The Civil Society Open Enquiries

The Civil Society Open Enquiries were announced by TNLCF in October 2020, in this blog post, as an open space for civil society to sense, feel and iterate our way into the future together. The many long crises our society now faces — Covid-19, climate change, deep social inequity and biodiversity loss, to mention just a few — make for a continued state of heightened uncertainty and unpredictability likely well into the future.

In this context, the Open Enquiries explored five areas of uncertainty in relation to the future of the Fund’s work. Rather than seeing uncertainty as a problem needing to be fixed, or something ‘solvable’ the Enquiries focused on these areas as fertile sites for emergence and discovery, holding space for inbetweenness as TNCLF, civil society organisations and communities begin to plan for the future.

Alongside the insight that our Knowledge and Learning Team are creating, the data intelligence gathered from grantees, the analysis of evidence, surveys and evaluation, as well as the horizon scanning from ideas generated by the Scanning + Sensemaking Network and Emerging Futures Fund, the Open Enquiries aimed to avoid rushing to simple solutions, to explore ways of learning from different forms of intelligence, and to listen and respond to patterns of emergence with communities.

The first series of Open Enquiries events were held in spring 2021 (February and March). Five events focused on five overlapping themes: thriving and prosperous communities; everyday infrastructure; adaptation, resilience and coping in the long crisis; equipping communities to imagine the future; and ecologies, constellations and ecosystems. These themes, developed in collaboration with the Fund’s Advisory Group, are areas we felt it was important to give people a chance to speak about, and for us to listen to them. Hosted on the collaborative platform, Miro, we invited people to explore and share their thoughts and feelings. The boards were opened for blocks of two hours in relation to each theme for people around the country to edit and explore collaboratively, after which they continued to be available for all to read and discover.

The Open Enquiries had over 900 attendees, across every region of the UK, and made nearly 30,000 Twitter impressions.. Attendees were from a wide range of sectors and organisations including from local and national government, academics, think tanks, to other funders, to a really broad range of civil society organisations. They usually stayed and engaged with the inquiry for between 1.5–2 hours. Feedback on the sessions was overwhelmingly positive, with the team receiving comments such as and great traction on twitter:

“I am incredibly grateful for all the care and thought and work as evident around the enquiries, from the drawing together and sharing of resources and inspiration in such gorgeous ways, to the friendly hosting of each session. You all rock. This work will have so many ripples, because of HOW you worked as well as WHAT the work was.”

“This was one of the most innovative forms of engagement I’ve seen — a much richer way of building up insight over time and in a way that ensures context is included. The National Lottery Community Fund should keep experimenting with this kind of engagement as it’s so much more appropriate for emergent change.”

What did the Open Enquiries find?

Participants produced thousands of contributions, simultaneously reflecting a huge appetite for change and imagining new possibilities; and a sense of exhaustion and desire for pragmatic support for pressing issues facing communities. Many contributions described how communities had adapted and supported each other, but also their disconnection stemming from inequality, poverty, broken trust and powerlessness.

A number of overarching patterns emerged across all five Open Enquiries, including:

