UK Government Civil Society Strategy - Some Thoughts

The UK government has published its strategy document for supporting and interacting with civil society. This is an outline policy approach developed by the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport department. It forms the basis of the approach that all departments of government will be encouraged to take-up in order to strengthen access to public services based on a diverse range of civic partnerships, and especially those partnerships that are relevant to undertaking supporting civic engagement, in what the government now calls the ‘social sector.’

I’ve had an initial read through the document, and I’ve pulled out some passages and statements that capture the overall approach that the government is taking to civic engagement. There’s a lot covered in the report, some of which I’m not aware enough to cover in detail, so this is a partial reading based on my assessment of the implications that the report has for community media services, volunteers and platforms.

The first thing to note, however, is that community media doesn’t get an explicit mention in the report. There are examples relating to health, housing, young people’s services, civic engagement, and so on, but community media is not used as an example of successful community engagement. However, that doesn’t mean that the report is irrelevant. Indeed, if anything, it means that the report needs to be considered closely, and the approaches that are outlined in it might be resonant with community media. Obviously, the report and the policy framework that it fits within, needs to be examined and explored in more detail.

From my initial reading, however, the tone and the language of the report is relevant to the kind of thinking that voluntary groups, charities and other civic groups often use and have extoled over the years. None of the approach is new or novel, as it has been argued for in other fields and circumstances. But it is welcome that government is putting this kind of thinking back into policy development and service delivery.

I’m sure there are many faults that a more critical reading and analysis of this report will bring out, but as an initial approach, I feel its important that the community media movement, and its supporters, take this report seriously, absorb many of the ideas, and consider how this framework relates to the stated aims and practices of community media in general, and the principles of community development that are already aligned with the social impact objectives that community media organisations and groups espouse. What I thought might be useful, then, is to identify specific points from the report, and offer a comment on them. This isn’t methodologically appropriate for a more detailed analysis, but it is a useful way of starting a conversation about many of the issues that are related and covered in the report.

Civil Society
The DCMS has changed its definition of civil society, placing ‘social value’ at the heart of what determines sustainability in the development of public services and civic engagement. Thus, according to the report, “civil society refers to all individuals and organisations, when undertaking activities with the primary purpose of delivering social value, independent of state control.” In doing this, the government “wants to build a partnership with charities and social enterprises, with volunteers, community groups and faith groups, with public service mutuals, socially responsible businesses and investors, and with the institutions which bring sports, arts, heritage, and culture to our communities” (Office, 2018, p. 18). The government is using this definition to bring about changes in its policy making process about its social engagement activities and strategies, defining “civil society not by organisational form, but in terms of activity, defined by purpose (what it is for) and control (who is in charge).” The report therefore identifies that “civil society refers to all individuals and organisations, when undertaking activities with the primary purpose of delivering social value, independent of state control” (Office, 2018, p. 26).

While many might disagree with the motivation of a Conservative government making this following statement, it is nevertheless a significant shift in thinking, as a recognition that a social purpose is now considered within central government policy proposals for England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as devolved in these matters). According to the report “civil society can[…] help us tackle a range of burning injustices and entrenched social challenges, such as poverty, obesity, mental ill-health, youth disengagement, reoffending, homelessness, isolation, and loneliness, and the challenges of community integration” (Office, 2018, p. 18). To underline the importance of the shift in thinking that this report represents, the role of social value in civic engagement, as the reports states is based on the idea that the government believes that social value, defined as “enriched lives and social justice – flows from thriving communities.” Furthermore, these are “communities with a sufficient stock of financial, physical, natural, and social capital, in other words resources including public funding, private investment, buildings, and spaces for community use, as well as trust, connectedness, and goodwill” (Office, 2018, p. 19).

Clearly, these are significant changes to the policy development processes of this government, and bring with them a set of ongoing challenges that will need to be monitored, explained and evaluated in order to hold the government to account, not just about its intention, but also the practical support and impact that these policies actually have on the ground. Being a sceptical pragmatist, though, I would always point out that this is great in theory, but seeing it work in practice is a different matter.

