This paper draws together hitherto disparate research findings in order to look broadly at civil society trends in the UK in the first years of the twenty-first Century; a period of changes in the political complexion of national governments and shifts in the public policy context of civil society activity (Alcock 2016). In that period the UK has had Labour Governments (first elected in 1997), a Conservative-led Coalition from 2010 to 2015, and a Conservative Government from 2015 to 2017. Since the General Election of June 2017 there has been a Minority Conservative Government which does not have an overall majority of seats in Parliament and is therefore limited in what it can enact without collaboration with other parties. There have also been changes over recent years in the political complexion of the Assemblies of constituent countries of the UK and some metropolitan areas. As the UK embarks on the implementation of a very major policy shift whose ramifications are largely unforeseen - leaving the European Union – this paper takes stock of changes and challenges for UK civil society in the first years of the twenty-first century. It offers an empirically-based overview of civil society within the context of changing public policy.
The paper begins by offering a brief working definition of ‘civil society’, before moving to its central task: to draw together recent research findings which, taken together, indicate what has been happening to UK civil society. Five main challenges emerge: resource procurement; competition; inter-organizational collaboration; securing expertise; and organizational issues. These findings reflect the policy analysts’ concepts of ‘new public governance’ 1 and the ‘marketized welfare state’. 2 They also illustrate the impact of ‘austerity’ measures imposed on public spending in the UK since 2007 and reveal apparent tendencies for governmental agencies in the UK to encroach upon the ability of civil society to act independently.
A Working Definition of ‘Civil Society’
The term ‘civil society’ has been widely adopted as a synonym for the variously termed ‘nonprofit’, ‘third’, ‘voluntary’ or ‘NGO’ sector; the sphere of organized activity which is neither governmental nor commercial in its auspices. But this paper uses the term in a broader, deeper and older sense to refer to all the activities of citizens which happen independently of government and the market and within a context of freedom of association (Edwards 2014; Wagner 2012; Walzer 1995). 3 These activities may include not only formal service-delivering organizations but also smaller third sector organizations with few or no paid staff; political associations; voluntary membership associations, local community organizations; mutual aid groups; volunteering within or outside of formal organizations; public protest and dissent; e-activism; and spontaneous, informal and unorganized actions including neighbour-helping and online petitioning (Eliasoph 2013; Habermas 1989). ‘Civil society’ in this sense includes unorganized or spontaneous behaviour but excludes formal, service-providing organizations which are substantially dependent on governmental agencies for income, for permission to advocate or to even continue to exist (Davergne and LeBaron 2014; Knight 1983). It also excludes activities into which people are coerced to any degree (Cnaan, Handy, and Wadsworth 1996).
The terminology used in this paper reflects conceptualizations and arguments from numerous political analysts and philosophers who, although coming from different political positions, sought to address the puzzle of how to build free and democratic societies (Foley and Edwards 1996). Civil society in this broader sense is not only an important provider of care and welfare services (Deakin 2001; Lewis 1995), it can also stand as an intermediary between individual citizens and the power of governments and markets (Evers 2013; Milofsky and Harris 2017), providing a ‘space’ for associational citizen action which can call to account powerful and potentially-tyrannical, forces (Davies 2011; Pietrzyk 2003; Powell 2013). It remains a cornerstone idea underpinning Western-style democracies.
Changes and Challenges Facing UK Civil Society – Recent Research Findings
In the absence of studies explicitly focused on recent changes in UK civil society, this paper identifies and synthesises recent empirical findings about key elements in civil society - small and medium-sized third sector organizations, mutual aid organizations, community groups and volunteering.
Several studies have focused on the impact of the ‘austerity’ period which followed the 2008 global banking crisis. There have been drastic cuts in governmental grants and service commissioning alongside cuts in the governmental sector’s own provision of welfare and health services. This has put pressure on small and local organizations to ‘pick up the pieces’ (Buckingham and Jolley 2015; Phillimore and McCabe 2015). A report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) (Crees et al. 2016) says that small and medium sized charities took the brunt of the financial squeeze between 2008/9 and 2013/4, subjecting them to severe annual income fluctuations. Larger charities are increasingly dominating the market for governmentally- funded contracts while smaller organizations which support local communities or tackle disadvantage are losing out (Hunter and Cox 2016). The ability of small third sector organizations to adapt to this changed environment has been limited by the fact that the sectoral infrastructure organizations to which they might have turned for support in the past, have themselves suffered withdrawal of governmental funding (Donahue 2011). Alternative forms of external support such as larger third sector organizations, have themselves suffered cuts, and competition for available funding from charitable foundations has increased sharply (Harris and Young 2010; Ware 2014).
