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March 31, 2010

Making Good Society

There is a growing belief that while civil society at a local level is as vibrant as ever – citizens active in their communities, giving of their time and energy to make them better places to live and work – on the national stage it has been pushed to the margins, undervalued by government and ignored by the ‘real’ economy. Carnegie have just completed a major Inquiry into the future of civil society. They prioritised four areas where they believe civil society can make most impact

Making good society
Carnegie UK
March, 2010
Geoff Mulgan, Commission Chair
Take a few streets in a typical town in Donegal or Denbighshire, Devon or Dumfriesshire and you don’t need to look far to find civil society. Whether it’s visible in the streets or behind closed doors, every community hosts an extraordinary array of civil society activity including sports clubs, care for family members or local residents, homework clubs and support networks. As individuals, many of us are active in local groups, charities, in churches, mosques and temples or trade unions. We play our part in campaigns to end poverty or combat climate change. As consumers we support ethical products offered by co-operatives or social enterprises.
Civil society is not governed by profit or power but by values and enthusiasms – a word that originally meant the god within us. Some of us are inspired by frustration and anger, others by hope, and others still by fun. Together, the many parts of civil society contribute enormously to our everyday quality of life.
The good news is that right across the UK and Ireland the daily life of civil society activity is thriving – with no signs of long-term decline and decay, or for that matter any rise in selfishness and other ills, despite the pressures of recession. Civil society is made up of a myriad of circles of freedom and circles of cooperation that have proved to be remarkably resilient.
But it’s also clear that civil society is less than it could be. For a century or more it has been pushed to the margins by commerce and the state, which have claimed the lion’s share of resources and power. It has been paid lip-service, but generally neglected. And it has lost ground in areas it was once strong, like finance or childhood.
Today we can see the convergence of both long and short-term trends which point to a major change in the position of civil society associations. The long-term trends can be traced back to many sources – the rising economic importance of charities and social enterprises globally; the counterculture of the 1960s; the global flowering of civil society activity in the wake of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall; declining trust in politics and the rise of a culture in which people seek and expect expression and voice.
The short-term push to strengthen civil society comes from the coincidence of three crises: the financial crisis and its economic effects, which have sharply reduced the status and confidence of market liberalism; the ecological crisis, which has moved centre-stage as never before in the wake of the Copenhagen Summit at the end of 2009; and a crisis of political confidence, particularly in Britain, because of an accumulation of events, including most recently the scandal of MPs’ expenses.
Each crisis poses very different questions. But it is now impossible to imagine plausible answers to these questions which do not involve a widened role for civil society associations – as the complement to representative democracy; as the place where a different kind of economy takes shape, or is being rediscovered; and as the site for everyday solutions to the effects of rising carbon emissions. This makes now a remarkable time of opportunity. We need to set our sights far beyond the narrow arguments about contracts or fiscal treatment for the voluntary sector, and look instead at how civil society activity can shape our world, and how we can make the transition from an age of ‘me’ to an age of ‘we’. Civil society was born out of the idea that we do best when we work with others, and when we understand our interests as shared with others. That idea is more relevant than ever in an intimately interconnected world.
Here the Inquiry Commission sets out an argument for putting civil society at the centre. It’s not a blueprint or a detailed roadmap – but describes the directions of change, the critical choices, and the many things which could be done by governments, foundations, corporations and civil society associations themselves to make the most of the moment. While the Commission fully endorses the broad direction of travel outlined in this report, we do not pretend that its contents represent a complete consensus.
Given the many thorny issues addressed by the Inquiry, it will come as no surprise that there were many divergent views among Commissioners, although throughout our work we were repeatedly surprised at how convergent many of the discussions were at the many Inquiry events. There was a common appetite for change, shared frustrations about the challenge of influencing systemic change, and a sense that the door is open for some radical breaks.
This has been very much an inquiry of civil society, rather than civil society: shaped by hundreds of participants who shared their ideas and their passions. The Inquiry Commission and the Carnegie UK Trust are very grateful to all of the many individuals and organisations who took part, and helped form the recommendations made here and the associated research.
The Commission are also very appreciative of the dedication and hard work of the Inquiry staff team. Any omissions and errors are obviously our responsibility – but we hope that many will see the fruits of their contribution in what follows. This is a great time of possibility for civil society to spread its values not just in fields such as care and community, where it is already strong, but also in fields where it is relatively weak, including the economy and the media, energy and politics. We believe that if that happens, everyone stands to benefit. That is the ultimate promise of the hundreds of projects, ventures and organisations mentioned in th report, which add up to a radical vision of how our society could grow, not just in material wealth but in social wealth too.
Download full report here