Reflections from campaigning in Brussels

Last week I spent a fantastic three days with campaigners from across Europe in Brussels calling on the MEPs and representatives of Member States to help to unearth the truth. We were calling on them to pass legislation that would require all oil, gas and mining companies registered in Europe to be open about the payments they pay for access to these valuable resources to governments.

The group outside the Danish Embassy to the EU

It was the culmination of months of campaigning across Europe and we had a hugely productive time together, meeting with dozens of MEPs, handing over 10,000 actions to representatives of the Danish Government who currently hold the Presidency of the EU and holding a well-attended briefing in the Parliament.
I came back with lots of great memories and some reflections on campaigning towards the Brussels based institutions;
1 – Time – I was struck how much time many of the MEPs gave to the campaigners they were being lobbied by. Meetings of up to an hour happened on a number of occasions and it struck me that the pace of the debate is perhaps slower and more deliberative, coupled with the fact that MEPs are perhaps not as bombarded casework requests that they have time to invest into the issues that they’re interested in, which is predominately shown through their involvement in the different committees and groups.
I also got the impressions that although the political groupings were important they were far less controlling than in the Westminster system where the ‘whip’ is used to ensure MPs vote the right way and as such a space for discussion and agreements amongst those MEPs with similar political views as opposed to rigid voting blocs.
2 – Complexity – The European institutions are very confusing and eyes will often quickly glaze over when you start to explain the difference between the Council of Ministers and the Commission, but its worth investing the time in understanding how they’re meant to work and also the dynamics of how they actually work. I found reading this guide from BOND hugely useful. There are a huge number of opportunities for campaigners to utilise to push their issues.
3 – Importance – In the UK perhaps we’re guilty of disregard MEPs as having limited influence in comparison to MPs but the reality is that they have a significant amount of influence on certain issues. For example, if our campaigning is successful the legislation that we’re asking for will be implemented in all member states, achieving the same using a country by country would take much longer. On issues where the European Union has exclusive or shared competency we shouldn’t overlook the importance of engaging with Europe.
4- Absence – Many of the MEPs that we meet with remarked how much they valued hearing the views of civil society on this issue we were campaigning on as they’d already been lobbied by business groups. I heard one estimate that Brussels is home to 15,000 – 30,000 lobbyists, most of whom are employed by corporate interests, and that clearly presents a challenge for civil society which is likely to be unable to match that level of personal resource!
However, I didn’t get the sense that most MEPs have come under similar campaigning influence to their counterparts based in national capitals, as I walked around I saw lots of posters publishing the European Citizens Initiative (see my post on it here), which I sense is one way that the Commission hopes to engage citizen and civil society, but I also wonder if as organisation we need to be doing more. Perhaps it’s also time to create a pan-European equivalent of 38 Degrees focusing on activities in Brussels?
5 – Being European – Our campaigning was successful because we were able to build a partnership with colleagues from across Europe at the outset of our campaign, it meant that our supporters were lobbying in Brussels alongside campaigners from Portugal, Germany, France and the Netherlands, plus we were able to handover campaign actions from 22 member states. As UK campaigners I think we need to be doing more to help create these partnerships where they don’t exist.
6 – Using constituents to drive attendance. We were involved in hosting a very successful briefing event in the Parliament on Wednesday, with one civil society representative saying that the 15+ MEPs in attendance was unusual. I think this happened in part by asking our supporters to message their MEPs and invite them to come along to the meeting. It’s a tactic that I’ve seen used before in the UK and one that worked well in Brussels as well.
Have you been involved in campaigning in Brussels? If so, what insight would you share? If you haven’t, what are the barriers that stop you? 

Campaigning for the 'long haul'

