What's changed? The post lockdown landscape for campaigners

For most of the last few months I’ve found it hard to sit down and write for the blog – but a combination of so much changing with trying to juggle ‘lockdown living’, has meant it’s felt like every time I’ve had a thought or an idea to write down it’s quickly been surpassed.  

At the start of lockdown in March, I used a model of three phases for our thinking with my team;

  • Now – what was happening right then – the immediate response to the crisis.
  • Near – the following few months – how priorities would shift to focus predominantly on the impact of Covid-19.
  • Far – some point in the future where the focus would move to a wider set of priorities than just Coronavirus.

But as lockdown is lifted for many, and we’re seeing a reopening of shops and restaurants in the UK, it feels like we’re moving into that far territory – although the virus is still prevalent and the future remains uncertain – but with that, I’ve been pausing and starting a quick analysis of what’s changing and changed. 

But all of the conversations and discussions that we have about what next needs to be done after some long, honest and uncomfortable conversations about racism and white privilege that has been brought to the spotlight by the brutal murder of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Some working in the charitable sector might be under a misguided view that because our work is to ‘do good’ it’s not something we have to consider, but as #CharitySoWhite has so powerfully shown white priviledge and racism is as prevelent in our work as any other profession or sector.

All of us need to commit to doing the work to address our own privilege, and how structures and approaches reinforce inequality in the charity sector and then keep coming back to, just because the news agenda might have moved on we need to keep coming back to it – and that’s certainly something that I’ve been thinking about a lot.

Beyond that if we were to draw a quick PEST (political, economic, social, and technological) analysis of what’s going on, what might be include.

Here are some thoughts;

Political

  • We’ve got a government that is going to use cultural and values to divide us – as this excellent piece outlines with the economy likely to get worse as a result of COVID-19, there will be a strategy that by those in Number 10 to focus on cultural issues – the ‘war on woke’ is a deliberate and calculated strategy designed to play to voters that the Conservatives need to win at the next election – informed by regular and extensive polling and focus groups. 
  • The rule of engagement with MPs have changed – MPs have seen their inboxes overflowing with more messages than every before – it was initially in response to Dominic Cummings and his decision to break his own lockdown rules, but has followed with a second peak caused by Black Lives Matter. My Society, the team behind They Work for You, reported that June was the busiest month ever for their site. And importantly the majority of the messages MPs are getting aren’t the pre-populated messages that come from campaigners, they’re constituents taking the time to write on their own. 
  • It’s a footballer who’s almost certainly secured the biggest policy U-turn from the government over the last 3 months. Marcus Rashford got the government to extend its free school meal provision through the school summer holidays, and it’s full of clues for campaigners at what could make the government move – excellently outlined in this article, although all campaigners should be wary of trying to use the same ‘formula’ twice. But it shows what’s possible.

Economic

  • An asymmetrical recovery –  Think back to late March, and there was a sense of surprise as many of the policy announcements that the government was making were previously thought to be impossible or improbable, but in the same way that the policy response to the lockdown was asymmetrical, with some gaining, but many others missing out or falling through the gaps, the same is likely to be true of the recovery. We’re about to enter into the deepest recession in a generation, and how to respond to the narrative that will be created about the inevitability of austerity will be critical for campaigners.  
  • Inequality and austerity – Coronavirus has brought into the light, the many inequalities and injustices that blight our society, from the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on ethnic minority communities, to low pay that essential workers receive, to the digital divide that means it’s impossible for many children to study remotely, to the rising use of Foodbanks – the growing inequality in our society has been brought into sharp focus, and public attitudes for action are moving as a result. It feels like that’s unlikely to quickly reverse, so what does that mean for campaigners?

Social

  • Public displays of activism – walk down many streets and you’ll see signs of ‘window activism’ – what started as rainbows has moved to statements about pay for care workers, or statements in support of Black Lives Matter. Certainly in my community, it feels like you seeing more political statements that at any time outside of an election.
    But beyond our windows, we’ve seen a move towards public art activism as US cities have painted statements in support of Black Lives Matter on key streets, while on social media, Instagram, has increasingly turned into the platform of choice for sharing campaigns. Campaigning has always been visual, but perhaps even more so now?
  • Protesting has adapted rather than stopped, with people taking part in socially distancing protests around May Day, in the US innovating by moving to car protests (not sure this will catch on in the UK – although it’s an approach that farmers have used), and in response to Black Lives Matter, locally organised events for those who don’t wish to travel to a central protest. How we protest might change, but the last few months have shown that it’s not going to go away. 

