Digital Inclusion and a ‘Good Society’ in the wake of COVID-19

Covid-19 Anniversary Blog

12 months ago I reimagined a good society in the wake of Covid-19. The vision was one of mutual aid, community strength and public policy, led by strong, independent and diverse voices. One year on, this vision has in some sense been enacted; yet the pandemic has revealed more obstacles on the road to a ‘good society’, none more so than the impact of digital poverty and exclusion.

The pandemic has led to passionate campaigning on many issues. Activism around issues such as food poverty have highlighted how a human values response to policy making can make fast and impactful changes. However food poverty is simply a symptom of a broader structural exclusion experienced by people on low incomes. For in reality food poverty, is in plainer terms, just poverty. With research starting to indicate that Covid itself may become a disease of the poor, it is imperative that we take this opportunity to permanently reshape our society.

Thus to return to the three imaginings of a good society from my original post, this requires a not simple a ‘repairing’ of the welfare state, or a re-imagining of a what a good society might look like, or even a move towards more meaningful collaborations between voluntary, public and private sectors. It requires a shift in our conceptualisation of poverty, and our collective response thereto.

The last twelve months have highlighted that a post-Covid vision of a good society needs to be more compassionately radical, to re-frame its reimagining around human rights and opportunity, and our right to participate in a democratic society. The curtailment of our civil liberties aside, the almost exclusive digital response to the pandemic has diminished the ability of many in poverty to participate or to use their voice.

There is no question that digital exclusion has broadened the divide between the ‘digital haves and have nots’, as highlighted by recent reports from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). The JRF UK Poverty Report and the JRF Destitution Report both highlighted digital poverty as not simply about not being able to access basic public services such as education, health, and social security; but is more fundamentally about voice. As APLE Collective, state ‘to be digitally excluded, is to be silenced’.

So to re-imagine a good society in the wake of covid-19 we must build what Baroness Ruth Lister calls ‘voice-space,’ and address digital poverty as a human rights issue. For, from digital inclusion, so comes the ability to campaign, share ideas, listen and be heard; and so voices emerge. To be truly ‘good’ our post-Covid society must take account of this.

Dr Katy Goldstraw is Senior Lecturer in the Social Sciences as Staffordshire University and is Chair of the ISR External Advisory Group.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 6th May 2020 by Katy which can be found here.

Note: ISR are playing their part in creating opportunities for ‘voice-space.’ We are running a series of webinars, which are idea sharing sessions, focussed on how you generate socially distanced, social responsibility. Join us on March 17th for Young People and the Pandemic: Doing Socially Distanced Social Responsibility.


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Re-imagining a ‘Good Society’ in the wake of COVID-19

In 1909 Beatrice and Sydney Webb published The Minority Report envisioning ‘a good society’ where the state provided the basics; health, education and welfare, while civil society and the private sector offered extension to this in the form of  wealth, prosperity and societal support.

Research, conducted by myself and Professor John Diamond at Edge Hill University, into the Good Society in 2017 revealed that the strong compassionate civil society and community spirit of the Blitz has always existed; it never went away. So how can we harness this ‘spirit’ to build a vision of a Good Society post COVID-19?

As part of a series of collaborative conversations with civil society groups across the United Kingdom in 2016 and 2017 John and I developed a set of three visions of a Good Society. Revisiting these now is pertinent as I feel that they can serve as a basis for re-imaging our society in the wake of the pandemic.

The first is one that repairs the current welfare state, restores institutions and reimagines the Webbs’ extension ladder model, where civil society adds value to the welfare, education and health delivered directly by the State.  

The second is of a society based on strong human values of public love, care, tolerance, respect and kindness.This vision of a Good Society reignites the philosophical debate around what a Good Society might look like. By reinvesting in democracy, civil society can help to build a Good Society. To do this we need to reconsider our understanding of society as beyond that of nation state; recognising the globalised heterogeneous world in which we sit. This vision of a Good Society post COVID-19 involves listening to the expertise of people with different lived experiences,  to the voices of civil society in the voluntary community and faith sectors, and re-modelling public policy framed around deliberative democracy.

