Working with Whitehall

Lee Webster, Campaigns Manager at CARE International UK, attended the workshop on Working with Whitehall at the NCVO Campaigns Conference.

Lee WebsterI co-ordinate CARE’s Voices Against Violence campaign which calls for an end to violence against women in conflict. Like many campaigners, I do this on a shoestring, and there’s never enough time in the day to do all the things I need to do.  I’m not being self-pitying here, it’s just a fact, that you may well recognise from your own work.

So in all honesty, I signed up to the Working with Whitehall session because I know I should be better at building relationships with civil servants, but the fact remains a small team can only do so much.  It’s hard enough trying to put a face to the names of the MPs and Ministers who care about the issues I campaign on, and keep on top of what they’re doing and saying.  So to add another layer – a “faceless machine” of a layer at that – to the people who we might need to influence in our campaigning, is somewhat intimidating.
However, my first assumption was blown away when Mary Agnew from the Department of Health (a real life senior civil servant, with a very friendly face, as it happens) gave the lowdown on how to build productive and mutually respectful relationships with civil servants.  Her examples were from the Department of Health, but the lessons will work across government departments.  Top tips from Mary include:

  • See relationships with civil servants as a genuine partnership, this will lead to delivering more;
  • Provide civil servants with evidence – facts, figures, case studies, to help them make the case on policy issues to Ministers;
  • Know from the beginning there will be no money, and the civil service is in fact getting smaller;
  • Be realistic – civil servants work with politicians and things can change at short notice;
  • Educate civil servants and their ministers on the important issues – this could include arranging visits to services/projects for Minister and team.
  • Try to work with other organisations who campaign on the same issue – develop common messaging and avoid duplication, for stronger influence.

So far so good – positive benefits and opportunities for collaboration abound.  However, a couple of Mary’s points were more controversial, and raised the odd eyebrow in the room.
First, she said that if you have a relationship with a civil servant, you should let them know when you have a campaign action that targets their Minister, civil servants don’t like to be surprised by organisations they have an ongoing dialogue with.  This one is definitely worth consideration in your campaign planning I think – but I would contest that there are occasions when a campaign action can be more effective if there is no warning – so one to chew over, and balance up the pros and cons.

Second, she said that as campaigners, we need to engage with the Big Society, make sense of it, and shape it.  In a day full of sometimes heated debate on campaigning and the Big Society, this was an interesting view, and I am sure you will have your own.
To get a perspective from ‘the other side of the coin’, Vicki Nash from Mind gave some great examples of how she had built up positive – and sometimes challenging – relationships with teams in the Department of Health.  Her top tips include:

  • Don’t forget that civil servants are humans! And what’s more might have been affected by the issues that you campaign on.  They are also feeling the pace of change in the civil service at the moment, like many of us they are feeling the cuts.
  • Think about how you can help a civil servant do her or his job.  And if you don’t know, ask them.
  • Get to know how the civil service works – look for opportunities for work shadowing, to build greater shared understanding of your respective roles.
  • Despite everything, it doesn’t always work, sometimes your position is too far away from the position of the department or Minister – know when to let go and go back to the drawing board.

Big questions and discussion ensued, covering issues about how to work with Czars, tensions between Special Advisers and Department members, who actually drives the policy agenda, and much more.
Fascinating stuff, and very useful indeed.  NCVO have published an In Focus guide (written by the chair of this session, Emma Taggart) on Working With Whitehall (pdf).  If you want to learn more about some of these issues, then this is definitely worth a read.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m going to put some of these news skills into practice, I’m off to make friends at DfID!

Lee Webster

You can follow Lee on Twitter at @leepster and CARE at @careintuk
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