ripe for this to change. The Law Family Commission on Civil Society has come together to lay out a plan to create the conditions for civil society to thrive, so it can better fulfil its broad range of varied and vital roles, supporting economic and social wellbeing across the whole of the UK. Achieving this ambition requires action from every sector, and leadership from government and the business community, as well as from within civil society itself.

The Commission is calling for strategic investment from funders, this government and the next, in the productivity of the social sector, the data available to and about it, and in the changes needed to unlock philanthropy. This must be accompanied by a dramatic acceleration in the partnership between civil society and business, and a reset of the relationship between civil society and government.