What do changes under this government mean for campaigners?

Significant changes to the way government works, while not aimed at voluntary sector campaigning, are having a big effect on it. Let’s look at the implications.

Downing Street. Picture: Ministry of Defence, used under the Open Government Licence

Changes to the machinery of government

Recent changes include:

  • a dramatic reduction in the number of central civil service roles, with staffing reviews and large reductions in the number of policy staff in many departments
  • a change in the role of central government with devolution pushing power to LEPs, CCGs and PCCs
  • the move towards the Cabinet Office agenda of ’breaking the Civil Service monopoly on policy advice’
  • government paying less attention in some areas to guidelines on policy consultations and elements of the Compact.

This has resulted in a narrowing of the opportunities for direct lobbying and a shift away from coproduction of policy with some government departments, and simultaneously an increased importance of working through other parties with influence such as think tanks.

Government and the campaigning role of the voluntary sector

We’re hearing more and more a distinction made between ’good’ service-providing charities and ‘bad’ campaigning ones. Also there have been criticisms of larger service provision charities for allegedly campaigning simply for an even greater slice of statutory funding.

For the larger service-providing organisations, which form a substantial part of the voluntary sector’s campaigning capacity, a perception that they are not really part of the voluntary sector has been voiced more loudly. While it is easy to dismiss these criticisms as wide of the mark, even if the perception is wrong it needs addressing in the way the campaigning organisations position themselves.

It’s worth remembering that while the unfortunate recent ‘stick to the knitting’ gaffe is front of mind for many, there has broadly been support from ministers for charities campaigning role in principle even if the mood music has been less welcoming.

The Lobbying Act

The high point of the sector’s concern over the last four years has been the Lobbying Act measures which could be seen to significantly restrict the sector’s right to campaign through stricter spending limits during election periods. But it’s important to note that the proposals were not driven by attempts to restrict voluntary sector lobbying, and in some areas – admittedly after very significant levels of campaigning – are actually less restrictive than what went before. This is not to say they are all welcome. But the biggest danger of the legislation now is less the actual measures but the overall dampening effect they may have on the sector by altering charity trustees’ perception of the inherent risks of campaigning inside an election period. Clear guidance from the Electoral Commission will be crucial as will cool heads in assessing the real impact of the legislation.

Judicial review and restrictions to legal challenges

The attack on judicial review is probably the most obvious case of a particular government department trying to take away one of the most effective legal tools available to challenge state decisions. Coupled with restrictions on access to legal aid to take cases to tribunals these measures are a much more direct and deliberate attack on the capacity of the sector and citizens to challenge decision making and how legislation is interpreted and applied. The sector has been rightly worried about this and the purported rationale for them that Judicial Review was being used illegitimately by lobby groups to further their cause (a charge demolished by lawyers working in this area).

The future

All this is challenging the sector’s easy assumptions of the New Labour years that access to government was a right and the voluntary sector was a natural policy partner. It may be that those years were the high point in the acceptability and reach of the sector within government. It’s a reminder that we constantly need to make the case for the sector’s voice in government. Ultimately, the best way to demonstrate our value to any government will be with the quality of our ideas and campaigning.

The sector needs to rethink both how it finds the routes to influence government and how it frames its issues. Crucially important will be our ability to continue to demonstrate professional practice and NCVO’s work in developing good practice guidelines for campaigners will be crucial here. We also need to ensure that campaigners can demonstrate connectedness to those we represent. There will no doubt be further challenges including accountability around campaign spending and potentially further discussion of the commission’s guidelines on campaigning. We need to have clear answers on these issues.

Central to the sector in ensuring that we retain a powerful advocacy role will be making the collective case that campaigning promotes civic virtue, democratic engagement and good governance at a time when people are losing faith in the political process but not the desire to be involved in civic participation as the Scottish referendum has just proved. The debate on the constitution post the referendum commitments for more devolution for Scotland opens up major opportunities for the campaigners in the sector to define what that local accountability might look like for the groups they represent.

Brian’s post is based on his longer article in which he explores these issues further;  Is charity campaigning under threat from the coalition government? Voluntary Sector Review, Volume 5, Number 1, March 2014, pp. 125-138(14)

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Brian is chair of NCVO’s campaign advisory group and author of NCVO’s Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing.

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