Filling the gap in civil society

There is a big gap at the heart of civil society in South Australia.

The same thing has come up time and again in different guises over the last few years.  The very first Engage2Act event highlighted LOKAAL, a civic intermediary unlike anything we have seen locally.  I also learned about the empty space between politics, community and public administration running the City Grill event recently (which I called there the Great Wall of Government).  Last night’s Engage 2 Act event exploring citizens’ juries brought this gap up again.

South Australia has no established independent organisations fighting for the strength of civil society, that can act as an intermediary and support active citizen participation.

Current organised civic activity is predominantly led by government.  I don’t want to undersell the contribution of independent citizen groups (like residents’ associations and activist networks) and non-profits (like community centres), but this activity seems small scale and scattered.

What I do see happening is that governments across the state (at both tiers) are talking about active citizenship, citizen contribution, cocreation, partnership and collaboration… but there is a gap between these governments and citizens.  Each innovative project bridges this gap… but it is often a very narrow bridge, with little support.

There is also little leadership from outside government, to provide an external perspective on citizen engagement and advocate for participation that is really citizen-led, and meets citizen needs; too often, it is government-centric, focusing on government problems like budget shortfalls, or public buy-in for decisions.

New Democracy Foundation demonstrates what intermediation and support might look like.  It is the independent Australian non-profit leading (and supporting) uptake of citizens’ juries across the country.  It is researching, developing and spreading the process – as champion and research institution – and partnering with local agencies to provide not only advice, but independent oversight (especially of sensitive activity like juror selection).

New Democracy does not provide everything that is needed to support a jury process; most projects engage (local) facilitators, to coordinate much of the operations of the jury, and be the independent facilitator and support to the jury.

Citizens Jury - MoiraDes-TogetherSA - cropped

Last night’s Engage2Act event highlighted how critical this role is, to ensure the independence of the jury from political interference.  By the sounds of it, the facilitator present (Emily Jenke) did an exceptional job ‘standing in the middle’ of diverse competing interests, and stewarding a very successful process for the State’s most recent jury.  This success relied entirely upon the personal integrity and capability of Emily as a facilitator and passionate community advocate.

SA is luck to have a handful of other capable and passionate engagement practitioners.  But surely this reliance upon the individual is not ideal?  Is this really the best way to facilitate the coming together of a goliath of government (who are also the client and project sponsor), and a small panel of citizens?  How can we really provide assurance and the critical public authority in the face of questions over politics and government interference?  What checks are there against a government (the client) thwarting the process, or ignoring and undermining it?

What would really bring integrity to the process would be an independent, locally grounded intermediary to act as project partner.  An institution which operates transparently and with integrity and the needs of citizens at its core.

This is only one case, but it is one speck a gaping hole in South Australia: independent voice and support for a strong civil society.

3 thoughts on “Filling the gap in civil society

  1. It has been pointed out that I oversimplified; there is a lot going on in the civic space. I think it’s worth listing some of the organisations that ARE in this space, and examples of interesting things being done in other locations too…

    – Volunteering SA & NT
    – endless numbers of excellent ‘third sector’ volunteer organisations, from Rotary through Cancer Council (HT Moira Des for raising volunteering)
    – university research institutes and the like? e.g. Hawke Foundation
    – community centres
    – residents’ and traders’ groups
    – churches

    Outside SA (or nationally):
    – Canadian Office of Public Consultation (HT Barbara Chappell)
    – New Democracy Foundation
    – LOKAAL (linked in the post)

    • Yes, John, there is a gaping hole between government and civil society. It has been deepening steadily over the last five decades. Most of the organisations that purport to have an interest in civil society actually marginalise it further through their work. There are a string of government-funded social impact and social innovation agencies that now systematically marginalise and weaken civil society – often in spite of a stated intention to do the reverse – by directing resources and agency inappropriately to government, funded agencies and corporates instead of to citizens in civil society.

      Volunteering SA and NT is a class example. This is a funded agency that represents NFPs in finding volunteers to slot into their operations. It does not represent volunteers. Nor does it represent the voluntary activity that generates civil society. It represents the application of Fordist managerialism to NFPs – that is, it sources volunteer labour to slot into pre-determined functions created by and for NFPs. It does not seek to nurture voluntary activity by citizens in creating solutions to society’s problems.

      University research and innovation centres are another example of entities that widen the gap between government and civil society. Governments are frequently informed of gaps in social support, and university research and innovation centres will then gobble up public resources in identifying these many times over, canvassing overseas responses (many times over), and making recommendations for someone else (but never themselves) to implement. This endless process is repeated over and over until the funding sources are depleted, and another set of issues takes centre stage – these in turn become the focus for a new wave of grant-chasing and report-writing by university centres.

      The big gap is the arena of initiative and activity oriented to the creation of sustainable solutions that is driven by citizens – independent of governments, service delivery agencies, and grant-chasing researchers. But the tragedy in Australia is that all of our social and political traditions are based on government and government-funded service delivery, rather than the independent initiative of citizens in civil society. This is a tradition equally shared by Liberal, Labor and Greens. The result is a politically-bipartisan, systemic marginalisation of civil society. It is a deep-seated problem, and there is no easy solution to it.

    • from Moira Des:
      “I think there are a number of organisations with remit to do this but they don’t often because they end up being in the conversation and they don’t need to be they could be holding the space … eg Volunteering SA & NT, SACOSS, Conservation Council of SA – brokering the space is possible too and Leaders Institute of SA does this with their Think Tanks”

      And another example:

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