A New Civil Society

12/04/2017 16:56 BST | Updated 12/04/2017 16:56 BST

Brexit is now in full swing and the ups and downs of negotiations will likely dominate thinking and media coverage for the next few years. Not an uplifting thought - unless you love mind-numbing detail combined with overweening rhetoric.

But while the historic importance of Britain deciding to cut itself off from the EU feels profound, that of most domestic interest is the vote for Brexit revealed a country not 'at ease with itself' - one of Prime Minister John Major's key aims several decades ago.

Policy makers and thank tanks worry about this, so too do social scientists and pollsters. More practically, local councillors and chief executives look at what they can do to provide a sense of purpose, well-being and hope to those parts of their locality that fall into the 'left behind' category.

To many, the current Prime Ministers talk of a Shared Society seemed like a potential response to all this, but after its launch earlier this year, we have heard very little about it - not even a few initiatives in and around the Budget.

To move this debate on, Professor Gerry Stoker and I have published a pamphlet with NPC suggesting that one of the answers to these conundrums is to re-think the role of civil society and to put it centre stage.

Our argument is that civil society generates human capital, social enterprise, ideas, networks, emotional support, practical help and well-being. It allows us to learn from our experiences of social exchange and a stronger civil society reinforces our better selves and the values of solidarity, so its presence helps to sustain and spread those values. As we say, "If civil society didn't exist, progressives would have to invent it".

But too often it is seen as simply making up for what public and private sector don't do - clearing up their mess. If instead we start by putting civil society at the heart of our thinking, our question becomes: what should the state and private sector do to enable this to happen? We end up with a variety of proposals, some familiar, some radical that would help to put the support and encouragement of civil society much higher up the agenda. And because we are not naive, we look at some of the problems of the sector: its very voluntarism means it is distributed geographically and across issue areas in a rather random way; its deep and crucial commitment towards achieving its mission often takes away from any focus on efficiency. We then try to come up with some solutions.

What kind of ideas have we come up with then? Well, as with attacking any policy agenda that involves a shift in emphasis you have to attack it from a number of angles. Some of the ideas are familiar and feel a bit trite on their own. But taken together - and combined with a number of new ideas - we think they could make a big difference.

We want to focus on:

Driving change in government to support the shared society: Promoting the sector to turbo charge the agenda including changes in Whitehall to deliver this; raising its status, with targeted funds to plug gaps; ensuring a Cabinet minister and team with strong leadership in all key departments too.

Implementing a new regulatory and improvement regime: Keeping the Charity Commission as the narrowly focused regulator and data source/collector but creating a new improvement agency to help promote good practice and stamp out bad practice.

Giving civil society a seat and a voice at the table of governance locally: Making it part of every unitary local government and regional government set up to have a third sector chamber or other means of having a voice.

Controlling and using assets for social good: Enabling third sector bodies to control, use or run assets not wanted or under-used by the state or private sector.

Asking the private sector to step forward: Bringing in and promoting the concept of responsible business much more.

Bringing other players into the thinking of civil society: Actively seek engagement from beyond the normal suspects in order to limit the chances of group think constraining innovation.

Boosting social capital and social infrastructure: Monitoring progress on these issues down to very local levels and having funding earmarked to help support them.

Our hope is that the debates on civil society - that raged in the New Labour years, as it funnelled cash and more power to the sector, and then erupted with the brief push of Cameron's ill-fated Big Society initiative - but has now gone quiet, will be resurrected by our new pamphlet we will find some useful ways forward.

A version of this blog was first published in the MJ.