There are indications, however, that some small service-providing agencies have found ways to adapt organizationally to funding reductions and uncertainties. Some have reduced their services and/or their advocacy activities (Crawley and Watkin 2011), while others have embraced mergers and joint ventures, increased their income from trading, established ‘social enterprises’, or embraced partnerships with businesses (Crees et al. 2016; McGovern 2013)).
In addition to austerity, a major environmental factor for smaller civil society groups and activities has been the increasing tendency for available governmental funding (through grants and services commissioning) to be accompanied by tighter regulation and closer external oversight (Benson 2010; Hogg 2016), along with pressure to adopt more formal organizational structures and more business-like management systems (Elstub and Poole 2014). Even organizations which are not in receipt of any governmental funding have been subject to increasingly tight accountability and accounting regulations (Cook 2016; Morris 2016; Nunan 2010). Tighter regulation, in turn, can change the informal, family-style culture of smaller organizations as well as their ability to adapt to new needs and local circumstances (Mann, Plows, and Patterson 2011; Milbourne 2013). They may experience tighter regulatory trends as a challenge to their autonomy and their freedom to advocate on behalf of the people they exist to serve (Benson 2010); as a threat to their community-building or social solidarity aspirations (Ware 2014); or as a threat to their ability to focus limited resources on those most in need (Nichols et al. 2014). Local community organizations may struggle to develop appropriate relationships with the governmental organizations with which they are obliged to interact (Ware 2014).
Recent studies focused on volunteering rather than groups and organizations, also reflect the impact of both financial and regulatory pressures. Nichols et al. (2014) show how third sector organizations are increasingly in competition with public sector organizations (such as police and hospitals) for volunteers’ gifts of time. As financial pressures increase so do the demands from governmental organizations themselves for volunteer time. There are also moral and psychological pressures on people to see volunteering as an obligation of citizenship rather than an activity freely entered into (Strickland 2010).
More positively, it seems that some small third sector organizations, although struggling with the impact of austerity and tighter regulation, are finding ways to continue to be both advocates and service-providers (Cairns, Hutchison, and Aiken 2010), sometimes by recruiting more volunteers (Murray and Milbourne 2014) and sometimes by negotiating a partnership with another organization which gives them a ‘collaborative advantage’ (McGovern 2013).
Changes and Challenges Facing UK Civil Society – Five Studies Re-Examined
In this section, findings from the author’s own recent studies are presented to provide additional evidence about changes and challenges for UK civil society. The author selected from her own research work, five empirical studies for which she was the sole, principal or co-investigator and which were focused on some manifestation of civil society in the UK (as defined above). Between them the studies encompassed a range of activities. Taken together, the findings throw a wider and deeper light on the policy impacts and trends identified in the previous section.
The author re-visited the raw data collected for five studies as follows.
A study of a major organizational crisis in a small local residents’ association (Harris 2015)
A study of the early development of a small organization which matches volunteers to opportunities (Harris 2013)
A pilot study of an initiative to encourage gender equality in small voluntary organizations (GEP Team 2015)
A participant observation exercise of experiences as a volunteer during the 2012 London Olympic Games (Harris 2012)
A study of spontaneous volunteering in times of flood emergencies (Harris et al. 2017)
Further details of these five studies are summarised in Table 1. None of these studies had as its main initial research aim to look explicitly at challenges facing civil society. Each original set of data (such as interview transcripts, meeting records, organization and policy documents and quantitative data) was therefore re-examined with the specific purpose of identifying findings that reflected changes and challenges facing individuals, groups and organizations of UK civil society. These findings were then coded and categorised thematically following standard analytical techniques for qualitative data (Miles, Huberman, and Saldana 2013), first study by study and then together. Looking across the findings, five main challenges of recent years emerged: resource procurement; competition; inter-organizational collaboration; expertise; and organizational issues.