Technological

  • Corporates boycott social media – perhaps less noticed here, but in the US there has been a significant number of household brands publically committing to stop spending on advertising on Facebook until it takes action to ‘the end to their amplification of hate speech’. The decisions which have come about as corporates have considered their response to the Black Lives Matter movement is an interesting and important move that shows the potential power of corporate – it’s a theme explored more in this podcast. A similar situation is happening with companies like FedEx calling on the NFL to rename it’s Washington Redskins. 
  • Use the algorithms for good – who’d have thought that K-Pop stans (fans of Korean pop bands- don’t worry I had to look it up!) would have shown how to so effective in mobilising to flood the #AllLivesMatter hashtag, or the TikTok community in the US would score a famous win by registering for millions of tickets to Donald Trumps rally, but they did. In an age, it shows that not just having a social media presence, but understanding how to effectively using the algorithms that Twitter and Facebook use to identify premium content to share further. As an approach, it’s so smart.

Understanding Campaigning – 4-week learning and development syllabus.

For those on furlough at the moment, or anyone looking to sharpen their skills and knowledge, I’ve put together this Understanding Campaigning syllabus. It was inspired by wanting to provide some useful learning resources for colleagues on furlough

The aim of the syllabus is to provide some recommendations of resources to help you understand more about campaigning – with recommendations of online courses that you can enroll in, talks and films to watch, podcasts to listen to, and useful documents or reports to read.

It was designed to be followed over 4 weeks, but in reality, it can be followed over any time period.

Each week is themed and was developed from recommendations from colleagues at Save the Children. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m aiming to add new content and material to keep it current – do add your recommendations in the comments.

COVID-19, volunteering and learning for campaigners

What campaigners can learn from the different approaches to coordinating volunteering during the coronavirus lockdown.

COVID-19 has seen an enormous groundswell of interest in volunteering, with the different approaches to how you can get involved in volunteering to help those in your community who are vulnerable or isolating are good examples of how volunteering and community activism is changing.

You have the decentralised, distributed, new power approach of local Mutual Aid groups, supported by a team of volunteers behind the https://covidmutualaid.org/ site.

Then the centralised, controlled, old power approach of NHS Volunteer Responders, run by the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS).

Both have been successful at getting people to volunteer.

Over 500,000 signed up to volunteer as an NHS Responder in the first few days, and research back in April suggested that 22% of us have signed up to be part of a community support group.

And both have encountered some challenges.

There are stories of how those who signed up to be NHS Responders haven’t been called upon, while I’ve heard more anecdotal stories of how Mutual Aid groups have fractured over political difference or the reluctance of local authorities to work with them.

Thinking about the two models, I’ve put together this table that looks to reflects the differences in approaches;

But what lessons should campaigners take from the two approaches? Here are a few, some new, some old;

  • Always ensure you have tasks for volunteers to get involved in – the iron law of volunteering that you should always give those who sign-up to help something to do or those who’ve signed up risk not staying involved.
  • Use the tools that people are already using – having signed up to be an NHS Responder, the GoodSam app that is behind it feels clunky to use and not intuitive for the mass volunteering, while everyone is already on WhatsApp which has powered many Mutual Aid groups (or can quickly learn to use Slack) which has good UX at the heart of it.
  • Think about how you build leaders – that’s easy to do for Mutual Aid groups and replicates the lessons we’ve seen in political campaigns which make big asks for volunteers, I’ve seen in my local community how individuals have been able to actively offer skills they have to help the group, and then take on more significant roles in a community response.
  • Allow for local knowledge and adaption – When I signed up for the NHS Responder role it looked like I needed a car to do pharmacy deliveries, despite living in London and not regularly using a car, and it being possible to do it on my bike, it’s a tiny example, but shows how’s a centralised approach can often miss local knowledge/ which can lead to changes to improve the experience (and impact). It’s a theme picked up more in this article.
  • Make it about more than the task – my sense is that many Mutual Aid groups have grown to become more than just about helping others in the community, they’ve been places to organise other activities. It’s a reminder for me of the findings of Hahrie Han, who found that many of the most successful chapters or groups in her studies are those that combined political and social activities, deepening commitment and a sense of shared values. The ‘what’ of that might be different in an age of social distancing but the premise remains true.

I’d be interested in your thoughts in the comments on what else campaigners can learn, and for a brilliant deep dive into wider lessons for campaigners from COVID-19 I’d recommend a read of this by Natasha Adams.

