Time for a new social contract? Reflections from The Advocacy Initiative

This week I was delighted to be invited to give a short input at a seminar launching Joe Larragy's new book on the community and voluntary pillar, Asymmetric Engagement.  One of a number of contributors we were asked to consider the question 'Time for a new Social Contract?'.  My presentation drew on the findings of The Advocacy Initiative.

The question of whether we need a new social contract sent me back nearly 20 years to my first year philosophy lectures with Pascal O’Gorman in NUIG, and their explorations of the idea that all of us submit to the authority of the state in order to protect other freedoms and rights. The question of a new social contract is of course a much broader one than the institutionalization of the relationship between civil society and the state.  The role of civil society is a both component of any social contract and I think a key function of civil society is to challenge the dominant contract to ask if it’s the best we can do?

As Joe highlights in his book the social partnership sceptics on the left argue that the Irish model of social partnership undermined civil society capacity to challenge the dominant social contract or indeed design a new one. Joe points out that much of this analysis is based on limited empirical analysis and that’s where, usefully, his book comes in.

I have just spent the last three years running a project called The Advocacy Initiative; this was a broad community and voluntary sector project aimed at examining and better understanding the advocacy of C&V organizations.  Some of those involved had direct experience of social partnership some did not.  The Initiative emerged in 2008, so its history parallels the turmoil of the last six years or so.  It was an attempt to respond to that changing context, but it was also a response to pre-existing dynamics.

In 2008, there was a real sense that advocacy was under threat from the state. The experience of many advocates and their organizations was that the state was actively working to silence advocates through a mixture of control over funding and aggressive behaviour. However there were no or few spaces where there could be reflection and dialogue about social justice advocacy: the threats it faced, its purpose, methodologies, effectiveness, assumptions, and legitimacy. Where spaces did exist there were low levels of trust, we often did not share perspectives and there was not always room for dissent from dominant narratives.

There was something unique in how The Initiative did its work.  The Initiative is an example of a new and reimagined way of working together.  It was a deep collaboration between organizations and individuals that do not naturally orbit the same values or frameworks.  The Initiative invested in projects, space and opportunities, it avoided setting up an institutional structure.  The Initiative aimed to generate approaches that energized participants and asked them to think differently. We experienced very broad good will from a broad range of stakeholders.  There were different expectations and objectives, but a shared sense that despite the challenges social justice advocates remain seriously ambitious for their work.  So there was a very positive internal environment, but it did not necessarily start off that way.

But what the experience of advocacy demonstrates over the last six years is that just because the particular form of social dialogue breaks down does not mean that the advocacy relationship is gone.  It may be difficult to claim advocacy victories in the current context, but that does not mean there has not been very effective civil society engagement with the state over the past six years. Taking a whole variety of forms – both insider and outsider to use that dichotomy.

Our influence is not dependent on an institutionalised relationship nor should it be.  What the Initiative showed is that when the ways of working are strategic and skilful, they are effective, despite the very genuine hostility from some quarters.  The democratic function of these organizations maybe contested but fundamentally it is not challenged.

There is perhaps a danger in becoming too caught up in one way of working that we lose sight of the broader impact and power of civil society.

The overall synthesis analysis of The Advocacy Initiative drew out six core lessons for the community and voluntary sector – these are very relevant to any discussion of a new social contract, whether or not the relationship between civil society organisations and the state includes a form of ‘social partnership’ or  to use Pat Carey’s short-lived concept ‘social dialogue’. 

1. Awareness and understanding: Outside the community and voluntary sector, social justice advocacy is not well understood. While our polling data showed that there is generally supportive public, very little is known about this work either by the public, or indeed by many policy stakeholders we spoke to. We have a challenge in communicating our role and the purpose of this work, and in demonstrating our legitimacy.

2. Credibility and legitimacy: Policy-makers and influencers are worried about where we get our mandate. How grounded are we, how rooted in experiences of poverty and exclusion. Some worried that the professionalization of the sector had distanced it, and that sometimes we have become more focused on sustaining our organizations than sustaining our memberships. There is a challenge for us in rigorously focusing on our mandate and communicating it, but equally policy makers need to better recognize the challenges of doing this work, particular with very vulnerable and excluded communities.

3. Respect, relationship building and trust: Respect was a consistent theme. Neither policy-makers nor us felt that our role was respected and valued in what can sometimes be a difficult relationship. We were surprised that respect was such a strong two-way theme and perhaps this speaks to the need to make space for relationship building within our sector and with policy-makers. This theme also raises the question of expectations, what we expect from policy-makers and what they expect from us. These expectations do not always match up.

4. Capacities: We did identify skills and knowledge deficits. Policy-makers worried about the depth of our understanding of the nature of the policy making process, while we were concerned to explore new methods and tools. The Advocacy Initiative leaves behind it many resources that should support this, including our capacity assessment tool, but there is no silver bullet. Capacity development – on both sides – is an on-going project, which needs time, space and energy. 

5. Strategies: We tried to develop indicators for effective advocacy.  It turns out there is not one simple definition of what is effective, but we do need to plan and strategies, we do need to take a longer term vision.  More collaboration and co-ordination, more innovation and creativity are important and need to be encouraged and supported by policy makers as well as driven from within.

6. Independence and resources:  The sector has experienced challenges of independence and resources. As I have said policy-makers asked us questions about balancing our service roles (often on behalf of the state) with critical advocacy along with the challenge of being both an insider and an outsider. We explored the particular question of state funding; the answers were messy and complicated. There is no black and white analysis, we know that the state does support advocacy, but there are also moments when state funding compromises independence in very significant ways.  Perhaps we can all be more honest about this dynamic and more forthright in protecting the independent role of advocacy.

Perhaps the most important legacy of The Advocacy is that as a sector we now share a deeper understanding of these challenges, that we have some common identity from which we can talk about question like this one: Do we need a new social contract?

I certainly agree we need a new social contract, in the sense of a new relationship between citizens and the state, one where our society is a more equal and more just place.  Maybe the question for today is whether a new form of social partnership would help to get us there?