As anticipated by studies of the impact of austerity cited above, procuring resources (volunteer time as well as funding) in a highly competitive environment was a major challenge for the civil society actors and groups investigated in the author’s studies. Austerity often meant that activities had to be funded from within civil society itself – from members, donors, or small entrepreneurial efforts. Those dependent on philanthropists were challenged by the tendency of donors to give for limited time periods and to give for projects rather than core funding; thus pushing CSOs (civil society organizations) into rounds of hyperactive fundraising in an attempt to ensure organizational sustainability. Those that secured foundation grants could be subject to onerous formal accountability procedures accompanying receipt of relatively small sums. Lacking professional fundraisers, CSOs can be highly dependent on the personal qualities and networking abilities of just one entrepreneurial individual; if that individual moves elsewhere, or becomes overloaded responding to funders, organizational survival can be threatened.
As regards resources of time, especially that of volunteers, the studies suggested that the main pressure is not so much about recruiting volunteers and activists, as about retaining their commitment in the face of substantial demands made on them after recruitment; demands not only of time but also of expertise. Volunteers with relevant specialist expertise (for example, legal, accounting, marketing or HR expertise) can come to feel crucial to the very survival of their organizations and consequently obliged to commit increasing amounts of time. Burn-out of the most active volunteers was widely reported by CSOs; the exhaustion due not only to the time they spent outside of their normal working life but also to the emotional pressures of working in stressful environments or having to interact with people in other organizations who had far more support resources. For example, volunteers in Study A had to interact with architects, lawyers and politicians who not only had specialist expertise but also had paid support staff. Volunteers in Study E were catapulted into stressful work situations for which their training had not prepared them.
Again as anticipated in the previous section reviewing other recent published studies, civil society is challenged by competition – for funding and also for members, activists and volunteers. Yet CSOs also face contradictory pressures - to collaborate (Harris 2010). Study B, for example, showed a fledgling organization having to put large proportions of paid and volunteer staff time into finding the small sums of money needed annually to enable the organization to survive. It needed to be able to distinguish itself and its message from the hundreds of other organizations competing for philanthropic donations. At the same time, it was trying to avoid pressure from corporate sector philanthropists to merge with other organizations which were seen, superficially at least, as having similar goals. In a highly competitive environment, it discovered that money does not necessarily flow to those organizations responding to greatest need or to those providing essential infrastructure services; philanthropic donors may prefer to support organizations which are able to project a glamorous image or attract celebrity patronage.
Study C also showed CSOs struggling to accommodate to the current policy environment, but in this case it was a policy drive to implement gender equality. The CSOs were not antagonistic to gender equality principles but their boards and staff often felt this was not a priority when set against their founding goals to meet welfare or membership needs. Yet the competitive environment they operated within meant that they had to give priority to values and goals which were not priorities of the organization itself.
The five studies revealed challenges not only around competition but also around collaboration. Smaller and informal civil society organizations are under pressure to collaborate. They are therefore obliged to learn about the working practices of larger, formal organizations (of the third, governmental or business sectors) if they are to interact with them effectively and not be placed in a position of diminished power in negotiations or debates. In Study A, a community association was manipulated by business and governmental organizations and found itself powerless in the face of the latter organizations’ ability to work together comfortably. Whereas the governmental and business organization understood each other’s norms and had professional staff who could communicate during normal working hours, the small community organization was not able to engage effectively with them; its volunteers had neither the time nor the specialist expertise to do so.
Study A also suggested that the challenges facing small informal local organizations can be compounded by an aversion to conflict with other local groups - which often in practice comprise friends and neighbours. They can also be compounded, conversely, by ignorance amongst larger and more formal organizations about distinctive norms of civil society. Formal organizations, irrespective of sector, may make little allowance for the limited resources and expertise available within civil society. In Study B, a small organization which successfully procured some modest funding to assist with a local health authority initiative, suddenly found the time of its three part-time paid staff – its only paid staff – overwhelmed by meetings and ancillary demands. The project represented a tiny proportion of B’s income, yet it quickly absorbed a huge proportion of staff time.
