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Geoff Mulgan - Hinton Lecture 2007

Geoff Mulgan - Hinton Lecture 2007

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The Paradox of civil society and the challenge of social growth.

"...Civil society often hopes too much in the short-term. But it also often hopes too little in the long-term – and it is vital that pragmatic managerialism isn’t allowed to obscure civil society’s role as the restless agent of change, as a place where society dreams as well as acts ... "
The Paradox of civil society and the challenge of social growth.

"...Civil society often hopes too much in the short-term. But it also often hopes too little in the long-term – and it is vital that pragmatic managerialism isn’t allowed to obscure civil society’s role as the restless agent of change, as a place where society dreams as well as acts ... "

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03/29/2015

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Geoff Mulgan ‐ Hinton Lecture 2007
21 November 2007, address to the UK National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)
 
The paradox of civil society and the challenge of social growth
 
Nick Hinton was one of those people whose energy and idealismwere infectious and daunting in equal measures, and it’s ahumbling honour to be asked to deliver a lecture in his honour.It’s now a full generation since Nick ran NCVO, and I want to usethis opportunity to reflect on where we are now, and what I seeas the paradox of civil society in Britain.On the one hand more organisations, more turnover, more influence and morevisibility, perhaps than ever before. On the other, retreat in important areas,values under pressure from growing inequality, the slow squeeze on civil libertyand high levels of distrust, disrespect and disregard.Let me start with the words of the poet Wei Wu Wei, who diagnosed the ills of anover individualised, under socialised society more crisply than I could, and throughthe lens of eastern philosophy:
 Why are you so unhappy? Because 99.9% Of everything you think and Of everything you doIs for yourself  And there isn’t one
 We are now roughly halfway through the inquiry commissioned by the CarnegieTrust in part to look at the state of these bonds beyond our separate selves and toconsider the future of civil society in the UK and Ireland, taking a wide view of civilsociety as meaning not just the voluntary sector but also the other places wherepeople come together as equals for common goals and beliefs, from faith to tradeunions.Our first task was to make sense of where we are now. Here the raw facts arestriking, and familiar to an audience like this, whether it’s the number of charitiesand voluntary organisations, their share of the economy and employment or thegrowth of new fields like social enterprise and social investment.There are many sectors where civil society has enjoyed strong growth over the lastgeneration. It dominates in social care, as well as in housing where it’s beenhelped by a continuing stream of stock transfers and the guaranteed subsidies of 
 
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 housing benefit. In health there are now some 34,000 third sector providers, undercontract to the NHS.Civic activism has also grown – a rough doubling in a generation of many of theindicators of civic activism, like taking part in consumer boycotts – and the rise osophisticated campaigns like the planes protests whose methods of consensusdecision making have a lot to teach other sectors.No wonder the sector has become integral to political debate, and that NCVO hasno difficulty getting a hearing. The marginalisation that affected the sector inmuch of the 20th century is over, and the sector can be proud of what’s beenachieved in policy: a remarkable proportion of the recommendations of pastcommissions, such as Nick Deakin’s, are now either enshrined in law or at least ontheir way, whether in the form of the Compact (which is bedding down, albeit withimportant remaining issues about powers), or the new charity act (again, albeitwith remaining questions over how the Charity Commission will enforce it). If Idon’t say much about this policy agenda it’s mainly because so much has beenachieved.But this rosy picture of influence and advance can be misleading. We know, forexample, that the small charities have been squeezed by the large in an era of more competitive marketing, the less well connected by the well connected.Overall giving is at best static – hovering under 1% of GDPAnd there are many sectors where ground has been lost. Take the field of information and knowledge, one of the commanding heights of a modern society. Inthe media civil society does appear as a campaigner. But as a player it is utterlymarginal – with all the dominant channels owned by big business or by one publicsector organisation, the BBC. Just about the only other player that at one timeinspired hope – Channel 4 – has in some eyes lost its way. In print the Scott Trust isabout the only third sector player. There are the Community Channel andcommunity radio stations doing sterling work – but nothing remotely able tocompete with the big players.In finance, another of the commanding heights of modern society, decades of retreat, demutualisation and privatisation, have yet to be made up for by thepromising but still modest in scale achievements of the Charity Bank, Venturesomeand others.Look through the lens of the stages of life, and the picture is equally uneven. Civilsociety has certainly lost ground in childhood. Children growing up today arebombarded by an intrusive and often shameless commercial culture and then takeninto the care of the state if things go really wrong, with the voice of civil society
 
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 barely audible in the din. In the workplace where so many spend so much of theirlives, professional associations remain strong but for most of the workforce thevoice of self organisation has been greatly weakened by a combination of frontalassault on trade unions and neglect.What of the future? In the inquiry we tried to make sense of some of the bigtrends. We looked at the impact of technology – which is making organisation fareasier, but also strengthening surveillance and a concentration of power in the bigplayers, from NewsCorporation’s Myspace to Google’s Youtube. We looked at howglobalisation is raising the importance of international NGOs and creating a quitenew pattern of diaspora organisation, but also concentrating wealth and power inglobal cities in which many feel less commitment to the places they live and thepeople around them. We looked, of course, at climate change, an issue which civilsociety in partnership with global science has done so much to put into publicconsciousness, but also at how often it is squeezed aside when big business and biggovernment pick up its agendas (and we also looked at whether business wouldbecome more socially engaged or whether we would only have more ‘astroturf’campaigns mimicking real grassroots activism).We then looked at how the very idea of civil society may evolve. Today very oldtraditions of charity and mutual support sit alongside a much more modern idea of civil society, well described in Jeffrey Alexander’s monumental recent book ‘TheCivil Sphere’. This modern civil society is concerned with universal rights andvalues, democracy and equity, a bigger sense of us, a bigger sense of here, and abigger sense of now, concerned with ecology and future generations.This more modern perspective often challenges older norms. So, for example, itcriticises traditional charity for only dealing with symptoms instead of addressingthe underlying causes of suffering and need, challenging power structures, andacting to a ‘theory of change’. Kathryn Merchant, President and CEO of the GreaterCincinnati Foundation even recently described philanthropy as ‘applied socialscience’. It puts a strong emphasis on voice and sees beneficiaries as best placed todefine and understand their own needs, rather than donors or trustees – whichchallenges not only traditional charity but also venture philanthropy. It sees actionsin civil society as public in nature, rather than being extensions of private life.Hence the pressure for greater transparency for charities (as promoted byorganisations like Guidestar International or the Center for Effective Philanthropy),the view that large non governmental organisations should be more formallyaccountable for their actions, for the bang they achieve for their bucks, and thatwealthy philanthropists exercising power in a community through spending moneyshould be in part accountable to the beneficiaries and others affected by theiractions.

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