How could the pandemic change our future approach to campaigning

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our lives, but what scenarios might we want to consider about how the pandemic will change our approach to campaigning?

Using the 2×2 Scenarios approaches from Save the Children’s Strategic Foresight Toolkit: Making better decisions, I’ve had a go at creating four contrasting scenarios to help to debate how we might need to change our approach to campaigning.

Normally, you’d use this tool to look at scenarios for the next 10+ years, but given the current situation, this feels like a useful tool for the coming months (and even as I’ve written them they change!).

Importantly these are not predictions, but rather they aim to offer interesting images of the future. My hope is to use them to explore and prompt discussions and debate with colleagues, but I’m sharing here should they be useful for others.

I used these four possible scenarios from Zukunftsinstitut to help get my thinking going, and this from Nesta is also helpful in highlighting some key trends.

Scenario 1 – A closing space
The public is reluctant to gather together for protest or marches as a combination of restrictions on unplanned public gatherings continue (there are different rules for established sporting fixtures), and the ongoing messages about limiting social contact.

Parliament puts limits on the size and scale of events that can be held to no more than 50 or 100, making lobby days or similar at Parliament hard to organise, and ongoing guidance about public gatherings and traveling on public transport makes bringing smaller groups of campaigners together in person harder to do.

Many national and local newspapers have closed during the COVID-19 due to a combination of advertising revenue and circulation of newspapers has fallen to unviable levels – this has removed important opportunities to hold decision-makers to account but to also amplify local views. Most of us now get our news from social media influencers or increasingly partisan online news sites. 

Some governments are using the pandemic to place further restrictions on the operations of civil society organisations and using it to further restrict the ability to advocate and influence. Campaigners have to learn from those movements that have thrived and survived under hostile governments in the past.

Scenario 2 – Back to the future
Parliament returns, with the Conservative government and its 100+ seat majority in Parliament. The government has to focus on an economic agenda that it didn’t anticipate when it was elected, as the country has fallen into a deep recession, but it was seen to be doing an effective job by most of the pubic during the crisis, who are thus largely supportive of their policies, including cutting back some of those introduced during the crisis. Brexit is back on the agenda, but a secondary priority to managing the economic impact of the crisis.

Many MPs and decision-makers fall back on the method and approaches they used – citing the desire to want to show that we’re ‘returning to normal’ as a reason to drop the approaches they’ve taken during the lockdown.  The virtual Parliament has come to an end.

We’re waiting for the US presidential elections, but the ongoing dysfunction in global institutions have continued to stall international cooperation. The rearranged COP summit on climate in Glasgow is seen as a moment where the UK government will aim to demonstrate that the country is moving forward – putting the focus back on the climate emergency. 

Scenario 3 – A digital leap forward? 
Remote working from home becomes increasingly normal for those who can, with that adjusting the way that we also connect with businesses and institutions, with the expectation that we’ll be able to video call, someone, as opposed to just a voice call – including campaigning groups and charities. 

This move to digital is also subtly changing the nature of local community, with the result of Mutual Aid groups being that individuals are more connected to their immediate neighbors through community WhatsApp groups or similar, as over 30% of have been part of a local community response group – but we’re less engaged in wider institutions, especially those which haven’t been able to adjust to the new digital expectations – this further narrows the perspectives and opinions many are exposed to.

Through lockdown, many MPs and decision-makers have moved to new methods to continue to engage with, for example, virtual surgeries, or being more accessible through social media is a norm. That continues with MPs increasingly using the approaches their lockdown approaches for ongoing interactions – that opens up possibilities and opportunities, for example, more and more digital roundtables with MPs or Ministers, but also creates a further digital divide for those who do not have access to computers or reliable data connection. Elements of the virtual Parliament continue – like electronic voting.

Scenario 4 – A great shake-up
As with past public health crises, COVID-19 sparks a desire from the public for far-reaching reforms, securing many of the policy changes that were announced during the crisis, but also more, as a result of a government ‘in the market’ for other ideas and approaches.

Think tanks and other policy institutes are in demand, with requests for new ideas to help to respond to the social, economic and health crisis that coronavirus has caused. Policies that just a year ago were thought to be unrealistic or improbable are now considered. 

The connections made in communities through mutual aid groups continue, with a closing of the ‘empathy gap’ as individuals reflect on the importance of having strong community ties. This leads to a growing interest in campaigning and advocating on local issues – with a big focus on councils and mayors as local bodies that are seen to be most responsive. As a result, further devolution gives mayors and councils more power to make decisions and enact policy. 

What do you think? What seems likely or unlikely? What might this mean for your approach to campaigning?