Because there is generally a lack of balance in the respective resources available to large formal organizations interacting with smaller more informal ones, the norms and assumptions of the former tend to become dominant in an inter-organizational relationship. In Study D, for example, the work norms of the local governmental authority training volunteers for the London Olympics, dominated work practices. Volunteers were treated as though they were paid governmental employees with regard to working conditions. In study E, managers of flood situations based in governmental organizations or large third sector organizations tried to manage spontaneous volunteers by absorbing them into the structures and procedures of their own organizations. Also in Study E, and as in Study A, it was apparent that large formal organizations of whatever sector are better able to work with each other across sectoral boundaries than work with civil society groups. The organizational challenges were less about working across sector boundaries and more about collaboration between organizations of different sizes, structures and norms.
Knowledge and Expertise
The discrepancies in power which are manifest in inter-organizational relationships between governmental agencies and community organizations have been noted by earlier commentators (Taylor 2011). Analysis here suggested that the root of those discrepancies may lie in differential access to knowledge and expertise. In study A, for example, the local community association did not have members with the expertise necessary to challenge the decisions of a firm of professional architects. This reinforced their relative powerlessness because they felt obliged to take a deferential approach rather than a challenging approach to the professionals. Again, in Study C, small organizations did not have sufficient specialist resources to be aware of the HR knowledge that they lacked. In both cases, informality and smallness were not compatible with engaging on equal terms with people with professional knowledge and specialist expertise. This point emerged even more starkly from Study E. Spontaneous volunteers in flood situations can be lacking in knowledge which is not simply useful, it may literally be a matter of life and death; yet they were mostly not aware of what they did not know, and needed to know, in order to operate effectively as volunteers.
Civil society groups and activities are not immune to organizational challenges, although the challenges are not necessarily the same as those encountered by larger or more formal organizations studied by scholars of management (Ahrne 1994). The five studies reflected a variety of organizational challenges including how to achieve democracy in decision-making without engendering complex rules and formality (Studies A, B and C) and how to avoid disagreements leading to schisms (Studies A and E). Study B showed a rapidly growing small organization struggling to match structure and procedures to its changing size; to draw boundaries around the scope of its work; and to avoid over-dependence on charismatic and entrepreneurial founders. In addition to these internal challenges, all five studies reflected challenges around coping with pressures from the external environment; mostly pressures to conform with rules and expectations which were unfamiliar or part of a more formalized culture - normative isomorphism in effect (DiMaggio and Powell 1983).
Many of the organizational challenges experienced by civil society actors in the five studies occurred at the point where they were obliged to interact with more formal organizations. Yet Study E suggested that the problem of tension between civil society actors and more formal organizations is no less likely to occur when the formal organizations are part of the third sector, than when they are businesses or governmental agencies . The large formal organizations of all three sectors may react to interaction with the differing norms of civil society by either trying to incorporate civil society into their own ways of doing things (Studies B, D and E) or by simply showing their lack of awareness that civil society might work in a different way (Study A).
The accumulated research findings presented in the previous two sections necessarily provide only a patchwork picture of the changes and challenges experienced by UK civil society in the twenty-first Century so far. All the same, a number of commonalities are discernible and these allow some tentative conclusions to be drawn.
The concept of ‘new public governance’ 4 was reflected in the findings in a number of ways. It seems that organizational interactions, collaborations and networks of the type inherent in the NPG idea pose major challenges in practice for civil society, especially for those elements of civil society which interact with governmental organizations - as seekers of funding or contracts, as participants in regulatory systems, as partners in projects, or as policy advocates. Yet the findings also suggest that tensions arising from differences in norms and disparities in power are not confined to interactions between civil society and governmental agencies. They can occur whenever CSOs interact with larger formal organizations irrespective of their sector. Thus the challenges for civil society in the context of ‘new public governance’ are not so much about interactions with particular sectors but about interactions with organizations of different size, culture and norms. The parties to the interactions have differential access to knowledge and experience and, therefore, to power. So the priorities and working assumptions of the larger and more formal organizations tend to override those of civil society organizations and actors.
