An article by Charlotte Young OBE, Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs

It is not difficult to broadly spell out problems that drag down the UK. Fundamentally we have become one of the most unequal countries in Europe. Our economy has gone backwards whilst other European countries climb away. Our public services have been cut to the bone and can no longer solve the multiple problems that can affect any society and which lead to disillusionment and anger if not addressed effectively. Even worse we have been creating problems faster than it’s possible to resolve them. Levels of trust in government, police, big business, the media and even the professionals and experts who always used to attracted the most social trust, have sunk to the lowest of levels. We are not meeting the challenges of the present or the future well enough in vast areas of our lives including health, education, housing, social justice, immigration and access to things we know lay the foundations for a good society.

Government initiatives are not enough to solve the problems

Resolving these issues and living up to the values that are associated with “A Good Society” is an extremely challenging and complex task. We should not think that all the responsibility lies totally with government. That belief with tend to create widespread passivity and lack of engagement. In fact, our present government seems to believe that threat and punishment are the most appropriate ways to change the behaviour of citizens. This is despite very consistent evidence that people of all types and ages tend to respond far more effectively to encouragement, learning, and real involvement. Therefore, a decent government will understand how people can be enabled to contribute towards making a better society. Local and Central Government need to provide the environment, circumstances, resources and active encouragement so that people who are able and willing can become more actively involved in solving difficult and persistent problems. This means developing multiple way of stimulating positive behaviour and attitudes all of which point generally in the direction of trusting people, treating them with respect and helping them to solve their own problems wherever possible.

Devolve as much as possible from the Centre

This is why the obvious strategy is to devolve real tangible power and sufficient resources away from the centre and towards both localities and dedicated parts of civil society. Governments will tend always to need major and sometimes dominant involvement in areas such as:

But in countries such like the Scandinavian nations, where the population tends to regard themselves as “us”, they seem able to create great impact on public wellbeing. Their governments have tended to engender widespread common commitment to publicly agreed goals through processes of consultation, education, devolution and public debate about social and longer-term strategic issues and public-spirited behaviour is a widely accepted norm. For instance, if you talk to people in Scandinavian countries about their attitudes to taxation, they will tend to look at the tax they pay as a reasonable contribution to providing the services that everyone needs. They are likely to see this pot of money as “our money” that, through democracy, their citizens are able to create and maintain a decent, fair and sustainable society. These attitudes almost certainly stem from the general tendency for Scandinavians to be more collectivist in their thinking than the highly individualistic societies like UK and USA.

In the UK too, there is plenty of evidence that local people have sufficient vested interest and deep local or specialist experience for there to be committed, confident and knowledgeable individuals and small groups who can be trusted by their community and who are able to bring about workable, appropriate, collaborative results quite often at a far lower cost and with far better outcomes than where there is a large superstructure or a body of demanding investors adding heavily to the costs. As a result, the UK has a vibrant and growing civil sector already working towards solving problems brought about by our very unequal society. How can we grow civic engagement to encompass a still wider population?


Most people’s behaviour is driven by two key factors; what motivates them and what they have the ability to do. These 2 factors vary in each person and change considerably over time. They are shaped by people’s life experiences, current circumstances, genetic make-up and self-awareness. But they are useful categories for exploring behaviour and what role a particular person may tend to be playing in society.

So what do I mean by capability and willingness?

By Capability I mean:

By Willingness – how strong is their motivation to make a contribution to other people beyond themselves – family, friends, colleagues, organisations, a neighbourhood or even wider.

Impact of different groups
Impact neutral – little cost to society, but little contribution
Net contributors
Level of Capability
  • Education
  • Buying power
  • Resourceful-ness
Net cost to society or fall through cracks
Potential resource – realised the problems, want to help solve them
LowDegree of Willingness to make contribution to wider societyHigh

This broad map of a population divides people according to their abilities (capability in terms of education, buying power and resourcefulness) and their willingness to make a contribution on behalf of themselves and others. It can be seen that the different categories are likely to have quite different responses to government policies and actions so cannot be treated the same by governments. Maybe a reasonable aspiration might be to attempt to get more people into the “Willing and Active Citizen” box!

Of course, the answer to this is not simple. But social change happens because of very large numbers of individuals changing their behaviour for a very great variety of reasons. So we need many vehicles that encourage and allow individuals to behave in ways that benefit society at a realistic pace and in a way that suits their circumstances.

In the public sphere we need some general principles to apply. If politicians and their agents are not trusted they will have very little chance of changing people’s behaviour towards active contributions for a better society. These principles could include:


This sort of devolved approach has been explored extensively over many years and demonstrated that bottom-up approaches can respond better to need, bring about better social networks of support and give people confidence, trust and satisfaction in their part of society. This type of initiative requires willingness and generosity in the first instance and can build social capital by using practical learning and mutual support to jointly solve problems that otherwise become a drain on resources and a constant source of worry and dissatisfaction.


