Fight for your right to speak truth to power

Finding time to blog is an eternal challenge but I couldn’t let news of the government’s latest attempt to silence charities pass without comment.

Let’s be clear: the ban on charities using government grants to lobby government and Parliament is, in terms of ill-thought out, heavy-handed and short-sighted policymaking, a fine example of the genre. However, it does not amount to a total ban on campaigning, lobbying and influencing by charities and we should be careful not to convince ourselves that it does.

NCVO has already set out ways in which the clause to be inserted into new grant agreements will be counter-productive, and I agree with what they say, but there is nothing in this new condition to stop your charity lobbying as long as it helps meet your charitable objectives, is within the law (i.e. non-party political) and you do not use a government grant to do it.

Charities need to guard against overreaction to the clause. We have been here before. In my opinion, parts of the voluntary sector and wider civil society stirred up so much anxiety and anger about the Lobbying Act that it became counterproductive – in trying to convince legislators they were making a mistake, some people were persuaded that charities had been ‘gagged’. In fact, charities were saddled with annoying, unnecessary and costly bureaucracy that placed big hurdles in the way of campaigning and influencing but didn’t actually prevent it. If charities ceased campaigning (or simply didn’t start) as a result of the Lobbying Act that is likely to be because of fear and excessive caution on the part of trustees and leadership teams rather than any actual requirement in law not to do it. The “chilling effect” spoken of in some quarters was at least partly self-imposed. It was fuelled by misunderstanding of or confusion about the new rules.

It is the same with this latest development. If we are not careful, fear of falling foul of grant conditions could cause service-providing charities in receipt of public money to become over-cautious and cease all lobbying. The details of implementation are yet to be worked out but the substance of the official Cabinet Office announcement is that charities can continue speaking up, as long as they do it using funds they have raised from sources other than the taxpayer. Now is not the time to get into a discussion about the dearth of dedicated funding streams available for campaigning, lobbying and influencing. The point is that this clause is not saying charities cannot ever campaign, lobby and influence.

Charities do need to condemn this latest move, which must surely be seen as part of a wider agenda. At best the clause is based on a misunderstanding of what charities can offer and what they seek to achieve through lobbying. At worst it is a deliberate attempt by government to silence some of its critics. Rather than complaining it is being silenced, I would like to see the sector stand up for its duty to ensure the voices and experiences of the people who use services are heard at the heart of government.

A senior voluntary sector campaigner I know often talks about the ‘reckless caution’ shown by some service-providing charity leaders, who shy away from campaigning and lobbying because they perceive it as a hot potato which threatens a core stream of their charity’s income. Better to leave it alone, they say. Just concentrate on providing the best services we can. The problem with this is that the effectiveness of any charity isn’t simply about delivering good services, it is also about telling the truth to government about how those services are experienced by service users and how the policy contexts within which they are delivered can help or hinder that experience. If a charity involved in providing public services isn’t talking to government about how to improve services and policy, it is failing in its duty to improve life for its beneficiaries.

In my experience, at least 10% of a senior campaigner’s job is to influence internally to educate the rest of the organisation – in particular, senior managers and trustees – about what campaigning and lobbying is, and why influencing public policy and practice is a vital part of charity work. It’s not in your job description but it matters. So what are you going to do to ensure your senior managers and trustees fully understand what is and is not being restricted by this new clause? It is up to you to convince them that this does not have to mean the end of charity campaigning, lobbying and influencing unless they choose to make it so by reacting to the new rules with fear and uncertainty.

While I’m in the mood for laying down challenges, what can you do to make it easier for grant-making trusts to fund charity campaigning, lobbying and influencing? It’s no secret that securing funds for this type of work is difficult. Would it be easier if campaigners were better at measuring and communicating the impact of their work? Funders want to see evidence that their money will make a difference. If you can’t convince them it can, is it any wonder that funding streams for campaigning are few and far between? What if senior staff responsible for campaigning, lobbying and influencing activities collectively raised their game and got better at demonstrating effectiveness through rigorous application of strategic planning and evaluation tools? Perhaps grant-makers would see an opportunity to create dedicated funding streams for campaigning and influencing projects, including for service-providing charities to feedback evidence of frontline conditions to policymakers.

Let’s not do the government’s job for it by working ourselves into a frenzy and being scared into submission. Instead, let’s be confident in our resolve to speak truth to power and shout loudly about the reasons why charities are uniquely well-placed to contribute to real world, evidence-based policy making.