Citizenship and civic engagement – how charities can contribute

This time last year, many charities were putting together evidence for the Lords select committee on charities – which produced a wide-ranging report (PDF, 1.7MB) packed with recommendations earlier this year. This summer there’s another ad hoc committee, on citizenship and civic engagement, carrying out an inquiry into important issues relevant to charities and volunteers, and it could be a good opportunity to shape the way in which civil society can support social action and democratic engagement.

What is an ad hoc committee?

The most important thing to know is that this is a specially established committee which will meet and gather evidence for the next few months before publishing its findings in 2018 – I have explained how ad hoc committees work in this previous post.

Crucially, Lords committees tend to work on a consensual basis and really value the expertise that charities can provide, so this is a great opportunity to get your voice heard.

What issues will it cover?

The key aim of the committee is to find ways to develop citizenship and civic engagement in modern society. You can see the full terms of reference (PDF, 159KB).

By civic engagement we mean activities as diverse as voting, volunteering for a local charity, doing something for your local community, fund-raising for a national charity, or taking part in social action. Charities are often the vehicle for people to engage with society and do their bit to make the world a better place to live in, so we will obviously have a lot to say.

The committee will also be looking at the experiences of communities and groups that may feel ‘left behind’ and face specific barriers to getting involved as active citizens. The committee wants to find out about the barriers people may face across society, the committee particularly mentions BME communities, white British people and both the young and old. They also want to understand the impact of place looking at citizenship in rural and urban areas. Again we know that many charities working closely with local communities and under-represented groups will have lots of experience and expertise to offer the committee on this.

What is NCVO doing?

For NCVO, this inquiry touches on some key issues, so we will be responding to the call for evidence:

  1. We’ll be taking a look at where volunteering fits into the wider frame of civic engagement, and if there are ways in which we can reduce some of the barriers that we know exist currently.
  2. We’ll focus on the role that charities play in democratic engagement, and whether they are currently best able to provide a voice for their beneficiaries.
  3. We’ll be looking at some of the questions around social cohesion and integration, and how that impacts citizenship and civic engagement.

One of the key questions that the committee will have to ask is the extent to which initiatives to support citizenship and civic engagement can be pushed from above by the state. When it comes to programmes that, like NCS, include a social action and volunteering element, we are clear that compulsion is the wrong approach. If compulsion is involved, it simply isn’t volunteering. But if we look instead at ways of improving the experience for young people taking part in NCS, then we’ll have a much better chance of turning them into the active citizens the committee is seeking to develop. We think one way of doing this would be by NCS working more closely with other organisations that are providing opportunities to create engaged young people, along the lines of the recently announced partnership with the Scouts.

And similar questions will influence other aspects of the committee’s work – for example do citizenship tests make people feel part of society, or do they emphasise citizenship as something that has to be proved? And should we instead be asking people what would motivate them to play a more active role in society?

These are the many reasons why we want the committee to hear views from across the sector, particularly those working directly with the communities mentioned in the call for evidence.

How you can take part

We want to make sure that organisations who are specialising in this area are able to take part. There are a huge number of charities bringing people together and encouraging civic engagement, but many of them are small and may be inexperienced when it comes to submitting evidence to committees. So we’re keen to support that engagement, and if anyone does need a bit of advice, feel free to drop me a line on

The committee are also keen to hear examples of good practice as well, and given the subject want to encourage those who wouldn’t normally get in touch with committees. If you have a good case study that you can contribute, but haven’t provided written evidence to a committee before, it might be worth contacting the committee staff and talking to them about how you can provide what they need.

We think it’s important that the voice of charities is heard in this area, so please do ask any questions in the comments, or get in touch directly. And this time next year we may have a set of recommendations that we can use to help build citizenship and civic engagement through the work of charities.


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Chris is NCVO’s public affairs manager, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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