The third vision, recognises that a Good Society develops through the recognition of heterogeneity and diversity, and from a solidarity of tolerance and respect. Hybrid organisations, experienced at integrated working, that are no longer sector specialised but expert collaborators, operating within a heterogeneous globalised world, will be the ones in this vision to create a Good Society. COVID-19 has seen the automotive industry work collaboratively to design ventilators, it has seen big pharma work collaboratively between companies to develop a vaccine. All sectors; public, private and voluntary, have responded with an unprecedented willingness and openness to collaboration. This vision of a good society would build on these collaborations and seek to develop responsible and ethical organisations that can work within integrated settings for the public good.

Thus the vision of a Good Society that could be reimaged in the wake of COVID19 is perhaps one of mutual aid, community strength and public policy, led by strong, independent voices with lived experience.

Author: Dr Katy Goldstraw, ISR Visiting Fellow.


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What Makes for Good Youth Engagement?

This public seminar, the latest in the ISR ‘Good Society’ series, took place on 25th September 2019. It brought together a diverse range of people – from youth workers to foster carers to representatives from energy companies – to think about how we might engage and listen to young people more in our working, and indeed personal, lives. Stuart Dunne, Chief Executive Officer of Youth Focus NW, and young activist Jess Leigh, shared their extensive experiences with us and posed some challenging questions.

Stuart, who has been working with children and young people for over twenty years, began by telling us about some of the work that Youth Focus NW is involved in, its emphasis on youth voice and the provision of spaces for young people to get together and discuss issues that are important to them. Stuart challenged the long-running societal assumption that young people are ‘lazy’ and ‘apathetic.’ There are more young people than ever who want to be involved in making decisions about the world that will impact on their lives for many years to come. Given that we have the theoretical knowledge about the importance of involvement, and the policies and procedures in place which should enable this, Stuart asked why it isn’t happening more. Why are we not involving young people as much as we could when there are so many benefits to be had from doing so?

Jess Leigh gave a stirring speech about the impact her involvement in youth voice has had on her life. It has seen her through some dark times and taken her to some places she had never imagined going, including the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Speaker’s House. Jess reminded us about how the global climate strikes of the previous week, in which millions of young people from around the world had participated, had been started by one girl with a vision: ‘We are a generation of changemakers and dreamers,’ Jess claimed. Jess made suggestions about how we as adults might help young people in realising their dreams. We need to engage, inform and support them, reminding them that they need to take care of themselves as they strive to achieve their goals, and encouraging them to learn from their mistakes rather than being stymied by them.

The audience members were encouraged to think about our own childhoods and about times when decisions were made about our lives that we had no say in. So many of us could relate to those feelings of powerlessness that arose from this, and far fewer of us could recall times when we had been involved in decision-making as children. This proved a powerful way of understanding the importance of listening to children and young people, and it sparked some fruitful discussion. We thought about ways of capturing the voices of those young people who were particularly marginalised and disengaged, and also about ways of ensuring that as many people as possible get to hear the voices of young people. At the end of the session, lots of contact details were swapped and people left with ideas about how they might apply some of the learning from the evening.

Dr Victoria Foster
ISR Associate Director (External Networking)
Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Edge Hill University


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What Makes an Economy Good?

The latest in I4P’s ‘Good Society’ public seminar series took place on 30th April 2019 where guest speaker Neil McInroy led an inspirational conversation on ‘What Makes an Economy Good?

Neil is the CEO of the independent think tank, CLES, and one of I4P’s Visiting Fellows. Neil was a speaker at the Good Society event that launched this seminar series so it was a pleasure to be able to welcome him back to Edge Hill University. The seminar was well attended by a range of local councillors and residents as well as by academic staff from the university.

The seminar was built around Antonio Gramsci’s words which seem more relevant than ever in this era of global crisis: ‘…the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ We are living in the interregnum, Neil argued, in a world where 10 people own the same wealth as 50% of the rest of the population. Such incredible inequality is accompanied by environmental uncertainty and fears for the future of the planet.

Despite this dire state of affairs, the evening had a very optimistic tone as Neil set out the ways that power is shifting back to the people through social movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the new municipalism (which is also embraced by the Labour government). He also stressed that an economy is a social construct, not a science, and this means that we can shape it in any way that we choose. This led us to think about the possibilities for a more just economy that could quite possibly soon be born.

The community wealth building work that CLES has been involved in for some years is currently gaining a lot of traction. This gives consideration to our purchasing powers: we can make – and indeed are making – more relational choices about how we spend our money. Whilst this is important on an individual level, it becomes yet more potentially transformative if anchor institutions such as universities and hospitals re-think their strategies for purchasing goods and services. The local community needs to be prioritised in these decisions in order that wealth is directed back into the local economy. We also need  to concentrate on building co-operatives and mutually owned businesses to achieve a more plural ownership of this economy.

