The Future of Citizenship

Placards at the start of the marchA couple of weeks back I attended NCVO‘s seminar on the Future of Citizenship. Building on a recent report by The Henley Centre that developed four scenarios of how notions of citizenship and civic involvement may change over the next twenty years, the workshop-based afternoon was focussed on the challenges and opportunities that such changes will present to voluntary organisations. It was a fascinating afternoon and I’d highly recommend taking a look at the full report (PDF) and checking out the follow up questions on the Third Sector Foresight website.

Not working directly for a voluntary sector organisation I was definitely in the minority, but it was abundantly clear that whatever direction society moves in, the role of online services can only increase and that it is necessary for those of us building such services to be actively helping those working on the ground analyse the strengths, limitations and possibilities available.

A key concern arising from all scenarios was the likelihood that the coming years will see an increase in levels of social exclusion. Whether we are resource rich or resource poor, active or apathetic, the requirements of the population at large to work out their own access to services and manage their inclusion in society are highly likely to increase and some will be left behind.

In one conversation I had with a representative of an organisation working with an easily identifiable group of contacts I was told that they are increasingly concerned that by putting a heavy emphasis on online support for their constituency, the less tech-savvy are being left behind and it can be hard to see who they are. In such contexts it seems fairly trivial to add a reporting layer to their online services which will identify which of their contacts are not using the system and so should be offered extra support, but with decisions frequently being made based on small budgets and limited IT expertise, there is often little space for such thinking or expertise to customise the off-the-shelf packages that allow for a quick and cheap setup.

It was also clear from the research of the Henley Centre that most people see citizenship as primarily a “horizontal” concern—how we relate with our neighbours—rather than being about the “vertical” connection with government. For those in attendance, working on social issues every day, the need for those two axes to be connected was clear, but that message is not generally understood and in some cases is met with hostility. It’d be interesting to see how more use of tools such as those built by mySociety can make those connections, blur the divide, or maybe even break down the dichotomy to develop new ways of relating between government and society.

Most in attendance foresaw a future where physical resources and access to transport are harder to come by. Between global warming and peak oil we are likely to see far more constraints than we are used to. Many in the voluntary sector are ideally placed to help society through those situations, but will themselves feel the pinch. New ways of working together, sharing resources and optimising travel are needed and will have to go beyond efforts such as Virtual Bali to address more day-to-day issues.

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