Policy analysts’ concept of a ‘marketized welfare state’ 5 was also reflected in the accumulated findings. It seems that civil society actors and organizations are expected to be able to compete effectively for available grants and funding with larger organizations and to demonstrate their distinctive societal contributions. Collaboration or merger with other organizations can be suggested as an obvious path to improved ‘efficiency’. Good marketing and branding may be more highly valued by governmental organizations than, say, a commitment to serving the public good or responding flexibly to emergent social needs. At the same time, pressures on CSOs to compete for funding may be such that they feel obliged to take on projects which are peripheral to their own priorities.
The findings collected together for this paper suggest two further concepts which help to explain what has been occurring in UK civil society in recent years. One is ‘austerity’ (eg Macmillan 2011) This is primarily a ramification of the 2007/8 banking crisis and a response in the form of ‘cuts’ or ‘adjustments’ to public expenditure made by subsequent governments as they struggle to ‘balance the books’. The 2015–17 Conservative Government as well as the prior Liberal/Conservative Coalition chose to focus these adjustments particularly on public expenditure in the fields of personal social services and social security benefits; fields in which cuts hit civil society activities particularly hard. This is reflected in the research findings not only in the obvious shortage of governmental grants and contracts for service provision but also in the demise of infrastructure support for small third sector organizations.
Yet, at the same time as governmental funding for civil society has been shrinking, the demand has been increasing for the kinds of responsive local services and community advocacy which civil society can offer, as a consequence of cuts to governmentally-funded services elsewhere and of the withdrawal and diminution of social security benefits. Governmental organizations are not only looking to civil society to fill gaps left by their own withdrawal from provision but are also competing with civil society organizations for the services of volunteers and for foundation funding.
The ramifications of austerity go further. As public funding for civil society projects and activities decreases, so competition for support from other sources (such as foundations, individual philanthropists, larger third sector organizations and for-profit businesses) increases. Not only is there more competition for the resources of these potential supporters of civil society, but also these alternative supporters are themselves under increasing pressure. So civil society actors face increasing competition for underpinning resources, combined with increasing demands for their own services. This in turn exerts pressure on them to focus more on the provision of basic services and less on activities such as research, advocacy, innovation and campaigning, a traditional niche of civil society in a democratic state (Hirst 1997; Skocpol 2003)
A fourth concept which is reflected in the findings, is perhaps the most serious in terms of its impact on civil society: a phenomenon perhaps best described as ‘governmental encroachment’. The findings suggest that the idea of a distinction between the state and business on the one hand and an independent civil society on the other –is reflected less and less in reality.
Earlier authors have commented on the apparent ‘blurring of the boundaries’ between the third and other sectors (eg Child, Witesman, and Spencer 2016; Kramer 2000) and others have described the phenomenon of ‘hybridity’ in which third sector organizations can be seen to take on the organizational characteristics associated with the public and/or business sectors (Billis 2010). The findings here suggest that we should now move beyond this kind of uncritical descriptive comment because it appears that governmental agencies in the UK have been actively and deliberately encroaching on civil society, eroding its ability to act independently of the state or voice dissent, and trying to harness it to the governmental agenda, albeit for the declared purpose of ‘public benefit’; a trend reflecting Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’ (Lemke 2012). 6
The ‘governmental encroachment‘ and ‘governmentality’ concepts emerge from the findings in a number of ways: the drive to impose governmental social welfare priorities on smaller third sector organizations; increasing demand for volunteers to assist with governmentally-provided services; and the way in which ideas about volunteering are conflated with narratives about citizenship obligations. In addition, regulatory frameworks are constantly being tightened; this impacts not only on large, formal organizations but also on smaller groups which aspire to be registered charities or to receive public funding of any kind. Perhaps most concerning for those who see independent civil society as an intermediary between states and citizens and as a bulwark against authoritarian governments (Dahrendorf 1997; Milofsky and Harris 2017; Smerdon and Deakin 2010), are the ongoing attempts to restrict advocacy and lobbying and to encourage the third sector to confine itself to providing services, especially services seen as important by governmental agencies (Alcock, Kendall, and Parry 2012; Independence Panel 2015). Most recently, the distaste of governmental politicians for public airing of views different from their own has been manifested in a series of new laws and new regulations (Lobby Act 2014; Morgan 2015; Morris 2016).