Jubilee 2000 – five enduring lessons for campaigners

For the last few weeks, I’ve been spending some of my time as a debt campaigner.

It’s been important work on a professional level, working with colleagues from across Save the Children and many beyond to push the World Bank and IMF to provide debt relief to the world’s poorest countries so they can spend it on their COVID-19 response (more on why and what needed to happen here).

On a personal level, it’s been enjoyable as it’s been a very short journey down memory lane, because the Jubilee 2000 campaign was the first campaign that I  was involved in.

But also because I know that so much of the campaign that I’ve been able to be involved in since have been able to build on the rich legacy of the Jubilee movement – without Jubilee 2000, you wouldn’t have had Make Poverty History in 2005, without that you’d not have had a campaign for 0.7% to be enshrined in law, and so on…..it’s the starting point for so much of the campaigning on international development that’s happened across the last 20+ years. 

Jubilee 2000 was a hugely successful campaign, seeing the world’s richest countries agreed to the cancellation of more than $100billion of debt owed by 35 of the poorest countries.

(As an aside, if anyone ever asks me if campaigning works I’ll take them to this school that I saw built in a rural community in Ghana that was built thanks to the money released through the campaign).

However, because the campaign happened 20 years ago, just before the age of everything being captured on YouTube, or perhaps because many of the leaders of the campaign have moved into other roles the campaign isn’t often discussed.

It should be, so here are my five quick lessons on what campaigners can still learn today from the original Jubilee 2000 campaign;

1. The best campaigns are powered by a simple idea – back in the 90s, Martin Dent, a retired lecturer in politics at the University of Keele, had the idea behind what would become the campaign. To use the biblical principle of Jubilee (the canceling of debts every 50 years) and call for the cancellation of third world debt by the year 2000.

A lot of strategies were built off that idea in the subsequent years as the policy work around the campaign was developed, but that simple, core idea was never lost. It was always going to be possible to say if the campaign had succeeded or not. It captured perfect what Purpose articulate in their theory of change for impact, with a clear target, goal, and impact.

2. Never underestimate the power of unusual alliances – throughout the campaign, you had unlikely or unexpected alliances coming together. Religious leaders, including the Pope, joining with Bono, Muhammad Ali, Youssou N’dour, economists, trade union leaders, healthcare workers, and many others coming together.

It was possible to put the campaign in a box, and that mattered as it made for unusual and unexpected partnerships, as this paper recalls the role that Bono played in convincing conservative US politicians. That unusual coalition, although I suspect at time fractious to hold together, was critical for the success of the campaign.

3. Don’t overlook the role of faith communities in helping to secure change – As a Christian, I’m biased in this, but it feels that the hundreds of thousands of members of churches and faith communities who came together to demonstrate to political leaders that they wanted to see action taken, for example, the 50,000+ who joined the human chain in Birmingham when the G7 met in 1998, was integral to the success of the campaign.

Drawing on communities of faith (and their traditions – in this case, the idea of a jubilee) can bring something powerful into any movement.

4. To achieve your change you (often) need allies in power – evaluators are undoubtedly divided on how much it was public campaigning that drove the decision to cancel the debt versus the political factors that led to it – and indeed that will always true in evaluating impact.

But as my boss Kirsty is always quick to remind me, campaigners can create the conditions for change, but it’s politicians who act to ensure that happens.

Undoubtedly the debt campaign needed the, then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, to act as an advocate for it inside the G7 – he famously received a campaign action from his mother with a note to not “waste your money on a stamp to reply”, and as this film explores also the important role of leaders of some of those countries who were set to benefit from the relief package in pushing for action as well. 

5. Petitions can play a key role in your campaign – a staggering 24 million people across the world signed the Jubilee 2000 petition for debt cancellation – it was at the time a record-breaker and remains so. Something that is even more remarkable when you consider that it was gathered together in the days before digital campaigning.

The petition was used as a calling card for the movement, that behind it was support from so many, a reminder that a petition – if effectively used can help to demonstrate support for the change you’re calling for.

If you’re looking for more comprehensive document looking at learnings from the campaign – I’d strongly recommend reading Cutting The Diamond by Ann Pettifor who was one of the key leaders of the campaign.

Updated on 21st April to reflect helpful comment that it wasn’t economists that came up with the idea, but Martin Dent, a retired lecturer in politics at the University of Keele.

Campaigning tactics in a time of social distancing

Lockdown and Social Distancing have meant that some campaign tactics and approaches aren’t now possible – but as campaigners our craft is always about looking at what else is in our tactics toolkit.