CLES has produced a range of publications on these issues which are freely available to download here.

Dr Victoria Foster is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences and I4P Associate Director (External Networking) here at Edge Hill University.

What makes a Good Childhood?

A public discussion event hosted by I4P on 28th August 2018 which asked, ‘What makes a Good Childhood?

This event was a continuation of the ‘What Makes A Good Society’ series which began in June 2017 when we invited participants to discuss how to influence policy-makers and decision-makers, and to consider what the necessary ingredients for a ‘good society’ are. Since then we have held a follow-up session on the ‘Good Society’ and a subsequent one on ‘What Makes A Good University?’ All the events to date have been attended by a lively mix of local people, professionals and academics.

‘What Makes a Good Childhood?’ was facilitated by Dr Gideon Calder (Swansea University) who is a member of I4P’s External Advisory Group. He began the session by posing a challenge. The group was given the following list of features which might be regarded as being crucial to a ‘good childhood’:

  • A good family life
  • Good mental health
  • A good education
  • Good physical health
  • A good environment

Gideon asked whether we could rank them in order of importance. This provoked an interesting debate as we considered the difficulty of the task. One participant questioned the concept of ‘good’ and what that actually means and how it can be measured. This led us to talking about the different lenses that varying professionals view childhood through. Another participant pointed out that the features listed are not mutually exclusive and it is not uncommon for one to feed into another.

Another thought-provoking philosophical exercise involved us considering whether (as inspired by Patrick Tomlin’s 2016 paper) we take a ‘sapling view’ or a ‘caterpillar view’ of childhood. The first understands children to be a smaller (weedier!) version of adults and adulthood is a necessary stage to go through on the way to becoming a complete person. The caterpillar view, however, sees children as being qualitatively different from adults in the same way that a caterpillar is a quite different creature from a butterfly. This distinction has profound implications for how we might treat children. For instance, what is fair for ‘butterfly’ children could look very different from what is fair for adults. Gideon (playfully) suggested that from the butterfly perspective, a childhood filled with fun and junk food might be much more preferable to one filled with intensive schooling and formative extra-curricular activities which are designed to ‘pay off’ in later life.

A number of the participants in the session felt that they would like more time to reflect upon and discuss these ideas. All are invited to Tom Cockburn’s Book Launch event (more info soon) and we will have some time after that to continue the debate. Do contact us if you would like to join in.

Reference: Tomlin Patrick (2018) Saplings or Caterpillars? Trying to Understand Children’s Wellbeing. Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 35, No. S1

Dr Victoria Foster is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences and I4P Associate Director (External Networking) here at Edge Hill University.

What Makes a Good University?

A public discussion event hosted by I4P on 28th March 2018 which asked, ‘What makes a Good University?’

This event was a follow up to the ‘What Makes A Good Society’ sessions which took place in October and June 2017, where we invited participants to discuss how to influence policy-makers and decision-makers, and what the necessary ingredients for a ‘good society’ are.

The discussion was facilitated by Professor John Diamond, Director of I4P. He began by introducing the role of universities as creating spaces for critical thinkers and set the conversation within the history of universities over the last century. The discussion was informal and took place in smaller groups that then fedback to the wider group.

The importance of the transformative role of universities was discussed. Within a university there can be multiple spheres of activity; this can create a tension where different things are going on within same geographical space. How an individual tries to make sense of that might depend on where they are politicly.

The narrowness of universities’ curricula was discussed and this was linked to fees and the importance of the instrumentalist role of universities. Universities are responding to the economic needs of businesses (producing skilled workers) and the economic needs of students (in order that they can work to repay their fees).

The role of the university was also discussed as providing space to develop ourselves as critical thinkers. The discussion questioned whether this should happen by creating a third sphere of university in a discussion session like this one or whether this critical thinking space should be intertwined within courses – in that by building knowledge we automatically build critical thinking.

The discussion was vibrant and comprised of diverse options which generated enthusiastic discussion. The feedback after the session was positive with attendees appreciating the opportunity to debate and network within Edge Hill University and with community members.

Dr Katy Goldstraw is the I4P Post Doctorate Research Fellow here at Edge Hill University.