Anna Nicholl says future gazing can help us make decisions about today’s Welsh civil society
Predicting the future’s a dangerous game, but it’s one worth playing. Nobody knows what the future holds, but we do know it’s on its way. The more we understand about the likely scenarios for 2020 and beyond, the more we can not only prepare for the future, but shape it as well. If we don’t like what we see, we’ve got a chance to do something about it. As Gaston Berger said, “The purpose of looking at the future is to disturb the present.”
So what might the future hold for civil society in Wales? Looking to 2020, there are challenging times ahead across nearly all areas of society. We face enormous environmental challenges in the coming decades, not least in terms of biodiversity and climate change. We will still be living in the aftermath of an international economic and financial crisis and significant change will be needed for Wales to have lifted its economic performance to the European average. Economic difficulties will bring social pressures.
We will have lived through the biggest cuts to public spending since the Second World War. Public spending is likely to remain tight. New solutions will be needed if our public services are to meet the needs of people living in 2020 within a very different financial context.
Our democracy will also have a different shape by 2020. Scotland will have held a referendum on independence and progress will have been made towards putting its conclusions into place. Even a no vote is likely see greater devolution for Scotland and English voters will be demanding clearer political accountability and their share of resources.
This will impact on Wales even if we don’t proactively push for change. The recommendations from the Silk Commission should be coming into force by 2020. There’s likely to be some degree of fiscal devolution and perhaps other powers.
The shape of Welsh society in 2020 will in no small part reflect civil society’s ability to engage with these difficult issues. Hard choices will need to be made. Civil society has a vital role in pushing for solutions that promote social justice, freedom, mutuality and respect for the natural world – a ‘good’ society in which we aspire to live.
Real innovation across our economy and public services will be critical, not least in order to live within the earth’s limits. Civil society has a strong track record on developing and delivering innovative solutions, helped no doubt by its diversity. It provides a much-needed space for deliberation and debate where new ideas can be formed. Government will need to properly embrace co-production if it is to capitalise on this.
Many civil society organisations operate at a grass-roots level, engaging individuals and communities. They provide a framework for people to come together to provide their own solutions to their own situations. With a shrinking public sector and a relatively weak business sector in Wales, this is likely to be increasingly important.
Whatever shape devolution takes in 2020, the health of our democracy will be reflected in the health of our civil society. Civil society plays a vital role in expressing shared concerns, informing people about decisions made and holding governments and businesses to account. This is perhaps particularly important in a country in which one political party is so dominant. With greater powers now resting in Cardiff Bay and such difficult decisions ahead, civil society will again need to up this aspect of its game.
It may be naïve to imagine civil society can strengthen at all given the significant cuts to its major funding sources. It’s not my intention to belittle the impact that funding cuts will have for individuals and communities. However, there are ways in which a positive response to the funding squeeze could result in a stronger civil society in 2020.
One of the greatest challenges will be to diversify funding streams and build greater financial resilience across the sector. I believe social enterprise will have an important role to play here. This could bring wider dividends for civil society, not least greater independence.
Civil society should be proud of its good intentions, but they need to be backed by good delivery. Tighter finances should lead to deeper questioning about the most effective and efficient ways of achieving aims. With good leadership, this could mean more innovation and more effective delivery across civil society by 2020.
Civil society will also need to be better at demonstrating achievements to funders and supporters – whether that’s government, private sector or individuals. Civil society needs to demonstrate it lives up to the values it promotes, including transparency and accountability. It needs to be open to scrutiny at all levels, including its governance. The dangers of insufficient challenge can be seen in AWEMA’s recent experience.
Greater effectiveness and a clearer understanding of achievements would be strengths in themselves but could also lead to increased public trust and better understanding of what civil society can achieve. Whatever’s ahead, considering the likelihood of different scenarios in the future should help us to secure a better and more civil society in 2020.