We’re told that patience is a virtue, but if we’re honest with ourselves it’s not one that’s always found in abundance within the campaigning world. As campaigners we’re paid to be impatient people, we want things to change now.
But a recent conversation with a colleague who’d been involved in the start of the Australian anti-smoking campaign over 20 years ago reminded me that some times our campaigns are going to take years, even decades to win rather than the weeks we’d like it to!
My colleague was celebrating because just the week before the conversation the Australian government had announced another victory for the campaign, that packets of cigarettes would no longer be able to be sold with any branding on them, a step that advocates on the issue believed would help to reduce sales of cigarettes to minor, another important step in the campaign to reduce the public health impacts of cigarette smoking.
It was a good challenge, as it raised questions for me about how we plan our campaigns for the long-haul. Here are a few thoughts about what we can do, if we subscribe to the belief that sometimes change will be a ‘long time coming’!
1 – Be clear about the steps on the journey to success – I often come across campaigns that are quick to announce their ultimate goal, but are less clear about the journey that they’re going to need to go on to get to it. How much time in our planning do we map out the potential steps that we might need to take on that journey, the policy wins, the changed attitudes or the key individuals that we need to bring on board to be successful. These interim goals are as important to identify as the final goal.
When we do this do we need to do more to communicate our anticipated story to our supporters and donors to give them a sense that we’re on the right trajectory as opposed to demotivating them when the final goal doesn’t feel likes it coming around as quickly as we’d like?
2 – Consider the ‘What If’s’ – Do we spend too much time thinking about a simple and clean liner path to success in our campaigning. We assume that we’ll be successful every step of the way along, but sometimes that doesn’t happen, we find that a target is immovable, or the argument that we’re using isn’t getting the traction that it needs, but how often in our planning do we ask ‘what if’ and come up with multiple options towards eventual victory, anticipating when we might need to shift our plans. The excellent paper ‘The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy‘ has lots of more on the importance of this approach in successful campaigns.
3 – Communicating our ‘signs of transformation’ – We often have stories to share that help to prove that we’re heading in the right direction. Where I work we’re encouraged to capture and communicate our ‘signs of transformations’ to staff and support, these are the tip bits that we pick up in conversation with policy makers, politicians or others that help to justify our decisions. In the long battles for success capturing and celebrating the small victories become important both to those working on the campaign but also those supporting it.
4 – Holding something back – Thinking back to the experience of Make Poverty History, and perhaps to a lesser extent the climate campaigning ahead of Copenhagen, one of the biggest challenges that I observed was that after the main moment their were few people around to keep the campaign going.
During Make Poverty History everyone became so fixated on the G8 meeting in July that their were few people around to keep the campaign going for the second six months of 2005. I’m increasingly convinced that campaigns need to be developing a ‘bench’ of experienced campaigners who can come in to keep the momentum going after these key moments. For those leading campaigns that are going to take time to ‘win’ we need to consider what we have in reserve.
What lessons have you learn’t about campaigning for the ‘long haul’?

From Serbia and beyond – FT profile of Canvas

Last weekend’s Financial Times has a wonderful article about Canvas (the Centre for Applied NonViolent Strategies), a Serbian organisation that trains activists around the world in how to successfully overthrow a dictatorship. Formed by a group of students who were involved in the overthrow of the Serbian Dicator, Slobodan Milosovic, in 2000, the group has gone on to train activists in Egypt, Zimbabwe and Burma.
Like many I was aware of the role that students had played in the campaign back at the start of the century, but the article shares not only the tactics they used then but sheds lots of insight into the legacy of this work. The article can be read in full here and I’d recommend it.
The five tips that the article outlines about ‘HOW TO TOPPLE A DICTATOR PEACEFULLY’ also serve as good reminder about core principles for anyone involved in campaigning, even if you’re not trying to topple a dictator! Analyse the problem, identify and agree a clear vision, build and maintain a strong team, with perhaps the exception of tip 4 which isn’t a risk in most campaigns in the UK.
1. Do your homework: analyse the pillars of support you want to pull on your side (“pillars” refer to institutions and organisations that are crucial for non-violent social change)
2. Come out with a clear vision and your strategy for your struggle – and don’t listen to foreign advice
3. Build a unity within a movement – unity of purpose, unity of people and unity within the organisation
4. Maintain non-violent discipline – one single act of violence can destroy the credibility of your struggle
5. Keep on the offensive, pick the battles you can win and make sure you know when and how to proclaim the victory
I’d also recommend having a look around the Canvas website for some interesting resources, including Nonviolent Struggle – 50 Crucial Points (reviewed here) which is a primer that drew on the lessons of the revolution in Serbia and this set of resources about recruiting and building a team of activists.

EU Citizens Initiative – All you wanted to know (and much more beside)

From the

Yesterday, the European Council adopted a regulation that will allow the ‘European Citizens Initiative’ to go ahead from early 2012.
A key part of the Lisbon Treaty, the initiative allows a group of  citizen to bring legislative proposals to the European Commission, providing they can gain the support of a million other Europeans.
The documentation is suitably dense but in summary, I understand it as follows;
The initiative allows any group of citizens the opportunity to directly approach the European Commission with a proposal for a legal act of the Union. To do this you need to get a million (verifiable) signatures within 12 months from at least 7 member states (and achieve thresholds in each of these countries). Then the initiative will then get considered by the Commission who may or may not act on it and provide you an opportunity for a Public Hearing at the European Parliament.
I have my doubts about the impact that this will have. It’s a nice idea but the opportunities that it really affords to influence or change EU law if you can collect 1 million signatures seem weak. I’ll leave it to readers of the blog to suggest if they think it’s an effective campaigning method or not.
A more detailed summary of the Regulation is below, although the Commission has committed to bring out more comprehensive and user-friendly guide on the citizens’ initiative shortly;

