When should charities campaign? And when should government listen?

alex-foxAlex Fox FRSA is CEO of Shared Lives Plus, the UK network for shared lives and homeshare. He chairs the NHS England Dept. Health and Public Health England review of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector.

A debate which is often heard within and about the voluntary sector is the extent to which charities should spend their resources on campaigning, as opposed to delivering support. It’s an especially thorny issue if some of that funding comes from government.

The sector’s response

No one in the charity world believes that party political activity is compatible with their charitable purposes. The Charity Commission has (very occasionally) taken action against charities which are considered to have a remit to promote politics rather than a charitable purpose.

Occasionally charities have been seen to push at the boundaries of small and large ‘p’ political activity, particularly in the era of social media where individuals running charity social media accounts can sometimes tweet before fully thinking through their message.

However, helping marginalised people to have their voices heard is indisputably a key part of charitable activity and this has often been recognised by government.

Julie Bailey was praised by Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, who said that her courage in standing up to managers at Stafford Hospital had made the NHS safer. She was awarded a CBE for setting up a vocal and at times controversial campaigning group, Cure the NHS, after the traumatic experience of witnessing poor care for her mother, who died in the hospital.

Former care minister Norman Lamb was supportive of the self-advocacy groups and campaigners criticising poor and often dangerous care for people with learning disabilities in medical institutions after the Winterbourne View scandal and often publicly expressed his personal anger about those failings.

Campaigning is in our DNA

Many charities are born from the gaps and failures in statutory services. They are founded for instance, when a particular service is failing to recognise and include a particular group. At their best, their campaigning means that a tragedy leads to positive change and people are safer and better served in future.

Some in the charity sector are more comfortable in traditional campaigning mode, highlighting a problem, than constructing pragmatic solutions, and there is a view in some parts of the sector that charities have to keep their distance from government in order to remain ‘true’ to their mission.

For me, the goal for us all is to make sure that organisations and services of all kinds are shaped by the people who use them, which means ensuring that those most often overlooked or ignored have their voices heard.

So I think there is a place for campaigning, and for anger in some of that campaigning. The only human reaction to failures like those which lead to the death of Connor Sparrowhawk, is anger, particularly given the relevant health trust’s apparent reluctance to apologise and learn.

But there is also a place for a range of different voices and for influencing which starts with enthusiasm for something which works, rather than anger at something which does not. That is where we see our role being in promoting shared lives and homeshare, for instance: they help people live good lives and they are cost effective, so we want to make it as easy as possible to develop the models and for people to choose them.

Listening makes for better government

It is in government’s interest to engage with all of these voices, however difficult that may feel at times. Confident policy making, like any effective leadership, involves listening to dissenting voices as well as enthusiastic ones.

Department of Health (DH) civil servants and ministers who develop social care policy have been at the forefront of working in this way. The strong consensus around the Care Act 2014, despite the difficult economic and political context within which it is being implemented, is testimony to that approach.

At present, I’m the independent chair of the Joint VCSE Review consultation, which is a good example of an attempt to reform policy which is being co-produced by representatives of the VCSE sector, central government and local commissioners. As we digest the responses we are hearing that co-designed policy is better policy and that local organisations from different sectors work most effectively when they work together, even if they do not always agree.

I’ve seen this first hand in my involvement with the Think Local, Act Personal partnership, in which, crucially, people who use services and their families are a strong voice (and elect the partnership’s co-chairs from amongst their number), alongside sector bodies and central and local government.

The DH, NHS England and Public Health England Strategic Partners programme is another way in which government role models this approach nationally and in the review we have heard lots of constructive suggestions about how it can be sustained and strengthened.

Whilst the model of statutory bodies being ‘the system’ and VCSE organisations shouting from the sidelines can be the way that change starts, it seems rarely to be the way that practical, sustainable change comes to fruition.

VCSE organisations need to be part of decision-making systems from the start and throughout. Keeping decision-making focused on people, including the most marginalised, and sharing in the responsibility for ensuring health and care systems work well for everyone in their communities.

 

How can charities talk about inequality and make it matter?

Get involved in the discussion and consider what it means for your organisation at our Annual Conference workshop on 18 April 2016.

Find out more about NCVO Annual Conference 2016

 

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