Why Civil Society matters

The term civil society refers to the “third leg” of society, along with the private sector, and the public sector. This definition usually includes academia, journalists, religious groups, NGOs, activists and nonprofits.

Note: Confusingly, the similar “civic sector” is used to refer to things related to the government or democratic participation especially by citizens. Here we are talking about civil and not civic.

Independence between these sectors can be critical, and provides an important counterbalance in society. That’s why we might care if a newspaper is owned by a nation-state, or if an alleged public good is provided by a for profit corporation.

On the other hand, many important initiatives involve relationships that span these boundaries. We might talk about “public-private partnerships” and similar. Government and corporations increasingly fund these organizations, and we increasingly look to philanthropy rooted in the private sector for creating and supporting public goods. New types of organizations sit intentionally between the sectors. The boundaries between these sectors can be fuzzy, and is getting fuzzier.

My energy is focused on civil society (and on collaborations where a civil society org plays a central role) because civil society is really important.

  • The civil sector carries many of our democratic values, and ideas that make society safer, fairer and more just.
  • Civil society resists centralized control and expoloitative profiteering, and supports efforts that do the same.
  • An eroding civil society is an indicator of an unhealthy nation – and indicates a lack of desire or ability to participate, reduced check-and-balances on power, and greater apathy for marginalized communities.

Digital Civil Society

Most organizations in civil society inreasingly operate in digital spaces and would be more effective through the use of data and technology – as discussed by Lucy Bernholz and the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford.

This creates many problems, and also many great opportunities, ways in which organizations will be more successful, more able to support their communities, through the use of data. And this has hope of strengthening our society as whole.

I have worked with many such organizations that are struggling to use data effectively, and responsibly. I’ve seen civil society initiatives attempt to build data-centric tools that are centered in civil society values, and not merely transplants, or short-lived donations, from tech-savvy private sector companies. We’ve sought ways of making our work resilient, financially sustainable, and appropriately governed.

Important factors make data initiatives in civil society very different from government projects or for-profit products –> So what’s different about civil society data initiatives?. New approaches and expertise must be developed to meet these challenges and opportunities.

These aren’t problems to be solved, so much as issues to be managed, and some guiding principles. Recognizable patterns emerge, which can be seen in the sector as a whole, and by individual organizations and teams, that suggest ways in which we can think usefully about how to better builders, better funders and supporter, and better participants in these initiatives.

References and Recommended Reading:

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