Civil Society Futures: Public policy perspectives on civil society

14 November 2017


Reported by Erik Jellyman, EPSRC-funded policy intern (September 2017 – December 2017)

On 24 October, CSaP hosted a Policy Workshop on civil society and the role of civil society in policy creation. Dame Fiona Reynolds, Master of Emmanuel College Cambridge, chaired the discussion and outlined the aims by presenting a set of questions posed by contributors at the workshop.

What do we mean by ‘civil society’? How have recent governments – from New Labour through to the current Conservative administration – understood and attempted to harness civil society? What future possibilities are there for more effective engagement between civil society and government? Does Brexit provide new impetus for engaging civil society in policy making?

The current landscape and changes

Julia Unwin, Chair of the Independent Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society, opened the workshop by outlining the emerging trends in civil society; how the world of work had changed, with employment and housing becoming much less secure. The situation was also outlined regarding identities normally associated with long-term employment and sense of place being eroded. And the growing number and depth of divides within society was illustrated with examples such as Brexit.

Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths University of London, added to the landscape of civil society by sharing some of her research findings. This included the great levels of desperation in society; highlighting housing, job security and austerity as key issues. However, Natalie also discussed the changing way people are networking and organising, with the rise of online activism – such as – which has been a disruptive influence for civil society, especially for larger, established civil society organisations.

Professor Helen Roberts, a medical sociologist at University College London, outlined the gendered nature of civil society, which is often overlooked with women disproportionately taking the prominent roles in local, community and school-based civil society organisations. This is in contrast to larger organisations and government which is predominantly male and white.

Institutions and networks

Craig Bennett, CEO at Friends of the Earth, explained that from his experience, government had given mixed messages over the past 20 years to civil society, with examples of double standards or policy not being taken seriously. Recent efforts have seen the Lobbying Act as an attempt to reduce the power of civil society to influence policy.

Discussions then focused on how examples of direct action and activism by civil society has seen much more policy influence by demonstrating success than the traditional efforts of influence with government; citing the recycling push in the 1970s. Kajal Odedra added to this, by discussing how works because of grassroots micro-movements networking effectively.

The role of government and engagement

Currently government is under immense pressure, primarily due to the effects of Brexit. Emily Miles, Group Director for Strategy in Defra, outlined that in government departments, a considerable amount of work is affected by EU legislation. However, it was widely acknowledged in the discussion that recent political events had increased the power of parliament. This was generally considered to be a positive trend as it forced further inquiry and government engagement with legislation.

Civic universities and the role of research

The workshop came to a close with a discussion on the role of universities within civil society. William Maloney, Professor of Politics and Head of School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University, proposed the concept of ‘civic universities’; universities being a neutral place for civil society to convene and debate with the research support of academia.

This would place universities as a community hub, rather than just a teaching institution. It was emphasised that the efforts and role of students should not be overlooked as they are essential to bringing civil society and grassroots activism onto university campuses.

Banner image by Henry Huey licensed under CC BY 4.0

Thumbnail image by Tim Dennell licensed under CC BY 4.0