Thinking about this challenge, I took to looking at legendary campaign strategist, Gene Sharp’s list of the 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action for some ideas and inspiration about what approaches to take.

Sharp put this list together saying ‘Wise strategy, attention to the dynamics of nonviolent struggle, and careful selection of methods can increase a group’s chances of success’

The full list is available here from the Albert Einstein Institution that Sharp founded and I’ve used it in this post with gratitude – https://www.aeinstein.org/nonviolentaction/198-methods-of-nonviolent-action/. You can learn more about Sharp here.

The idea of the original list was simple, with Sharp arguing that far too often activists weren’t aware of the full range of methods possible to achieve change.

Although the list was written in 1970, so well before digital campaigning became an approach, it’s still very relevant and helpful, and something I’ve found to be a good source of inspiration.

Looking at his list around 30 methods are very hard or impossible to do in a period of a lockdown or social distancing, for example, marches, parades, or group lobbying is difficult when there are limits to the number of people who can gather together on the advice of health authorities.

Another 50 or so would need to be adapted to work in an age of social distancing, for example with schools closed a traditional School Strike isn’t possible, but as Friday for Future has shown it’s not stopping them continuing to highlight the climate emergency each Friday as they have been doing so for over a year, or teach-ins which need to move online, as Mobilisation Lab have done.

But that means over 100+ of Sharp’s proposed methods are still possible – indeed, at this time many of the methods that Sharp suggests around ‘Symbolic Public Acts’ or ‘Communications with a Wider Audience’ could be especially effective, as we’ve seen with actions like Clap for Carers every Thursday.

I’ll aim to get a thread going on Twitter of examples of different approaches, but the full list revised to take account of social distancing is below. I’d love to know what approaches and methods you’re thinking about using.

COVID-19 and Campaigning – a summary

Like everyone else, the last couple of weeks have been very different to what I expected or imagined, and blogging hasn’t been a priority.

But one of the things that I’ve found myself continually grateful for is how so many individuals and organisations have been so generous in sharing their thoughts, ideas, advice, and help as we try to make sense of what’s happening – and that meant my inbox has been bursting with unread emails.

It’s taken a couple of weeks to stop and look through them all, so if you’re feeling the same I thought it might be useful to do a summary – a summary of summaries if you like – and I’ll try not to use the word ‘pivot’ once!

1. We need campaigning more than ever during the coronavirus crisis – The team at Mobilisation Lab have, as always, been super attentive to how they can help campaigners, convening community conversations to dig into the issues – I’m looking forward to seeing more of their thinking. This is a really good summary of their thinking, with the advice that every campaigner and social change organisation needs to reassess its existing analyses, strategies, and tactics, and the suggestion that means;

  1. Walk away from last month’s theory of change.
  2. Thinking outside of the (digital) box.
  3. Changemakers can do more with less—through people-centered design.
  4. The impact of the digital divide is greater than ever.

2. An abundance of tactics Beautiful Trouble’s irreverent guide to activism in the time of pandemic makes a great read, and as you’d expect from a collective that is known for helping to highlight new tactics and approaches, the article is full of ideas of just – as well as sage advice about how to use timeless campaign theories.

If you’re looking for inspiration then the Climate Strikers are one of the campaigns who’ve adapted quickly, for example in South Asia they’re switching to focusing on lawsuits and to target companies and banks or you can watch this livestream to get more of a sense of their thinking in Europe. 

3. The impact on organising – many of us have been looking at focusing more on relational organising, and when we’re in lockdown it’s hard, but this helpful and practical piece from the team at M+R and 360 Campaigns, both agencies in the US have some practical advice – the recommendations to build community and curate a digital “speaker series seem sage to me at the moment, before looking to move towards taking in-person tactics online in the future, like digital lobby days. 

4. Digital organising when we are physically isolating – Rachel Phan and the team at New/Mode have shared ideas for those looking to do digital organising, much of it has similarities with M+R’s advice, with a big focus on listening to and keeping connected with your community, and getting creative and try different tools and ways to engage – a 

5. Proven tactics and approaches for fundraising – the superstar team at Forward Action have also been super generous, sharing loads of their accumulated knowledge into this 3 part series on digital mobilisation – with ideas for all organisations to look into whatever your size. At times when fundraising budgets are undoubtedly tight, it’s a really helpful read. 

6. Can you mute your microphones – We’ve all been adjusting to moving meetings, workshops and training online (this is fun bingo to play) and the team at Blueprints for Change have produced a really top set of guides full of advice from across their community to help you do that well. 