  • Inequality of power: both, as an issue in itself, but also its consequences as manifested in ‘symptoms’ of community discontent, including the lack of power to effect change or affect decisions that impact and shape them, and powerlessness to dismantle inequalities
  • Scale: The need for support for communities across scales, but also the risk of centrally controlled, top-down approaches in contributing to powerlessness
  • Levelling Up: For years people felt that there had been too little focus on working with communities about what they want and how they shape their communities. In line with recent research from the Institute of Community Studies, many communities had been unheard, with failed attempts at regeneration. Successful levelling was perceived to require connection to sustainable resources, leadership, and formal decision-making power.
  • Loss, trauma and infrastructure for collective care: the trauma and grief of the crisis has been unevenly distributed. Communities will need support to recover over coming years, and deeper lessons learned about how to implement collective care need resourcing and support — in the form of experimental, patient investment in communities
  • Growing new competencies, mindsets, behaviours and ways of working: these have emerged from and during the pandemic and will be needed to enable communities’ imaginations, their capacity to provide care during periods of change, and their ability to navigate complexity. There has been insufficient and unevenly distributed support for this work along lines of marginalisation — systemic and geographical.
  • Definitions, evidence & measurement of success: There was considered to be an inherent tension between how we learn, experiment,spread practice, and create necessary change; and how we place communities under monitoring and evaluation regimes. How might this be reimagined both through helping communities make use of evidence and reducing the burden of compliance placed on them, but also through supporting collective wisdom, transparency and a culture of learning.
  • Timescales: there is a need for greater long-term thinking and long-term investment in communities, with less of a focus on projects (which limit communities’ ability to address challenges at the necessary scale, or with the necessary collaboration and resilience). Simultaneously, more support is required for rapid experimentation, risk-taking and exploring new possibilities.

Additional patterns also emerged within individual themes:

Thriving and prosperous communities

  • The need for a greater focus on wellbeing for prosperous and thriving communities: creating space for dignified, joyful lives rather than a focus only on meeting basic needs
  • Communities need to be listened to regarding priorities and implementation strategies
  • Indicators of an appetite for big shifts and different approaches to community provisioning and infrastructure. There was huge interest in concepts like universal basic income, 15 minute cities, and regenerative economics, which whilst in themselves may not be the answer showed how people are searching for new narratives and ideas to fuel the changes needed in their communities.
  • Participants expressed that there had been shifts in ways of working from the pandemic, and that there was an opportunity for the emergence of more sophisticated approaches and ways of organising in and with communities. These approaches require imagination and experimentation to focus on HOW change might come about.
  • There is a need to address power imbalances in communities, engaging people around issues that they care about — opportunities for young people, housing, employment, safety, transition to new zero, enabling people to deliberation, design and imagine a positive future. Contributions suggested a fundamental renewal of the social contract, increased independent resources for communities including physical and digital assets, and a new democratic and community paradigm that values and supports people to shape their communities, and decisions are more accountable to communities.

Everyday Social Infrastructure

  • The pandemic has opened space for a renewed golden age for social infrastructure at a large scale.
  • There is a need to create ways for communities to discuss and imagine what social infrastructure they want and need — both physical and systemic. Someone must hold the space for an expansive and open inquiry for collective reimagination and how we could innovate to resource this sustainably.
  • There is great interest in community ownership, stewardship and maintenance models for social infrastructure as well as alternatives to ownership.There is much to explore around what this could look like for different types of infrastructure, and what experimentation would be required.

Adaptation and resilience in the long crisis

  • New ways of working and operating that emerged in the early response to the pandemic remain fragile and require a change in how we invest in and support communities.
  • There is a need for a more agile, fluid relationship with risk. Risk should be recognised as ever-present, and emergent approaches to adaptation and resilience should be invested in.
  • There is a need for better ways to distinguish between individual, community, organisational and systemic risk, and who owns the risk. Too much is pushed onto communities and individuals. Funders and public services need to own risks more, and create infrastructure and ways of operating that better inform and manage risks.
  • There is a danger that resilience can be a zero sum game or a race to the bottom — how to avoid this through collective empathy and listening?
  • A balance must be struck between the devolution of power to communities while not abandoning them to pick up the pieces left behind by the withdrawal of public services.
  • Multiple temporalities of funding are required — short-term experimentation and long-term, trust-and capacity-building, infrastructuring investment.
  • The constant demand for resilience leads to exhaustion unless renewal and regeneration are also funded.