Thriving Communities
One of the priorities that community media advocates have championed internationally is a sense of local identity that is expressed in the media that communities produce about the places that people live and undertake their lives. Community media advocates have long argued that this process of identity communication should be opened-up to and shared by a diverse range of people. It is widely recognised that the role that is advocated by community media champions, is to help alleviate exclusion and voice poverty in the media as it represents local and specific communities and community groups. As the report suggests, “in thriving communities people have a sense of pride in the places where they live, feel able to get involved and take action to improve local life, and have control over the decisions which affect their neighbourhoods.” This is applicable, I would argue, not just to public services and economic development, but also to media engagement and representation. As the report states, “there is a rich diversity of civic institutions, formal and informal associations, shared spaces, and activities. Local public services are properly part of the community, as they are responsive and accountable to the people they support, and local businesses recognise and fulfil their obligations to the places they work in” (Office, 2018, p. 19).

This should be viewed as a valid requirement of our media services, as well as other public and civic services. This principle therefore needs to be reinforced across the media policy spectrum, so that it can be tested and challenged in practice. It is perhaps ironic that while the DCMS is promoting localism and civic inclusion in public services, Ofcom is simultaneously considering allowing commercial radio services to dilute their commitment to local programming. These are the kind of contradictions in practice that can undermine a well-valued policy, so keeping an eye on how these policies work in practice will be important.

I’m sure that there is general and widespread agreement, however, for many of the sentiments that are expressing in this report, particularly as they might be practically supported and backed-up by an active, rather than a passive view of social and civic obligations and rights. It is welcome, therefore, that this affirmation of civic rights and responsibilities is made explicit in the report, which argues that “thriving communities protect and promote the rights and interests of the vulnerable and disadvantaged in society. This includes those with characteristics that are protected under the Equalities Act 2010. The social sector has long played a vital role in ensuring protection and representation for these groups and strong communities embrace this mission, creating integrated and thriving places for people to live and work together” (Office, 2018, p. 19).

Civic-Society Structure
A useful diagram is provided in the report, which demonstrates how these different factors are brought together. What I find noteworthy about this diagram, though, is the lack of acknowledgement of media and communication platforms as an essential mediator and facilitator of discussion between these civic sectors. How, and on what basis, should we communicate about these issues? This is the missing question that I have about this strategy. Does the DCMS expect communication to be handled by existing media organisations, using existing systems and working with existing models and approaches? Or, is the DCMS worried that by opening-up the communication process to accountable and representative local community media groups, the community media model, that it will face a battle with the BBC and commercial media because it is challenging their (arguably) entrenched and privileged positions?

When the report argues that “the government has a vision of the UK with better connected communities, more neighbourliness, and businesses which strengthen society,” then we need to look at the details of how this is brought about with examples of what works and what doesn’t function. It is one thing to claim, as the report does, that “technology enables strong communities rather than enabling disconnection and isolation” (Office, 2018, p. 10), but it is another thing to deliver this in practice. Ofcom have called a halt to further experimentation with community television. Some approaches work, and others don’t. It is clear, however, that a willingness to explore and trial different forms of alternative, creative, and innovative approaches will be needed. Making this happen, however, needs considerable on-the-ground support and investment, long-term thinking, capability building and ground-clearing. The practical experience of community media groups gained in the fight for survival in a demanding and under-resourced set of circumstances, should be regarded as essential in helping to shape our understanding of these issues in practice. The pluralistic and pragmatic voice of community media groups therefore need to be heard in the next stage of policy development by the DCMS.

Mobalised Citizens
The report argues that “to realise the vision of a lifetime of contribution, we need active and mobilised citizens who are able and willing to play a responsible role in their communities. We also need the government and public sector agencies to open up and involve people in the decisions that affect their lives and that of their communities” (Office, 2018, p. 36). The report also argues, based on a review of the governments previous approach to ‘localism,’ that what will bring about further support for these active and mobilised citizens, is a change in the way that government thinks about localism. According to the report “the Localism Commission report examined the need for ‘localism’ to be considered from a different perspective, moving away from seeing it as giving away power from the top down to seeing it as harnessing the power that already exists within local communities. This means harnessing communities’ collective ideas, innovation, creativity, local knowledge and fostering their sense of belonging, connectedness, and shared identity” (Office, 2018, p. 37).

