‘The Insider’ is turning into a must read blog for those involved in the Third Sector. Written by an anonymous individual in a major NGO, the blog last week dwelt on the challenge of speaking up in the new political landscape.
‘The problem is that as a charity we have a mission to campaign as well as to serve….we are making some noise about this threat but not quite enough to upset anyone, just in case we fall out of favour. It’s an old argument but still a relevant one’
It picks up on a theme that Polly Toynbee explored in the Guardian last week on the back on Jonathan Porritt’s criticism of environmental NGOs for not speaking out on the sell off of the forests, Toynbee quotes Debroah Doane from WDM who said;
“The same is happening with development NGOs – there is a fawning attitude over this government which defies belief. Many are acting in their own self-interest, at the behest of government, fearing cuts if they raise their head above the parapet. So professionalised have they become that they’ve lost the view of the role they’re meant to play – to uphold the public good, and fight for the rights of the commons, by keeping government held to account”
I think it’s wrong to suggest that the whole NGO sector has totally lost its collective voice since the new government came into power.
Sir Stephen Bubb, head of ACEVO (Association of Chief Execs of Voluntary Organisations, so hardly a radical bunch) wrote in response to criticism from Big Society Ambassador, Shaune Bailey who suggested that charities are simply ‘a few people with their vested interests who think they were going to make a lot of money’ that his statement was ‘a disgusting slur on the work of some of our countries most loved and most effective institutions. Our ” vested interests” are the most vulnerable, the most needy and the most damaged parts of our communities’
But I do recognise a hesitance from some to get stuck in to criticising the programme of cuts outlined by the current government.
So what’s could be stopping NGOs from speaking out?
The common argument is that it’s about NGOs worrying about loosing their funding, and there is certainly truth in that, especially in the sectors that are most reliant on large amounts central or local government funding to provide core service. The new government has come to power at a time when voluntary income in scarcer, and many organisations are worrying about future funding.
But I don’t believe its simply balance sheets that are driving the debate.
Waiting to make a ‘big’ impact?
For some, I think its about choosing the right moment, there is no doubt that when some of the big NGOs come out and critique the actions of the government it’ll be big news. It is if you like a nuclear option, and a tool that can perhaps only be used once (perhaps twice) before it becomes ineffective. Are some NGOs waiting for the ‘right’ moment to go public with their concerns and if so how many have thought through what the red lines are that would lead them to do that? Equally, I imagine that many NGOs are making their concerns known privately to MPs and minister, but will it get to a point when they feel the need to go ‘public’.
For others, it’s the restrictions that charitable status places on them (something that doesn’t for example cover organisations like WDM or Greenpeace who have been set up to be largely free of these restrictions). According to the NCVO website, charities are allowed to campaign, providing it is ‘trying to change a law or government policy’ and can keep going ‘until its goal has been met, but political activity can not become the only activity of a charity, indefinitely; it should be a means to an end, rather than the end itself’.
Are NGOs concerned that statements against particular cuts, could be threaten their need to ‘remain independent and politically neutral’ and be interpreted as ‘seeking to persuade people to vote for or against a candidate or political party’? Is this concern especially acute given the coalition government, which means that the Labour Party is the main political party speaking out against most of the cuts? However, if NGOs believe that the cuts are seriously undermining their ability to fulfil their overall objectives at what point do the restrictions need to be challenged?
Understanding the landscape
Finally, are some NGOs still trying to make sense of how to influence the new government, and until they do that they’re going to be reluctant to burn their bridges by being seen as overly critical. The sector has become used to a certain level of open door access to minister and decision makers within Whitehall, but that’s appears to has somewhat disappeared (evidenced by the records released by Tom Watson before Christmas about who was getting meetings at No 10).
Combine that with a scepticism that NGOs are simply lobbying outfits by part of the new intake of MPs and a growth in ‘crowd sourcing’ policy initiatives that appear to leap frog one of the more traditional roles that NGOs have played, are some still trying to work out the most effective ‘insider’ approach before resorting to an ‘outsider’ strategy?