I’d also recommend this from Gastivists Network, suggest you look into the facilitating online sessions training that Training for Change run (I’ve been using this set of Google Slides which are perfect for online campaign facilitation), while the team at Campaign Bootcamp have shared this with a focus on training. I’m keeping a bit of a thread going on Twitter for useful guides I’ve found. 

7. The story to tell – Lots of useful content on messaging and framing, but I’d especially recommend what the team at Frameworks, with their 20+ years of experience have launched in a special series which aims to help advocates and experts be heard and understood in a time of global crisis, and in the UK, this is an excellent round-up from Alice Sachrajda on the story to tell and how to shape the narrative, with a long summary at the end of many other framing and narrative efforts. 

8. Remembering a larger us – the response that has seen in the UK, hundreds of mutual aid groups set up (a perfect example of a distributed networked campaign) is evidence as Alex Evans writes that ‘coronavirus asks us: do we see ourselves as part of a Larger Us, a them-and-us, or an atomised “I”?’. So with that in mind, I’ll finish with this;


Do 50,000 signatures still make a big petition in the UK?

A new Parliament Petitions Committee has just been appointed, and the petition site will resume service again, so as it does that I’ve taken a revisit the analysis I did in the summer of 2018 on what makes a big petition (see original post here).

Back then, I used the data from the 170 or so petitions that had been created since the 2017 General Election to August 2018 analysis and drew the conclusion that any petition over 50,000 could be considered a BIG petition. Now I’m looking at all of the petitions that were started between July 2017 and December 2019 taken from here.

So, 18 months later, has anything changed? Well yes, but also no.

Since my analysis, another 300+ petition has reached over the 10,000 thresholds to get a written government response, including the 6 million strong petitions to revoke Article 50 that got so much coverage at the start of last year, and can comfortably hold the record for the biggest petition in modern campaigning – I’ve argued the Chartists still holding the record given they got up to 1 in 3 of the population at the time to sign.

That means the long tail that I wrote about back in 2018 has got even longer – with 8 petitions getting over 250,000 signatures, and 4 over 500,000. The graph when you include the 6 million strong Article 50 petition looks a little like this – not very instructive at all!

Take out the biggest petitions, and you can see the distribution of those that got over 10,000 signatures – the threshold for a government written response.

I find interesting there isn’t a single petition that got between 90,000 and 100,000 signatures – you either get over that 100,000 line which affords the opportunity for debate in Parliament or you fall at least 10,000 short.

The biggest difference since I last looked – Brexit.

There has been an observable Brexit effect over the last 18 months – head back to the summer of 2018 and the Department for Exiting the European Union had responded to 12 petitions at an average size of 54,000, fast forward and it’s now 45 with an average of 250,000, with 17 of them having got over 100,000.

As a result, the mean average for all petitions over the time has gone up to 62,500 (from 39,932 in 2018), but take out those petitions focused on Brexit and the average size of a petition goes down to just over 41,000 (so just a 1,000 or so increase).

The median average has gone up by just 1,000 from 18,189 in 2018 to 19,658 now.

Below is the breakdown by department (you can also view it here) – you can see some real difference when it comes to volumes that departments are having to respond to and I think that’s important when you’re talking about why will influence the department you’re working with;

A few other observations;

  • I’m assuming that the significant number of petitions towards DEFRA has some link to the growing concern about climate and the environment in general over the – some of the biggest petitions that DEFRA has had to respond to focus on banning single-use plastics and non-recyclables.
  • It’s also interesting that departments like Health and Education get a large volume of petitions they have to respond to (67 and 33 respectively) but compared to others relatively few of them go onto reaching over 100,000 – perhaps that speaks to the size of communities who are energised around those issues so they don’t get wider traction?
  • Of course, as I mentioned last time, this is just data from the Parliament site, and of course, many petitions are set up with 38 Degrees or Change.org, as well as on agency-owned platforms, so it may be that those sites, with tools that make sharing and gathering more signatures even easier drive the overall number higher.

So what makes a big petition?

I‘d suggest that overall, not much has changed since I last looked at this, and thus anything over 50,000+ can claim to be considered a big petition to the government. It’s a clear milestone that most petitions don’t get over (about 22% of those over 10,000 make it) so it’s hard to be easily be dismissed as an ‘average’ number, and should I imagine get tracked by those in the department responding.