The idea of ‘governmental encroachment’ not only emerges from the data examined for this paper, it can be spotted, once articulated, in statements by politicians and other policy makers. Thus, for example, a report published in July 2017 by the Environment Committee of the London Assembly (the London local governmental authority) proposed openly that volunteers and ‘communities’ - particularly young people who are seen as representing “huge untapped potential” to be “harnessed” - should be recruited to protect and preserve public parks as local authorities withdraw their funding to sustain them (London Assembly 2017, p26). Statements of this kind by politicians reflect how their own policy-related thinking is moving along the volunteering continuum proposed by Cnaan, Handy, and Wadsworth (1996); a continuum which starts with freely given, uncoerced volunteering and community participation but ends with an obligation to help out, or take over from, governmental agencies and implement their public policy agenda.
The picture which emerges of changes and challenges for UK civil society is not a positive one for those who value civil society as an essential constituent of democracy. It invites future research on how far a similar picture is emerging in countries other than the UK. It also suggests that small nonprofits and volunteers are struggling to maintain some of the characteristics which have been most valued by political philosophers in the past. There are, of course, some grounds for optimism such as the examples of local organizations which have managed to adapt to their changed environment. And some smaller nonprofits have managed to maintain their advocacy work as well as their independence of action, in spite of the many pressures from their policy environment. We have yet to see if they are pioneers of future civil society manifestations or remnants of a disappearing order.
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‘New Public Governance’ is taken here to refer to the movement (in theory and practice) from traditional ‘public administration’ and then ‘new public management’, to a form of “hands-off steering by the state” which achieves its policy objectives “through networks or webs of organizations” (Rhodes 2015; see also Dunleavy et al. 2006; Osborne 2006; Pestoff, Brandsen, and Verschuere 2012). It has been suggested that in the era of new public governance, the key challenges for public organizations are those of inter-organizational coordination, collaboration and co-production - within and between the three sectors of state, business and nonprofits (Alcock 2016; Jacklin-Jarvis 2015).
A ‘marketized welfare state’ is taken here to refer to a situation in which responsibilities for delivering welfare services have been delegated by the state to for-profit and third sector providers which relate to each other and to state agencies through a range of business management principles and quasi-market mechanisms including outsourcing; competitive tendering; fee-for-service; commercial revenue generation; commissioning and contracting; performance evaluation; impact measurement; client payment vouchers; and payment by results (Milbourne 2013; Salamon 1993; Whelan 1996). In this scenario, which like NPG reflects neo-Liberal ideas, ‘nonprofit organizations’ interact with the state in a manner which is highly complex, and frequently opaque. It may become difficult to distinguish a boundary between third sector and governmental sector service providers (Acheson 2014; Eikenberry and Kluver 2004; Guo 2006). Third sector organizations may struggle to retain their independence or their role as arenas of public dissent (Civil Exchange 2016; Davies 2011; Milbourne and Cushman 2015).
There is an extensive literature on civil society and the related concept pf democracy and this short paper does not attempt to engage in detail with that literature. This section seeks only to provide an indication of the broad parameters of the civil society concept as a frame for the presentation of research findings which follows in the next two sections. The working definition proposed in this section is of the type recommended by Selznick (1992, p358) for situations where one wants to prevent definitional debates derailing the progression of an argument; it is ‘weak, inclusive and relatively uncontroversial’.
The author acknowledges with thanks an anonymous reviewer for this paper who drew attention to the ‘government encroachment’ finding as being an example of the phenomenon of ‘governmentality’ as outlined by Foucault (see Lemke 2012) and developed by ‘Neo Foucauldians’ (eg Miller and Rose 2008). There is an extensive ‘governmentality’ literature and a number of (not necessarily consistent) definitions of the term, but for the purposes of this paper, and in the context of a discussion about trends in relationships between government and civil society, I am referring here to the idea that states may exercise power in a way which maximises the possibility of fulfilling a government’s own policies while limiting the freedom of citizens.