Reading statements like this is very encouraging, as advocates for community media have long argued for these kinds of approaches and policy commitments are vital for a strong, independent community media movement. As previously noted, however, when it comes to media, there is often a myopia in policy thinking about the role that community media can play in civic engagement and public services, both nationally and locally. Communication is often seen as a bolt-on at the end of a project. Communication and media are seldom thought about as an integral part of a civic engagement strategy. When the report states that the governments “Civil Society Strategy takes this agenda forward,” it should be noted that media is a missing component of this approach. I can’t envisage much disagreement with the stated aim of the “Integrated Communities Strategy green paper” that outlined “the government’s vision for building strong integrated communities where people – whatever their background – live, work, learn, and socialise together, based on shared rights, responsibilities, and opportunities” (Office, 2018, p. 20). It would be good, however, to have this sentiment acknowledged as a long-term position of many community media advocates, who have extensive experience working towards this goal, not just in theory, but in practice.

If, as the report identifies, “people should be able to take positive action on issues that they care about,” then surely, we also need to be able to demonstrate how this will be put into action and communicated by sharing our experiences through different forms of media? As the report states, “this [s]trategy sets out a vision for all people of all ages to be able to thrive, connect with each other, and give back to their communities – building an integrated society that works for everyone, where people have a sense of control over their future and that of their community” (Office, 2018, p. 20).

Consider the following passages about the vision that is identified in this report:

“People are empowered to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods. Power is decentralised so that local officials and professionals are properly accountable to local people, and trusted to do their job without bureaucratic interference. The provision of services is seen as the business of the community, not solely the responsibility of government, and providers are drawn from a broad range of suppliers from the public sector and beyond. All communities, regardless of levels of segregation and deprivation, are able to take advantage of these opportunities. Alongside public funding, private finance is used Civil Society Strategy: building a future that works for everyone imaginatively to support services, stimulate innovation, and reduce risk for the taxpayer” (Office, 2018, p. 10).

“People want the opportunity to affect the life of their neighbourhoods, to have a say in local decision-making and to play a part in making change happen. Usually it is the people who deal with issues every day, who know the best way to tackle them. But they are rarely asked their opinion or given the opportunity to be part of the solution. The government wants to change this dynamic and find ways to open up decisions and services to input by people” (Office, 2018, p. 40).

“These developments have the ultimate effect of building a sense of shared identity, improving integration among the people of a place and also among the people of the UK as a whole.” (Office, 2018, p. 11).

In other times these might have been considered as radical and overtly-political proposals. To read this now in a strategy report from the DCMS, shows that we have moved-forward somewhat in potentially addressing many of these challenges. Has the argument for social and community inclusion in public, civic and community services has been won? As indicated earlier, the challenge is to ensure that community media is central to the implementation of these objectives and goals, and not just a bolt-on or after-thought. Work therefore needs to be undertaken in the community media movement to bring about a further turn of the wheel, and put community media at the centre of social impact policy development.

Collaboration and Co-Creation
Social value now has official policy currency in the UK. As the report states, “the government believes that social value flows from thriving communities. These are communities with strong financial, physical and natural resources, and strong connections between people. This includes public funding, private investment, buildings, and other spaces for a community to use. It also includes trust and goodwill, and the organisations and partnerships that bring people together” (Office, 2018, p. 12). Likewise, that “civil society refers to individuals and organisations when they act with the primary purpose of creating social value, independent of state control. By social value we mean enriched lives and a fairer society for all” (Office, 2018, p. 12).

However, rather than thinking that this can be imposed from the centre, by technical policy and administration managers, the report takes the view that the “future we want is one of collaboration and ‘co-creation’” (Office, 2018, p. 11). As the report points out, “government alone cannot solve the complex challenges facing society, such as loneliness, rough-sleeping, healthy ageing or online safety. Government can help to bring together the resources, policies and people who, between them, can do so” (Office, 2018, p. 12).

Again, this is a contestable idea, as some would argue for a more active and activist form of government in bringing about social change, however, it’s difficult to argue with a sentiment that wishes that “all people [… are] able to thrive, connect with each other, and give back to their communities.” It is the aim of the government to “build a society where people have a sense of control over their future and that of their community” (Office, 2018, p. 12). To achieve this the report states that the government will “work with partners to develop new models of community funding. These models will bring together different forms of funding, such as social impact investment, charitable funding, and corporate investment” (Office, 2018, p. 14). These models are covered in some detail in the report, but it’s not my area of expertise, so comments and thoughts about the validity of these aims and approaches would be welcome.

