How can Britain rebuild its civil society?

July 18, 2017   By Abigail Gilbert, published in CityMetric

“How can we continue to secure the dignity, wellbeing and happiness of people after nearly a decade of cuts?” pondered the Chief Executive of one London council at a dialogue session for our latest research.

Cuts demand councils deliver better for less – but cuts also inevitably mean they will deliver less for less. This can already be seen in many of the inner city councils particularly impacted on by cuts, where service provision has been scaled back to “statutory at the highest level of need”.

In many areas the hope is that civil society – individuals and organisations which are driven by values of fairness and equality and take action to make their communities a better place to live – will step into this gap. That they will not only compensate for services no longer delivered by local government, but actively transform communities to make them more independent and ultimately, less likely to require public services in the first place.

Delivering on this preventative ambition is imperative, but cannot be expected to happen on its own. It certainly will not happen according to the rules, roles and responsibilities of old systems. Our recent research found that, at the moment, funding landscapes for civil society are fragmented, inefficient, and too top down.

As we argue in Building Bridges: Bringing Councils, Communities and Funders into Dialogue, to build a civil society fit for latter day austerity, the various funders of civil society must collaborate, and put communities in the driving seat to determine what good looks like themselves. To achieve this, several hurdles must be overcome.

First, the lack of clarity about where responsibilities lie, linked to the fact that different funders work at different scales. Many civil society organisations are funded by multiple sources, each with their own priorities, targets and reporting requirements.

For instance, many national independent funders (charitable trusts and foundations) make it a condition of their funding that the charity concerned delivers activity which is ‘additional’ to state activity. But this varies from place to place, and can only be understood through dialogue.

The problem of scale fracturing understanding is also shown within government. Clinical commissioning groups or CCG’s (the local arm of the NHS which commission some community services) do not always cover the same area as councils, and often fail to collaborate on civil society led prevention. Different parts of the system must connect better to make space for new dialogues to happen.

Second, the lack of agreement about what good looks like, exacerbated by a lack of dialogue between funders and communities. While not impossible, it is difficult and costly to prove that a singing group will prevent someone subsequently getting depression, or dementia.

This means that conventional approaches which prescribe (or procure) a specific solution to a specific problem won’t work. Top down won’t work. The only way to resolve this is to engage communities directly, and put them in the driving seat to develop long term funding strategies which reflect the needs and assets of particular places.

Finally, different parts of the funding system must put local outcomes rather than their organisational reputations, first. Councils are under huge scrutiny at the moment about how they invest their money. Equally, charities have suffered a crisis of trust over the last few years – highlighted by much greater attention from the media and in policy.

The upshot of this is that both are cautious about how they work with others. However, as the boundaries between state and charity blur, it is more important than ever to increase transparency about who funds what, why, and how this is embedded in communities, particularly those within them.

Charitable investment is a drop in the ocean compared to cuts made to the public sector, and cannot be expected to replace like for like. However, systems of support for civil society must be recalibrated if the prevention agenda is going to work. In ambitious and forward thinking areas funders are finding ways to collaboratively rework the local civil society ecosystem by strengthening networks, building platforms which allow communities to communicate, share assets, win contracts, and lever in resources.

As the public continue to expect more from local services, but elect governments who are hesitant to invest, old hierarchies of support will cease. In this context, communities must be enabled to find new, more creative routes to secure local outcomes. It is in this context that bridges between funders, civil society, and communities must be built.

Abigail Gilbert is a researcher at NLGN.

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