We need to invest in active citizens

Tom’s post – If we want active citizens we need to invest in the skills of citizenship – appeared on the blog page of Civil Society Futures in September 2017.


Citizenship’s a wonderful thing. The very word empowers; it places identity on a plane above being a mere consumer of goods and services, a statistic or a ‘subject’ whose will is subjugated to that of some higher rank. It’s also a collective concept – citizens together – which, being inclusive, confers dignity.

But it’s also too often an abstract concept, along with the rights and responsibilities which attend it, absent from the vocabulary of those ‘just about managing’ or downright struggling. In those communities where qualifications, opportunities and confidence are low ‘citizenship values’ are too often not even of academic interest.

As a Member of Parliament I used to represent over 20 local authority wards, of which one was in the 5 per cent most deprived in the land and two more in the bottom ten per cent. In that most deprived ward disability and other benefits were the largest source of household income. Other deprivation-linked metrics – obesity, smoking, failure to breast feed, low educational attainment – were the worst in the county. The social housing estate at the heart of the ward was purpose-built; that purpose being (in the early 60s) to complement inner city slum clearance by hiding the community on a greenfield site away from established centres of population.

When a colleague from a solid working class seat said that there was ‘no tradition’ of advice surgeries in his patch, and his office received far fewer letters than mine, I plotted on a map the addresses of constituents who’d approached me for advice. Those from communities in most need, I saw, were least likely to contact their MP. My first thought was that the ability to describe difficult concepts in written English, a great tool of engaged citizenship, is often lacking in deprived areas.

To this day this isn’t an issue of native language. This community was (and is) mostly white and English-speaking; many of whom, on rare forays into writing paragraphs, would be embarrassed, shamed or let down by their inability to communicate – and they knew it. Needless to say, their understanding of democracy was, let’s say, ‘incomplete’. Their analysis of their community’s problems was perceptive but their ambitions for putting things right were limited. They had little faith in the ‘powers that be’; they weren’t active citizens – other than occasionally collaborating with neighbours where need or common interest and capacity allowed.

On that estate of 1,600 homes public services did exist: a doctor, a community centre, a nursery, primary school and library. The private sector consisted of four small shops and two pubs (one of which has since closed) and many of those employed there lived elsewhere; there was no local employment to speak of, nowhere to build skills, create useful experience, develop team working or create a sense of achievement. Business is largely absent from deprived areas – so too (as IPPR North has pointed out) is voluntary sector infrastructure.

In short, it’s as though citizenship had been designed out of the estate.

After generations of status quo classes C2DE, who live on such estates, are stirring – but not in a good way. Low electoral turnout, reflecting a genuine lack of engagement, is commonplace in such wards. When they do vote they tend to vote Labour. Or do they? The 2017 general election saw a massive 12 per cent swing to the Conservatives amongst C2DEs even though it was they who’d borne the brunt of seven years of austerity, falling buying power, benefit and service cuts. It was an ‘against’ vote, against the party which purported to represent their own interests – and (being in Opposition) had failed to improve them. In 2016 a bare majority of Britain voted for Brexit. Even Brexit supporters acknowledge that many of them voted not for ‘a new role in the world’ but against the establishment generally, officialdom, ‘them’ or just to protest the lot they had been cast in life. ‘Europe’ was a bogeyman. It’s no coincidence that the strongest correlation with voting in the referendum was with educational background: those with fewer qualifications were much more likely to vote ‘leave’.

When we talk of citizens collaborating to complement, extend or even replace public sector provision or private utilities – perhaps as an energy-purchasing consortium or simply for their own fulfilment and enjoyment – we’re generally talking of communities led by the middle class. In such places organisational skills are commonplace and resources are bestowed upon resourceful people. The language spoken has a different cultural context than on the deprived estate: it’s richer, more expressive, a more useful tool. Rational concepts like risk or consequences of actions are freely employed in planning and decision-making, fields in which the middle class have more experience. In short, whilst both working and middle class areas might appear to be dormitories their skills, capacities, confidence and ambitions are poles apart.

Citizenship isn’t just a matter of one’s relationship to a community or a social hierarchy, nor simply a measure of participation – but also of values. It reflects access to social capital, communication skills and the wherewithal, physically and intellectually, to work both collectively and with outsiders to achieve change. Culture and values cannot be imposed from without but do need feeding, nurturing, promoting. Empowerment and engagement cannot be created overnight.

Many today believe that our society must change in a way which is more devolved, more locally provided for than at present, and so it must; the era of ‘big is beautiful’ in public services is over. However, simply passing responsibility down the line assumes levels of citizenship capacity at the grass roots which the most needy communities simply cannot deliver. Three things are needed to create community confidence in such places:

  • Basic skills, especially literacy, need to be prioritised as never before, in both children and adults.
  • Brave decisions from Government and local authorities to share power – even give it away – to local communities; a long term, phased, organic process not driven by some arbitrary timetable.
  • Investment in early intervention in education, health and welfare (when programmes such as Sure Start are cancelled progress is not just ended but reversed).

Even Britons who share a common language are today far from equal in what they are able to achieve. For stability, security and shared prosperity this must be addressed; otherwise those who struggle today will be left even further behind.

What is the future of civil society?

“There are no boundaries”: a response to Julia Unwin’s dilemmas

Julia Unwin, chair of Civil Society Futures, published “three dilemmas” for civil society. Here, Tom Levitt responds.

This isn’t a dilemma: there are no boundaries. Perhaps a generation ago it helped to categorise but today it doesn’t, the approach needs to be inclusive. Whilst I welcome the idea of the ‘for purpose’ company, B Corp is a distraction, not least because it only applies to 100 small companies in UK after a decade of existence. It doesn’t answer this question: “If a ‘for profit’ company commits its entire work force to supporting a charity partner over a period, in innovative ways, producing value to both parties, is it behaving as part of civil society?” I’d say yes, of course. Does the same apply if only half the workforce is involved? Yes… and so on, ad absurdum. Where do you draw the line?