BUT

The emergence of the huge petitions on Brexit in the last 18 months could indicate that the reality is that it now feels like a small figure both in the mind of those signing – the sense that if 6,000,000 individuals could sign a petition on stopping Brexit and it didn’t work, why would 50,000 on something else have an impact, but also for those receiving it comparing it with the huge petitions of recent years.

New Year, New Job

I started a new job last week – still at Save the Children UK, still campaigning on issues that I’m passionate about, but now as Director of Campaigns and Organising. 

It’s a new role for Save the Children, that’s the outcome of a larger re-organisation we’ve gone through over the last few months to look at how we can be even more deliberate at focusing our resources on achieving change for children, but the blog about how we’ve done that is for another time.

But as I’m moving into my new role, the thing that I’m most excited about in this role is the explicit inclusion of organising into our public campaigning approach – I’m very literally making the move from mobilising to organising.

I hope having organising not just in my job description, but at the heat of the work of our Campaigns and Organising department will help us to be more intentional about embedding this into our approach.

I see my role is now all about leading a brilliant team of campaigners to help to build power of those who want to join Save the Children to help secure change for children. 

But as I start, I wanted to offer a few reflections that I’ve been thinking about what putting organising more explicitly front and center of our campaigning approach will mean in the coming year, and in particular what I think it might mean for me as a leader. 

I’m very aware that, like many others, we’re on a journey with organising – building on work that we’ve piloted in the last few years and following many others, like Shelter who’ve embedded community organising at the heart of their new strategy or colleagues at Save the Children Action Network in the US who have helped to shape some of our thinking.

So I’m sharing this in the hope it’ll help others who are exploring what organising could mean for their campaigning. 

1. Intentionality – we’ve definitely got a strong organisational ‘memory muscle’ at Save the Children UK – a way of approaching an opportunity that has often been about moving quickly to mass mobilisation. We’re not going to lose that overnight, nor should we, as sometimes that approach is going to be the best approach, for example, our recent work on calling on the UK government to bring back UK children trapped in NE Syria, but if we’re to embrace an organising approach it’ll require us to learn some new habits, and that means being intentional about asking ourselves if moving directly to mobilise is going to help us build power for our cause in the long-term?

2. Patience – organising is about relationship building, which takes time and will mean that results aren’t going to be immediate to see – so a big challenge is going to be about being patient with the space, time and resources we have – we’re often used to campaign cycles where we can quickly see outputs, but at the end of the year I hope we’ve made more decisions where we’ve chosen to be patient with our organising approach, rather than reverting to a more transactional mobilising approaches. Ask me in a year how this has gone.

3. Accountability – I’m rightly held accountable for specific indicators in my role, but often I’ve found our KPIs can incentivize us to work towards report on the volume of activity, and not tell the whole story. I’m sometimes aware that I’ll be reporting on 10s or 100s of high-quality actions being taken, which can appear small in comparison to other indicators –  so that means we’ll need to look for new metrics that help us to report on the work we’re doing and get better at telling the story of the impact we’re having.

4. Understanding – organising is an approach that gets mentioned in lots of conversations between campaigners at the moment, and I’ve found even in recent months as I’ve been talking about with colleagues everyone has different understandings and confidence. There are of course specific approaches – but for me, moving to more of an organising approach is not about adopting a specific ‘school of thought’, but exploring using the principles that Hahrie Han so brilliantly outlines in her book – skills and principles that in my experience come very naturally to many campaigners.

5. Involvement – If mobilising is transactional, then organising is relational – which means that we need to build an approach that actively draws others into shaping our strategies and approaches  – that could be diaspora communities, our existing Campaign Champions and importantly for us at Save the Children – children and young people. In this approach, we’ll have to be less protective of the ‘how’ even if we remain focused on the ‘what’ – the change outcome we’re all trying to achieve.

6. Honesty – I’m not going to get this right all of the time in my leadership, we’ll make mistakes, assert too much control, revert back to old habits, but rather than wait until we’ve ‘cracked’ it as an approach I want to be open and honest about the journey we’re on, hence the motivation to share this on week 1 – I want to be challenged by, get help and new idea from others. So this post serves as an open request for that!

Learning from successful movements – some recommended reads for campaigners

Between the election, a busy period at work, and family life, blogging has slowed down towards the end of 2019 – that’s something I’ll be aiming to fix in 2020.

To be honest, I didn’t find 2019 to be a classic for books for changemakers, and many of the books I’ve most enjoyed have been those that have told the stories of movements in the past that have successfully won change – while acknowledging there are lots of other movements, especially from outside the US and Europe that’d I’d be keen to learn from and not reflected in the list.

