The future of civil society

May 16, 2019

By Asif Afridi, Deputy CEO, brap, and independent member of the inquiry into the future of civil society

Society has changed a lot over the last two decades in England. What implications are there in these changes for the role of civil society? And how might it best position itself to be sustainable and have the maximum impact in the future?

These were some of the questions we asked during the two-year inquiry into the future of civil society, on which I served as an independent member. We spoke to over 3,000 people through conferences, events, and interviews across England. From that, we developed a number of reports which set out the ways in which English society has changed, and how civil society needs to adapt and respond to these pressures and challenges.

At the forthcoming Centre for Excellence conference, I’ll be sharing some of the findings of the inquiry. In this blog, I’ve tried to summarise some of the key issues that are relevant to the social housing sector.

One of the areas we looked at was the nature of work. The idea of having a job for life is much less common now. Yet, if your work was the place where you found meaning and a sense of belonging, you might now start to look at other parts of your life for these.

We also found that people felt very distanced from the democratic process. They think society is more divided, that people tend to stick to their own groups and don’t really mix very much. The sense of society being divided between the haves, and the have-nots, was also prevalent.

One consequence of this is that the way people organise themselves in civil society has moved away from the traditional, charity-based organisation. You only have to look at the examples of the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion movements to see how this is happening.

The inquiry found two responses to these pressures. First, there’s a role for government and business, with the former investing more in civil society, or changing its relationship with civil society to give it more power through, for example, asset transfers.

Our focus, though, is on what civil society needs to do itself. How can it change its attitudes and behaviours? How can it meet these challenges without waiting for government to act?

We developed four sets of ideas, which I’ll talk about more at the conference. Broadly they were:

  • Power: how civil society organisations should be more aware of the power they have, and how they should share this power with others.
  • Accountability: how civil society organisations should become more accountable to those who they work with, rather than those who fund them.
  • Connection: how civil society organisations can connect better with people in their locality, including other community organisations.  
  • Trust: how civil society should re-establish the trust of the people it serves, rebuilding relationships within communities, and demonstrating our independence of government.

For housing associations, these ideas and associated challenges have particular resonance. Some initial questions for housing associations might include:

  • What would it take for your organisation to democratise decision-making?
  • How have tenants been involved in designing your accountability processes?
  • Are the connections you’re making locally with people like you? Or do you try to connect with others that are different from you to help you achieve your aims?
  • And how do you build trusting relationships with tenants? Do you only tend to listen to those who agree with you?

I’m looking forward to sharing my insights, and hearing responses from colleagues at the conference.  


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