Building civil society

What’s the point? A stronger, deeper civil society is good in its own right.

Currently led by nine organisations, with 150 signed up to an e-bulletin. The idea is to be open to anybody who wants to join the network, and to make decisions by consensus. One indicator of success might be that citizens and civil society organisations in Barking and Dagenham see themselves as shaping the Collective.

In common with many local authorities, Barking and Dagenham has found itself handicapped by processes that pushed civil society organisations into competition with each other. Another indicator of success might be that the social sector comes to see that more can be achieved by working together. “It would be good to see the end of the bun fights for a £10,000 grant”.

We need to find out, to learn, how the BD_Collective can build a deeper, stronger civil society. At present, it might be said that we are better at defining what we don’t like than what we like.

BD CAN might turn out to be a case study in new ways of working. Since the Covid-19 crisis began, 270 volunteers have given assistance to around 1,000 citizens. It is an indicator of residents getting information when they need it, people working together to find practical solutions to the challenges of daily life, rapidly.

There are data that suggest that civil society is weaker in Barking and Dagenham than in other parts of the U.K. (We shall try and get more precision on these data). There is a sense that in the absence of a strong civil society, citizens have looked to the council. Other indicators of success might include the extent to which citizens look to each other for support, and the levels of trust in each other, and mutual aid.

This is a matter of networks, of better connecting the plumbing that irrigates civil society. The ties between civil society organisations have been damaged by the competitive culture of the past. Another indication of progress could be the breadth and strength of the network between civil society organisations, formal and informal. Breadth could be measured in numbers involved. Strength could be measured in terms of adoption of the four values of sharing power, accountability, trust and connection.

What’s the point? A stronger, deeper civil society is good in its own right. But what might result? Can we chart the pathway that leads from stronger connection, a stronger, deeper civil society, to relational outcomes like trust and belonging, and to individual well-being, less obesity, less crime, less mental ill-health?

One part of this pathway could include a change in the behaviour of civil society organisations, working on the assumption that adoption of the four values -power, accountability, trust and connection- will lead to taking more risks, not always doing what the organisation has done before, always open to collaborating....