Equipping communities to imagine the future

  • There is a huge appetite for support for communities to imagine the future. Communities need the social infrastructure, and the invitation, to enable them to participate in imagination. Yet in line with Geoff Mulgan’s hypothesis, many felt there was an imagination crisis, with communities too often ebbing from challenge to challenge, and feeling the futility that prevents them from dreaming. Many communities felt unable to move upstream to imagination, but felt this was more important than ever.
  • Imagination requires certain conditions including trust, diversity, listening to what matters to people, and processes that can surface legitimate tensions and differences. It will be necessary to ensure the resources required must be equitably distributed, and that communities are also supported to enact the possibilities they envision.
  • There is a need for greater infrastructuring to enable communities to see patterns over longer time frames, share and build forward on narratives as communities shape and shift, as well as have access to tools and practices that can support communities.
  • There is an important role in helping communities, and those who support communities to both adopt models that better enable communities to have a say over the now, with approaches such as citizens assemblies and coodesign processes, and also to create the space to move further upstream to imagining possibilities and new futures.
  • There is an important role for organisations such as TNLCF in field building, helping different communities come together, see synergies and access new sources of inspiration.

Ecologies, constellations and ecosystems

  • There is a huge appetite and recognition for ways of working beyond the individual or organisation, but this requires supportive infrastructure, connective tissues of data and intelligence, new competencies and roles, as well as suitable conditions to support the hard wiring of collaboration.
  • Investment is needed in narrative and purpose building as collectives
  • There is a need for funders to move beyond concerns about duplication and efficiency, instead creating the conditions for new ways of working, measuring and understanding success, and providing space for adaptation.
  • More transparency and openness is needed, not just by opening up, but by creating ways to share, learn, and hold each other accountable. This can address power imbalance in public service and funder consultations where communities feel cut out — a new ‘town hall’ is needed where ecologies can grow roots.

What might the insights and implications from the Open Enquiries mean for future funding practices?

  • Economic regeneration and development hasn’t been perceived to have worked in the previous decades. How might any ‘levelling up’ be done with communities, build community power, and have a long term view on the strategic and practical issues required? What social scaffolding is needed to support communities that have been ‘left behind’ or face systemic inequalities?
  • Communities rarely talk about power explicitly, but what many communities do care about, such as housing, parks, supporting children and young people to thrive, often can’t be addressed without us also addressing power inequalities and inequities. How might practices in funding and policy better reflect this?
  • Funding and supporting communities in siloed ways rarely makes sense in the context of community experiences and there is a huge appetite to work in more connected, holistic ways. Can issues be connected, can the divisions be less formal, can we better recognise the interconnectedness in funding approaches?
  • There is a huge appetite for bold ideas — these are often expressed in specific methodologies or approaches such as universal basic income, or 15 minute cities, but also speak to communities wanting a bolder scale of change. How might funding practices invest in long-term change, alongside fast forms of experimentation that inform practice more broadly?
  • There is a need to systematically address how many communities are resourced. This will require field building, but also experimentation in new forms of investment in communities.
  • There is a need to avoid being locked into current paradigms when exploring community ownership, infrastructure and levelling up. Supporting bolder experimentation, and ways to spread learning, insights and practice will be significant if we are to make headway on some of the biggest challenges facing our communities
  • Scaffolding and field building were seen as essential gaps, and actors like funders were seen to have a significant role. How might organisational development, capacity building new the new competencies for increased complexity, infrastructuring, and deliberate field building be better built into funding practice?
  • Evidence remains significant in order to help communities make the biggest difference possible, but there is a need for more nuanced approaches that support communities to draw on a broad range of ‘intelligences’, as well as learn and experiment without being so constrained by monitoring and evaluation that it stifles and distorts work. Too often the burden of evidence generation is pushed on individuals communities or civil society organisations. Could funding help better understand the different modes of evidence needed for different types of actions, and create the infrastructure for greater intelligence?

It is also worth noting that the Open Enquiries process was designed to be iterative, rather than one off consultation, so further richness and insight could be built through continued exploration with both the people who came to the initial events, and also a broader community. Critically, there was huge appetite to share, learn, and imagine together, and people took lots from the experiences of doing this.

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Insights and learning from our civil society work.

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Cassie Robinson.

Cassie Robinson.

Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.

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