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June 29, 2016

Towards a democratic society

There’s so much churn happening across society at the moment that it’s hard to know where the solid ground is. That can be unsettling and many would just prefer to batten down the hatches in the hope that things eventually settle down.  But it also creates opportunities for new conversations to take place and different perspectives to be shared. Willie Sullivan and Martin Sime have co-authored a short pamphlet designed to provoke new thinking about how we might move towards a more democratic society.


Martin Sime and Willie Sullivan

To read full paper click here.

If you would like to respond to this paper or become involved in any subsequent conversations, please contact either  or

A Summary

In this paper we have been trying to think about the future of civil society in the context of a rapidly changing economy, society and polity. The power and sustainability of what citizens do for themselves and each other is a persistent theme. How to reconfigure relationships between civil society and the state, including the interplay between citizen action and representative democracy, is another critical issue which we hope can be explored. We have come to recognise that technology is a significant enabler of change, particularly to the capacity and connectedness of civil society organisations. How all of this might play out over the next 10 years is at the heart of a discussion which we hope will stimulate colleagues to review strategies and plans in this context. We need more people to be thinking about this stuff.

Just describing the scale and diversity of Scottish civil society is a major project. We are diverse, pluralistic and often atomised. There are some wide networks alongside individual organisations with deep roots. We are routinely characterised by our differences: big/small; national/local; charity/social enterprise; campaigner/service provider. There are groups and organisations which cover just about every issue under the sun.

The critique we offer needs to be seen in that context. We fear a creeping managerialism, often connected to the delivery of services under contract to government. Some of our number mimic corporate or public sector values and the commitment to transparency and accountability can be shallow. Mostly, we sense a lack of ambition and effective strategies to deliver on our missions. Victorian attitudes favouring mere mitigation are favoured by some.

On the other hand we sense enormous potential in the moment. Whilst a big state mentality is still omnipotent, the worlds of traditional party politics and media seem in terminal decline. Rising inequality and insecurity are stoking demands which the state cannot meet within the shallow debate about tax and spend. It is evident from our growth points that more people want more control over the things that matter to them and more say over the things that are done for and to them. Where will more self-directedness and community empowerment take us?

Such a future is unlikely without at least some critical appraisal of the values which underpin civil society activism. We can lay claim to a lot of latent power and authority but this will not be realisable without serious commitments to improve our legitimacy and to develop our democratic accountability to the people we serve. We sense that quite radical change is required to root out vested and institutional interests lest we become part of the problem we describe.

The old ways of organising our society and our governance are no longer attractive or viable. People vote with their feet to invest their time and energy in ways where they feel they can make a difference, where their contribution matters. This is the principal driver of civil society growth in every country in the world.

How much more of our society and economy could, or should, be run on mutual, non-profit and democratic principles? How much should be and can we imagine a project to get us there more quickly than seems likely on our current trajectory? Can we create a (more) enabling state for these purposes and what role do we need it to play?

Ultimately though, this is a project about a mature civil society challenging itself to become more relevant to meeting the challenges of tomorrow; to walk the talk of our values and realise the power of people mobilising together for public good.

We are trying to create a debate about how we organise our society and its institutions in changing circumstances. This pamphlet points out some things that are driving change, particularly the relationship between society and technology. This exposes, and potentially removes, some of the barriers to transformative change over time. We think there might be an opportunity to rearrange things so that people are freer to do things for each other and themselves. We suggest this is an opportunity to make Scotland a better place.

Willie Sullivan

Martin Sime