I think curiosity about how change happens is a vital attribute for any campaigner and have found that looking back at the past can be one of the best ways to learn how to win in the future, and in our current turbulent political times, I’ve found that reading up on movements from across the ages has been important for remembering the principles that should be at the heart of every campaign.

So here are some of my recommendations;

Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild (Amazon/Hive)- the classic text of the successful campaign of the abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce to end the transatlantic Slave Trade in the 1800s, but as you read it you also discover the campaign pioneered many of the tactics that we still use today, like petitions, direct mails, and boycotts. Max Lawson has written a good review of it here, but the book has too much focus on the role a small number of men played in the campaign. I’m definitely looking for texts in 2020 that correct that.

The Woman’s Hour by Elaine Weiss (Amazon)- this book explores the successful campaign to introduce women’s suffrage in the United States – and in particular, focuses on the efforts to ratify the 19th Amendment in Tennessee – the 36th state needed to become the law of the land. The book is rich in exploring the tactics used, and in particular, the important role that different actors played with the suffragette movement, and the recognition that successful movements often require leaders and organisations that take – as Weiss writes ‘rifts within protest movements appear to be an essential component of the ecosystem of change’.

Ireland Says Yes by Gráinne Healy (Amazon/Hive) – a brilliant playbook on how to win a referendum written by the leaders of the equal marriage campaign in Ireland – it’s a fascinating insider account of how the campaign identified that to win it needed to focus on the ‘moveable million’ those who were neither a hard yes or no for marriage equality, were more likely to be persuaded by people like themselves, and then pursued a strategy to deliver that, including key decisions about how the campaign messaging was going to be framed and the messengers to be used. ActBuildChange has a great summary here, but for any campaigner, looking to understand the importance of identifying a winning narrative I can’t recommend it enough.

The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights by William P Jones (Amazon/Hive)- there is such an extensive literature on the Civil Rights Movement – I’ve had Taylor Branch’s King Era trilogy on my shelf for a few years, but I’ve chosen as it’s a really good look at one of the most pivotal days in that movement, it is, of course, the day is remembered for the I Have a Dream speech, but I found the book to also look at the critical role that many played in arranging the logistics and mobilising for the day and the level of practical detail that went into organising the day – for example having lunch packs available to all marchers and a sound system that could be heard – a reminder that movements require different leadership roles

Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America by Kate Zernike (Amazon/Hive)- The rise of Tea Party may have been over a decade ago, but I’ve found the literature to be some of the most interesting in how movements grow – none more so that Kate Zernike book which looks inside the grassroots groups that mobilised following the election of Barack Obama – and while there is nothing that I’d agree with the Tea Party on the book gives an excellent account of how the movement grew so rapidly, and how much they studied there opponents to learn from them. A reminder to campaigners to understand the approach those you’re campaigning against is taking.

I’d also really recommend Theda Skocpol The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism – it’s a more academic look at the rise of the Tea Party, but again gives clues to how it grew so quickly, and foretells how some of the infrastructures that were built by the Tea Party helped to propel Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016. 

How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Amazon/Hive)- this isn’t a quick read, at 400+ pages it’s the longest books on the list – but I found David France’s account to be utterly absorbing and very moving account of how a small group of activists took on the pharmaceutical industry, mastered the complexities of HIV and the clinical trials process to gain the respect of medical researchers.

The book brings an eyewitness account of the activism that got the US Federal Drug Agency to finally change its position, the role of Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Powe ) and it’s direct and creative activism which forced action – warning it’s a book that will make you angry. There is also a critically acclaimed film of the same name which is recommended. 

Parkland: Birth of a Movement by Dave Cullen (Amazon/Hive) – a very contemporary recommendation to add to the list, but one of the best books I’ve read this year, Cullen spend almost a year embedded with the leaders of March for our Lives. If the last few years have been dominated by youth activism, then this is one of the best accounts that I’ve read of how youth-led movements have driven so much action. I did a quick Twitter thread on some of the key lessons that I took from the book here. 

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (Amazon/Hive) – this is the insider account of how two New York Times journalists broke the story of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual aggression against both A-list actors and junior employees and the subsequent rise of the MeToo movement. It’s fascinating and well researched read, and a reminder for campaigners of the important and critical role that journalists can play in breaking stories that allow change to happen.

A note on the links – where possible the links to take you to the hive.co.uk – an independent online bookseller, but I’ve also linked to Amazon, I earn a small commission from Amazon for each sale using the link which I use to cover the costs of hosting this blog.