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Civil society sounds grandiose, but what is it?

So off we go with the name game once more.

A couple of years ago the Conservatives said the Office of the Third Sector would be renamed the Office of Civil Society to denote the increased importance they wanted to give it. Then they said there had been a rethink and money was too tight for such a bigging-up. And just before the election they went back to plan A, not because money was less tight again but because David Cameron didn’t like the term ‘third sector.’

He was probably influenced by the sentimentalists who argue that it should, if anything, be the ‘first sector’ and that ‘third sector’ is too easily equated with ‘third rate.’ So the Office of Civil Society it is, and Nick Hurd rejoices in the name of Minister for Civil Society. Well, at least they stopped short of the Office of Big Society.

But the questions still remain: what is civil society, and do people understand the term any more readily than ‘third sector’, or the various other unsatisfactory alternatives that have been touted?

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has firmly hitched its wagon to the ‘civil society’ horse, as has one sector media organisation. The NCVO Almanac makes it clear that civil society, in its view, includes universities and trade associations, for example. Does the NCVO, or the media organisation, or the new OCS, take a day to day interest in or have any responsibility for, those parts of society? Of course they don’t. Maybe there’s a grandiosity and feel-good effect created by the term. At least the NCVO has stopped short of becoming the National Council for Civil Society Organisations.

‘Civil society’ is a term imported from countries with entirely different political, social and philosophical traditions. Most people in Britain don’t readily recognise what it is meant to mean, and the attempt to use it creates a raft of inconsistency and contradiction. Are charities, trade associations and housing associations really in the same boat?

The term might slowly become adapted and catch on – who knows? But the fact is there is no short phrase that is capable of satisfactorily and simultaneously encompassing the huge range and size of charities, social enterprises and community organisations in this country. The wide and useful American term ‘non-profit’, even in its Anglicised form ‘not for profit’, would not cover social enterprises.

So all that’s happened here, really, is that one unsatisfactory term has been swapped for another – on one man’s whim, in the case of the OCS. And no doubt when we get half-used to the new name there will be another change.

  • Devi Clark

    I prefer Civil Society, because at least it has some indication in the name of what it is about. Third sector is completely mysterious unless you are in the know.

  • richard caulfield

    I am also concerned over the National Council for Voluntary Organisation’s increasing use of the term “civil society”. In particular, its use as typified by The UK Civil Society Almanac 2010, their public response to the inception of the Office of Civil Society and their new strapline: “giving voice and support to civil society”.
    NCVO has been the organisation we have expected to first represent our interests to Government. However, the Almanac, the strapline, recent policy responses and growing use of “civil society” seem at odds with the mission:
    “A vibrant voluntary and community sector deserves a strong voice and the best support.
    NCVO aims to be that support and voice.”
    Feeling amongst those I have spoken to is that it is an inappropriate phrase to capture the sector we work within.

  • Irene Lindsay

    “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare
    We did not like being called the Third Sector, it felt like the ‘economy’sector. What’s wrong with calling the Community sector just that?

    I am concerned with the greatly heralded push to allow schools to be self supporting. What this means in effect is that, Government no longer support them, therefore they dip into the same pot of money that the Community is supported by. As the NHS departments that became Community Interest Companies did, they then sucked up Third Sector Funding. Great way of getting others to pay your staff salaries Mr PM.

  • Karl Wilding

    I personally didn’t care too much for third sector, but when it was parodied in “The Thick of It” you sort of felt it was done for.

    I’m one of the peeps behind the Civil Society Almanac, so I’m clearly going to defend the term. As such, I’ll disagree with Richard: what we are trying to do is highlight that voluntary organisations and community groups are at the heart of a wider group that share both ways of doing things – like not distributing their surplus to shareholders – and also share a common interest in creating a more civilised society. So the link here with universities is that we are building a space where we can debate what that good society should look like. For me, it also emphasises that we arent just about a bunch of organisations – civil society is about the collective action of people like you and me regardless of the setting.

    Civil society may well feel alien – it may well disappear in a few years if there is a change of government – but for me it is genuineley helpful in getting across what we are trying to do and where we want to be. Alun Michael once said to me ‘define yourself or be defined’. I think the work we’ve been doing around civil society is helping us to define ourselves on our terms and it is helping to build alliances between organisations with shared aims. I think we should give it a chance.