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UK ‘civic core’ needs diversity boost to keep public services afloat

The UK’s current ‘civic core’ –the people who participate in activities such as responding to consultations about local services, engaging in democratic processes or playing a direct role in decision-making by becoming a councillor – is predominantly “prosperous, highly educated and older,” and needs an urgent boost of diversity.

In a new report, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) said that while membership of bodies such as trade unions and tenants’ associations has shrunk, the number of people willing to give their time to support a cause and volunteer civically remains high.

Between 2006-7 and 2016, for example, the proportion of people involved in charitable giving has remained relatively stable (between 54% and 61%), as have the total amounts donated to the voluntary sector by individuals.

The challenge, however, is to ensure a more diverse group of people are involved in society’s civic core.

Civic engagement can come in different forms, such as civic participation (contacting an elected representative, taking part in a protest or signing a pretention), civic consultation (engaging in local service consultations or completing questionnaires) and civic activism (becoming a local councillor or school governor for direct involvement).

But while there is a “huge diversity of activities,” the picture is “quite different” when taking into consideration who is involved. The greatest variation concerns socioeconomic status and education level, with people in higher social grades and with a higher level of education being more likely to get involved in these civic activities.

Similarly, those contributing a “disproportionate amount of time” to civil society predominantly hail from the wealthy, middle-aged and highly-educated sections of the UK population.

This landscape has also remained largely unchallenged for years: there has been minimal change in the demographics of who gets involved, with previous research over the last decade finding participation to be unequal.

The NCVO has called on organisations to effect change in the voluntary sector given the valuable contribution of civic society to the running of everyday services – for example, from the 300,000 school governors and 125,000 hospice volunteers who are integral to service delivery.

“Growing demand for services, reduced public spending and the ongoing search for quality services may lead to a recruitment drive for more volunteers,” said the report. “However, given that overall levels of volunteering have been static over time, there is a clear challenge for organisations looking to grow their volunteer base to innovate and find new models of volunteering, perhaps more flexible ones that will allow more people to get involved.”

Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at NCVO, added that organisations of all kind will need to innovate in order to lift their levels of volunteering and attract a more diverse base.

Many organisations are already thinking about and doing this, and we should all try to learn from them,” continued Wilding. “If we are to create a society able to address the diverse needs of all who live in it, we need to make sure that people from all walks of life are able to join in and work towards change.”

Paul Winyard, senior policy officer at the NCVO, has previously written for PSE about the importance of engaging the voluntary sector and volunteering more broadly in order to make devolution a success.


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