The term Civil Society or the Third Sector includes all those organisations that are neither government bodies nor private sector organisations. It includes charities, social enterprises, mutuals and co-operatives as well as all sorts of voluntary organisations. This part of our society has been changing most radically over the last couple of decades and social enterprise is the fastest growing part of the UK economy which I want to examine because it has important implications for policy making. There are over 100,000 Social Enterprises in the UK, employing 2 million people and contributing £60 billion to the UK economy. They are outperforming the private sector in growth, product innovation, reducing inequality and creating jobs.

There is massive variety within the sector but social enterprises as a whole seem to offer benefits that may provide some of the necessary lessons for our whole economy if we are to improve the state of the UK over the next decade. We need to understand why they could be so important for our future.


There is a considerable amount of UK based research from bodies such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Institute of Philanthropy, the New Economics Foundation, the School for Social Entrepreneurs and various universities. This has explored those organisations that are based on “bottom-up” approaches. Their findings all point in a similar direction and identify much the same features that lead to sustainable ways of meeting needs and changing behaviour and outcomes at local levels. All the studies emphasise the importance of focusing on individuals or small groups of people actively taking the initiative on behalf of their community or in relation to solving a specific problem. This is in contrast to the top-down approach most often used to set up a new organisation or service. locality rather than being syphoned off to outside beneficiaries – shareholders, advisers and experts, employees from other, better-off districts.

Involvement and Learning are crucial to progress. Action Learning Programmes such as those provided by the School for Social Entrepreneurs which works across the UK and in India have been proven to support people to set up more than 10,000 successful social enterprise I over 20 years.

In the early stages of community activity, lead individuals may have substantial confidence problems. They take considerable personal risks in sticking their necks out to solve, what has been till then, an intransigent problem. They begin to understand through their developmental experiences of practical learning that they must acknowledge and deal with their own weaker points in order to be fully effective. At the same time, they must acquire the skills of presenting to funders in such a way that they obtain the financial support they need, which generally is an altogether tougher and less vulnerable picture. National and local level officials often dismiss individually driven and highly focused initiatives as being a pin-prick. This however fails to understand that these small beginnings can have large-scale consequences which amount to a major change in attitudes, levels of trust and community effectiveness.


At the heart of all these successful initiatives is the notion of Practical Learning – gaining experience of taking responsibility, gaining support, running small ventures, getting a grip on finances and evaluating what is happening. From small, supported, relatively simple initiatives, community activists gain generalised skills and confidence and the process is viral – others catch on and want to gain greater control of their lives.

The founding social entrepreneurs tend to be very strongly motivated, even driven by the passion that comes from personal experiences and a sense that if they don’t act, then no-one else will do the right thing. But their abilities are still being developed and need strong, practical and flexible support, networks of both peers and experts and lots of feedback and endorsement.


Probably the most relevant people for mobilising are in the “Willing but not Active” group in the earlier diagram and are likely to already be making a contribution to Civil Society. At present there is simply not enough public or governmental understanding or commitment to get real benefits from empowering and supporting these people. Many people who are already motivated towards making some contributions to civil society, just don’t know how to go about making that contribution and don’t realise what a valuable impact they can make. Maybe the most interesting result if they do become seriously involved in Civil Society, is that they will almost certainly create much wider ripples of confidence and encouragement amongst the beneficiaries they serve and in addition amongst their families and friends who see the satisfaction they gain and the results of their sphere of contribution. And because on the whole they can put at least as much emphasis on social impact as on financial impact, their efforts are likely to cost less than where private sector capital must be rewarded.

The “Willing and Active” tend to be well appreciated by the population at large although, over the last decade or so, government and right-wing media have tended to treat them as at best “do-gooders” and at worst as dangerous disrupters. But this group contains the people on whom our society depends for their willingness to care for the elderly, heal and support the sick, educate our children and work in vital charities and social ventures. This group needs acknowledgement if only because we need capable people to continue to dedicate their lives to solving problems that will never go away.

Let’s consider the “Disengaged” category. If one were to read only trashy newspapers and watch sensation seeking television and media reports it would be easy to believe that there are huge numbers of people who fit this box. But the reality is that there is a close correlation between the degree of inequality in a society and the percentage of people who fall into in this category


The logical way forward might be to explore how to enable people with different levels of capability and willingness to move towards making more contribution and away from finding themselves stuck in a cycle of disadvantage or inadequacy or isolation. On the whole a decent society will attempt to solve the problems of the disengaged but many of these so called “solutions” can generate vast costs to the state and not necessarily make any marked or sustainable difference to the people concerned.

There have been half-hearted attempts such the “Third Way” to place more emphasis on what Civil Society can provide. Too often these attempts have not been based on sufficient real devolution of power and resources to change motivation or willingness. Expectation about the speed of change have far too often been completely unrealistic often driven by the short time till the next election and the very short time-horizons of most public budgets.

The various elements of Civil Society have not often seen themselves as potentially having one voice but given its importance in making a better society we need governments and public dialogue that encourage both people and organisations making a contribution in this sphere. This means that Civil Society must be far better at collaborating together both in local areas and specialist spheres. It must recognise the need to speak in common ways, to emphasise the social impact it delivers, to negotiate longer more sustainable time horizons for delivery and tell its stories of how it is possible to create a better,fairer,society.

◄ Previous article
Neoclassical economics has failed society
 Next article ►
Repairing a damaged nation
Go to top