What’s the difference between a profit and a surplus? Does it really matter? The American version of ‘non-profit’ is at least defined (organisations dependent upon external funding for their survival) whereas ours isn’t so concise. The only true ‘not for profits’ are taxpayer-funded services, charities, voluntary groups – and companies that have gone bust. Social enterprises and B Corps are ‘for-profits’ but it’s what they do with their profits that makes them different from companies which exist to drive ‘shareholder value’ only, who take money out of their companies to benefit (principally) ‘the few’. Even CICs are allowed to take some of their surplus/profit out of the system! Shareholder value is very much under scrutiny as more and more business leaders, as at Unilever, argue that environmental sustainability and community engagement are actually the best ways to deliver long term shareholder value. Does that make them part of civil society? (When we say ‘not for profit’ we mean ‘not for dividend’ but that’s not very catchy!)

A well run business will regard its workforce as a community and espouse community values of engagement, representation, activism and sharing; the employee-owned John Lewis Partnership does all of these things. Does that make JLP part of civil society?

We don’t need to spend time and effort excluding people and organisations from our definition of civil society: if it has a bill and it quacks, it’s a duck. Let’s get swimming together…

Dilemma 2. Civil society is one of the places where we express affiliation and associational life is our great, and growing, strength. Many voluntary organisations invest heavily and successfully in developing an active and engaged membership. But trustees are charged with governing for today’s beneficiaries as well as future generations. Does that create impossible conflicts within organisations with growing and more engaged and voluble memberships? Do we risk the engagement of members who quite naturally will have demands and aspirations for now? Are members our stakeholders, or are they are owners?

Those conflicts can and do arise. As Martin Luther King said:

‘Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary’.

In other words, every charity should have the goal of putting itself out of business by conquering the cause of the injustice against which they fight; that’s how you serve the beneficiaries of the future. Whilst this isn’t usually a realistic (lifetime) goal it should, nevertheless, always be reflected in the mission and programme of both individual charities and civil society in general.

You identify two risks here: one, that I call the ‘philanthropist’s risk’ is that s/he may choose to fund a campaign which isn’t a priority, or in a way which is not appropriate, perhaps operating in isolation from others and possibly even undermining those with a more rational approach. Bill Gates is a star not for the quantity of money he donates to good causes but for the fact that he delivers nothing: he uses his wealth to enhance and coordinate proven ways of working by others. The ‘democratic risk’ is that the majority have the right to be wrong. A charity with ‘youth’ in its name had a very democratic structure which, over the years, delivered an elected trustee board with an average age of over 60. The membership had to be told they were wrong – a brave action – but re-organisation was well handled and it worked.

‘Membership’ – an active, engaged, controlling mass membership – is not the flavour of the month in the charity world where today ‘followers’ (in both the ancient and the modern, Facebook sense) and supporters are the most wooed. This helps protect the mission from transient changes in public mood and other influences (given appropriate safeguards) and leaner, slimmer organisations are more agile than those which are constantly looking over their shoulders to judge public or members’ moods. But a compromise is needed: the charity sector is paying a price, literally, for regarding supporters as money-fodder rather than building relationships with them.

Few businesses could be described as democratic but they certainly know how to build brand loyalty…

Dilemma 3. We know that reputation is a hugely valued asset. We gamble with it at our peril. And yet active civil society will always want to empower people to take action. Our risk frameworks and control systems may protect our reputation. But do they also dampen enthusiasm and engagement and make it difficult for people to take initiative? Does our proper desire to be business-like and professional, stop us from allowing people to take action?

The charity sector is notorious for its risk aversion and fear of failure. Whilst the latter is justifiably seen as letting down the beneficiary, the former prevents many (especially mid-sized) charities from maximising their impacts. A balance must be struck.

A good example of this is the way that charities regard business as a resource. Traditionally this is an arm’s length relationship although the charity arm is normally outstretched, palm upwards. A recent report says that in 2012 only 20 per cent of our largest charities agreed with the statement:

‘…by effectively harnessing our corporate partners’ competences and non-cash assets [our organisation] can make much more of an impact on our mission delivery objectives than through cash-based relationships’.

In 2013 it was 34, 48 in 2015 and 60 per cent agreed by 2016. Things are changing. The Dell Foundation has identified a significant shift in corporate philanthropy: given a choice between a $100,000 gift and an equivalent value in counselling, skilled volunteering or access to decision-makers only two fifths of the 700 NGOs they work with, worldwide, would today choose the cash.

I’m interested in what ‘action’ Julia have in mind in the last sentence. Some would argue that the swing from ‘public funded’ to ‘state funded’ charity-run services has both grown charity capacity and stifled innovation as it (usually) pays for reliability of pre-existing services. As state funding dries up (half of government funding to medium sized charities has already gone) that idea will be tested in years to come! One thing that stifles action, of course, is the Lobbying Act, often creating an over-compensation in a community not used to being regulated in this way.

If ‘action’ means ‘taking part in demonstrations’, forget it (useful for cause-building, no good at getting results). If ‘action’ means empowering collective activity to directly serve beneficiaries then that focus will be more important than ever. As the public sector shrinks (for evidence, look no further than care provision in relation to growing demand) the imagination, capacity and determination of civil society will be tested as never before. New forms of collaborative, integrated, collegiate, cross sector working are needed, based more than ever on local initiatives; the state may still need to coordinate but the routes to results are not paved with gold. We’ll never again go back to the halcyon days of even ten years ago…