It is also interesting to see the inclusion of the principle of empowerment as a central part of the report. Though what this means in practice, and across a range of services, remains to be seen. There is often a wide and sometimes contradictory view of what empowerment means. Consultation through to co-development of services covers a wide space. However, seeing the principle of empowerment embeded in a DCMS report is potentially groundbreaking. As the report states, “the first requirement for a flourishing community is empowerment. Previous attempts to ‘regenerate’ local places have under-achieved because well-meaning schemes were imposed from outside, and therefore lacked both local knowledge and legitimacy. The government is determined to ensure that place-based solutions are designed and delivered with and by the people they are intended to help. This includes a central place for civil society organisations” (Office, 2018, p. 52).

It is also interesting to see that “the government recognises that all places are not all starting from the same point.” While the report doesn’t state how inequality between communities will be dealt with, it is encouraging to see the recognition that there are many “factors that distinguish communities from one another, such as levels of deprivation and segregation,” and that these “will affect a community’s ability to take greater control.” In what way the government will undertake practical steps to help communities who are at the sharp end of inequality isn’t clear, so we are left with a vague notion of asperation to apply policies that “have the potential to benefit all communities, regardless of circumstance” (Office, 2018, p. 14).

Democratic Civic Engagement
At face-value the ethos of community engagement, as mapped out in this report, is clear. According to the report “a healthy, independent and influential civil society is a hallmark of a thriving democracy. Charities and social enterprises – the social sector – are the core of civil society. A strong social sector is a sign of a strong democracy, which offers many ways in which citizens’ views and concerns can be communicated to decision-makers” (Office, 2018). And that “simply being in receipt of taxpayers’ money should not inhibit charities from making their voices heard on matters of policy and practice” (Office, 2018, p. 14). Therefore, “the government will convene a cross-government group to work with civil society to establish the principles of effective involvement in the policy-making process, learning from the examples of good practice that already exist” (Office, 2018, p. 15).

This change is driven by a fundamental shift in policy thinking, one that might have been missed by many, and which needs to be explored in more detail. As stated in the report, “in recent decades, government has introduced competition to deliver greater value for taxpayers’ money in public services and to broaden the supply of services to include independent providers. This has led to a greater focus on the difference services make and the costs. But this has also resulted in an often rigid focus on numbers, including budgets, volumes, and timescales, rather than a focus on the relationships and flexibility which people and communities also need” (Office, 2018, p. 16). Opponents to the economic rationalist or instrumentalist approach have long complained about this type of thinking, acknowledging that it is reductive, simplistic and over-focussed on the measurement process, rather than the outcomes and social impact.

It is intriguing to see, then, that this report is advocating a “vision for public services in the modern era” based on collaborative commissioning. According to the report, “this means that in the future local players will be involved in an equal and meaningful way in how services are created and delivered. It means that all the resources of a community, including public funding, will be deployed to tackle the community’s challenges” (Office, 2018, p. 16). The phrase that I find interesting here, and which will provide fuel for endless hours of debate and discussion, is the word ‘meaningful.’ What makes civic and community processes and lifeworlds meaningful to people? How do people value and treasure the civic roles, duties, expressions, support structures, and so on, that they are part of? It has long been argued by community development advocates - think of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (Putnam, 2000).

As a movement, community media organisations and advocates will surely wish to take up the governments agenda of organisational diversity and organisation plurality. According to the report, “the government wishes to extend the support currently offered to public sector teams aspiring to form mutuals to other social sector organisations that wish to deliver public services. This would create an environment of far greater user-led, community-led, and staff-led delivery of public services” (Office, 2018, p. 16). Likewise, “the government also wishes to broaden the range of funding options for community initiatives. This includes a revival of grant-making: grants can combine flexibility with the accountability and performance rigour of a contract, as well as bringing additional benefits, such as charitable investment” (Office, 2018, p. 16). Why this can’t include community media groups and services isn’t specifically identified in the report, so this potentially provides an opportunity for community media advocates to engage with all levels of government, to assert that the mutual, not-for-profit, and social-gain objectives of community media groups, are equally as valid as other forms of community-led organisations.

