Civil society inquiry calls for radical reforms to stem social divisions

The largest inquiry of its kind for two decades publishes report outlining changes needed to revitalise civil society.

Joe Hall
19 November 2018

A workshop in Newcastle, one of the 200 meetings held by the inquiry over a two-year period. Image: Civil Society Futures.A two-year independent inquiry into civil society has called for “radical reforms” to counter growing social divisions.

The recommendations set out in a report published by Civil Society Futures today, includes handing the power to design public services over to locals, transforming local councils into co-operatives, investing in community-owned media and a citizen’s wealth fund.

Over 3,000 people, among them activists and key civil society figures, were consulted as part of the inquiry, led by former Joseph Rowntree Foundation chief executive Julia Unwin. 

The future of local communities, racism, social divisions around Brexit, inequality, the automation of work, and climate change are among the concerns mostly frequently raised.

Too often people feel civil society does not involve people in decision-making.

Unwin highlighted the urgent need for civil society reforms to combat a sense of disillusionment. “People feel ignored and divided as the future is shaped. They want much more power over their lives, they want to come together,” she said.

“Too often people feel civil society does not involve people in decision-making, is disconnected from communities, more accountable to big funders than to the people they serve,” she added. “In a year of headlines about sexual abuse at Oxfam, Save the Children and others, trust in civil society is in question.”

“Charities, voluntary and community groups need to get back to their roots and rediscover their enduring purpose which is to connect people and to shift power. We must be more accountable and build greater trust.”

The inquiry points to the #metoo movement, community responses to the horrors of the Manchester bombing and new unions for gig economy workers as examples of the potential civil society has for driving change.

Its final report proposes a new set of guidelines – covering power, accountability, connection and trust – for civil society organisations to implement.

Power: shifting power and sharing more decision-making and control, being a model of inclusive participation for the rest of society.


Accountability: being primarily accountable to the people they serve - instead of putting funders and government first - and being accountable to future generations.


Connection: broadening and deepening connections with people and communities,  bridging damaging social divides, and investing in a new ‘social infrastructure’.


Trust: devoting more time and resources to build trust in all civil society activity, earning trust by speaking up to politicians and corporations, trusting communities to make the decisions that affect them.

Civil Society Futures, which launched in 2016, is the largest inquiry into civil society for over two decades. The government has cited research carried out by the inquiry in its own strategy for civil society, announced in August. 

openDemocracy is one of four organisations that worked together to run the inquiry, along with Citizens UK, Goldsmiths, University of London and Forum for the Future.

Read the full report here.

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Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

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