We capitalise on this opportunity by reframing and reimagining how we think about citizenship, in general, and supporting young people, in particular. Although there are no simple solutions to complex problems it is possible to suggest that thinking about ‘the civic journey’ offers huge potential in terms of thinking about supporting individuals and building communities.
The perennial weakness of policies in this area is that they tend to be either age-related or place-specific in ways that prevent the full potential of any investment ever being realised. Short-termism and fragmentation prevents a more vibrant focus on nurturing positive social change. In the post-Brexit, post-Covid context there is a very rare opportunity to completely reconsider how policy is conceived and delivered in order to produce a more integrated policy framework – thereby increasing efficiency and effectiveness while at the same time delivering demonstrable public benefits in the places or amongst those sections of society that need it most.
The notion of ‘the civic journey’ is therefore a new framework for thinking about and designing policy not only so that it matches the everyday real-world lives of people, but also so that policies dovetail in ways that build civic momentum as young people move through various life stages and into adulthood.
To provide an example of how the civic journey might be utilised to deliver a more efficient and integrated policy landscape it is useful to just consider the introduction of citizenship education in schools, the National Citizen Service and the new investment in a Civic Universities Network. These are all aimed at different age groups – broadly 11-15, 16-18 and 18-21 – but they are discrete policies with absolutely no thought as to how they might be designed to create a more integrated tapestry of opportunities. Citizenship education is poorly taught, poorly assessed and has evolved towards a focus on character education (i.e. the individual) rather than on active citizenship (i.e. on the community). The National Citizen Service is a brilliant idea but again struggles to reach the sections of society that would benefit the most and is totally lacking in innovative creativity. (For example, where is the NCS alumni scheme that supports young people that have been on the course to develop and continue their interests.) The Civic Universities Network is very new and a brilliant idea but it seems to have lost its core focus and has little to offer those young people who do not go to university. Never before in British post-war history has there been a time when thinking about the fabric of British society has been more important.
The notion of the civic journey provides a way of building a more innovative and ambitious policy framework that is aware of the significance of transition points between phases and policies. This is not to suggest that there is just one single ‘civic journey’ that can be mapped and that is suitable for everyone; but it is to suggest that thinking about the civic journey and the portfolio of policies and opportunities that are intended to nurture positive individual attributes and a commitment to active citizenship could be far better integrated. The benefit being that the social value would then add up to far more than a sum of the individual parts. In sum, the problem is increased social polarisation, increased fragmentation and increasing levels of public apathy and disaffection, especially amongst the young, about political processes, political institutions and politicians. The recommended response is a cross-government focus on the civic journey which seeks to promote civic engagement and political understanding amongst all age groups, identifies and fills gaps in provision, appreciates that achieving cultural change takes time, has a laser-like focus on transition-points and building momentum between policies but does not try and ram all young people into a ‘one size fits all model’ that will only confirm the idea that politicians are out of touch and the state is a blunt instrument.
A really smart post-covid approach would be to innovate by working with young people for young people by promoting and funding forms of co-production and co-design through which disengaged sections of society can take responsibility for charting their own civic journey. The great benefit being that this is likely to produce enthusiasm for inter-generational engagement that could well address related demographic challenges regarding loneliness and isolation.