If the DCMS is serious about its aim to “ensure that public spending is used to generate social value in addition to the goods and services it purchases,” then this principle must surely apply to media and communication services as well? As the report states, “there needs to be an increase in social value commissioning across all levels of government. This means improving the use of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012” (Office, 2018, p. 17). To do this, all “central government departments will be expected to apply the terms of the Social Value Act to goods and works as well as services. They will also be expected to ‘account for’ the social value of new procurements, rather than just ‘consider’ it as currently. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will lead the way by applying this wider remit of the Social Value Act to major projects” (Office, 2018, p. 17). There is considerable potential to be realised here, if the groups and organisations involved are able to demonstrate the social value of their services. Given that social impact is the cornerstone of community media, it would be short-sighted to give-up the social impact ground that community media has won over the years, and which is demonstrated in the success of the wide range of licenced Community Radio stations across the UK.

Digital Skills
There is a much wider debate and discussion to be had about the relevence of digital technologies to social life, and how and in what way we are adapting to a very fast-paced technical environment. I agree, however, with the statement in the report that “digital technology does not bring progress when it simply creates efficiency.” And that in order to secure progress the user as a citizen must be put at the heart of the civic engagement process that seeks to meet “human needs” (Office, 2018, p. 83). Much more work needs to be undertaken to assess the impact of digital inclusion services, processes and outlooks, however, the report usefully acknowledges that there is “increasing awareness that increased use of data and digital technology can make charities stronger and even better at what they do. But charities are taking time to adopt opportunities. The government has identified artificial intelligence and the data revolution as one of the four Grand Challenges facing the UK. We will work with partners to explore how best to use digital to build a stronger and even more effective social sector” (Office, 2018, p. 15).

However, the report is also correct in arguing that while “the use of social media, big data, and artificial intelligence are beginning to reach the social sector and there is increasing awareness that adoption of digital techniques can make charities more resilient and sustainable,[…] the rate of adoption is slow by comparison with other sectors” (Office, 2018, p. 83). There is a pressing need to examine the digital capabilities of the community media movement, as there is wide variability and a significant difference in expectation about what can be achieved and undertaken using digital systems and platforms for civic communication, learning, training, and so on. As the report suggests, “civil society is uniquely placed to reach the most excluded in our society, and could play a crucial role in helping others to be able to use digital technology to navigate the digital economy and society.” And, while the “government is eager to work in partnership with civil society to tackle the digital skills gap, and in future will aim for interventions and learnings from these two groups to be scaled and shared with other digitally excluded groups” (Office, 2018, p. 38), it is essential to be frank and open about the level of digital and ICT systems approaches that underpin and support most volunteer-based community media groups.

A more systematic approach from government to upskilling and assessing the needs of community media groups would therefore be welcome, especially if, as the report states, “in an increasingly digital world, we need to make sure that when confronting complex social and environmental issues, we are considering tech as part of the solution. Technology can make our services better and our products faster. It can create wider benefits for communities across the country. Part of maintaining trust is in demonstrating vividly and repeatedly that when society has a problem, technology can play a positive role in addressing it” (Office, 2018).

Measuring Social Value
Given the aims and objectives that are expressed in this report, it is also useful to note that the DCMS recognises the need to develop a broader range of evaluation tools that are accessible to civic engagement and community groups. The governments aim, therefore, is to “enrich the measurement of social value and to achieve consistency across public and private sector understandings of the concept” (Office, 2018, p. 21). The report recognises that there is a “desire for better impact measurement” approaches, and that the government is open to “different organisations and sectors to achieve this,” as long as the “intentions and methods” are aligned, the government is “keen to shape this thinking.” Therefore, “as part of the Civil Society Strategy, the government will explore effective indicators to measure the strength and growth of the five foundations [People, Places, Social Sector, Private Sector and Public Sector].” The government want to “explore the best means of measuring the wellbeing of communities and the social value created, such as the positive outcomes that thriving communities deliver. However, there exists a significant knowledge gap in terms of what makes some communities thrive more than others, and how, for example, different resources and capabilities come together in different places” (Office, 2018, p. 27).

Office, C. (2018). Civil Society Strategy - Building a Future that Works for Everyone. Retrieved from London:

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone - The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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