  • The initiative in theory affords citizens the same rights as members of the European Parliament and Council to submit proposals for legal acts of the Union.
  • Organisers need to get signatures (known as statements of support) from citizens in at least one-quarter of Member States – so 7 at present.
  • Plus achieve a minimum number from each of these states, which is equal to 750 signatures per MEP from the member state.
    • So you only need to get 4,500 Estonians to agree with you (by virtue of having 6 MEPs) but you’ll need 74,250 Germans to agree with you (because the country has 99 MEPs).
  • It needs to be organised by a ‘Citizens Committee’ comprised of individuals from at least 7 member states.
  • Text needs to be submitted in advance (in any official language) for approval by the Commission who will give this within 2 months.
  • The Commission will also run a website that will hold a register of all valid initiatives.
  • The Commission can reject it if they feel that the initiative does not propose a ‘legal act of the Union‘, is ‘manifestly abusive, frivolous or vexatious‘, or ‘is contrary to the values of the Union‘.
  • Citizens of Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Ireland, Netherlands, Slovakia, Finland and UK won’t need to provide a valid ID number as part of signing. Citizens of other states will.
  • The organisers of the initiative need to be transparent about any sources of funding they are receiving to promote the petition.
  • Statements of support (names on the petition) need to be collected within 12 months of the initiative being approved by the Commission.
  • Names can be collected on-line and the Commission will provide open-source software to facilitate this.
  • When the target has been reached, the names will need to be submitted to the relevant authority within the a Member State for the purpose of verification. This has to be completed within 3 months and comes at no cost to the organisers.
  • The initiative should then be submitted to the Commission accompanied by the relevant paperwork.
  • The amount spent in support of the initiative needs to be declared to the Commission when it is submitted, and must not be any more than the limits set down for political parties.
  • The Commission will receive the initiative, meeting with representatives of the initiative at a ‘appropriate level’ and will set out its political and legal conclusions within 3 months, including the action it will/won’t take.
  • After this has happened the organisers of the petition will have the opportunity to present the initiative to a public meeting, organised by the European Parliament, where a representative of the Commission will attend.
  • The idea will be reviewed every 3 years.
  • The rest of the document covers the way that the regulation will be implemented in Member States, some issues around data protection and also about delegation of powers.

So when might we see the first successful initiatives?
A year has been allowed for the Commission and Member States to prepare for it implementation so the first initiatives won’t be able to be submitted until March 2012 (and could take 2 months for approval, so May 2012). Then assuming it takes at least (and I reckon it’ll be much longer) 6 months to collect the required signatures (November 2012), another 3 months for Member States to verify the information (February 2013), then another 3 for the Commission to consider the initiative (May 2013), we could see the first Public Hearings happening in early Summer 2013.

Why I'll be pleased to see the end of the No10 petition site

Third Sector PR is reporting on twitter that the No10 petition site might be a casualty of the new administration. The site, was set up in 2006, and is perhaps best remember for the million plus people who signed a petition about road tax. The creators MySociety suggest that over 5 million unique e-mail addresses have used the site since its inception, but  I’d be pleased to see the end of the site.
One. Because I think it’s encouraged lazy campaigning. I’ve only once been involved in trying to encourage people to sign a No10 petition (and despite a huge effort we got about 2,000 names), but it seems that often it was an easy way to tick the ‘we’ve done something to target No10 box’. Good campaigning needs to be about thinking about the most effective target and then the most innovate way of reaching them. To think creatively about how you could get the issue to the attention of the right people within government. For some campaigning NGOs the petition site seemed to put a stop to that.
While I can understand the argument that when it was launched in 2006 it was a way of enabling and empowering anyone to raise an issue of concern, the sheer volume of petitions suggests that only those with a mechanism for broadcasting their idea succeeded. Campaigning has moved on and I think the recent examples of spontaneous, decentralised campaigns on twitter show that there are other tools for doing this.
I don’t think that many (any) policies were changed thanks to the petition site, and too many of them seemed to be a reaction to what was in the Daily Mail (close the Mega Mosque, save the Red Arrows funding, etc) on a particular day.
Two. Because I think it led to lazy engagement from the government with civil society. I understand that their were some guidelines about when No10 would respond to a petition, i.e. if it got over a certain number of actions, but placing numerical limits that are required to be met before enabling a response are very arbitrary. It felt that too often the site was a place for people with concerns to directed to and then forgotten.
My hope is that any review of the petition site leads to a better solution for how No10 will engage with e-campaigns.  A proper e-mail address for the PM would help those with embedded campaign tools, while  No10 thinking about how it’ll engage with campaigns that appear on a range of platforms (like twitter) would show that they’re following trends in the way people want to communicate with their government.

Community Websites: a new space for activism?

While much has been written about the power of Facebook, and the impact of other social media tools in campaigning, another growing phenomena, that I’ve seen much less written about is the growth (or perhaps resurgence) of community websites, one of the most high-profile of which is Mumsnet, which seems to be in the news almost every week at the moment.
I don’t have any reason to spend any time on Mumsnet, but a quick visit to the site reveal that its a community of thousands of parents, not just talking about parenting but increasingly discussing a whole range of other issues (it has a very active election section). It’s not the only site like it, some of them are super-local, others national, but they all draw together people who share something in common but often seem to flourish into broader discussions.
Ben Furber has an excellent blog on LabourList about what this might mean for the political parties in the upcoming general election, but campaigning organisations should be considering the implications for them.
The traditional way of organising campaigning is changing to a space where people share the same interests, views and outlook in a virtual space. For campaigners, here are a few exciting challenges and opportunities that I think they presents.
  • To reach more (and new) activists, by dramatically reducing the barriers to entry, suddenly you don’t need to come along to a meeting, you can just log on and get involved. Equally you can spend as long as you like observing the discussions before you get involved.
  • To allow people to share their campaigning experiences with each other in real time, what they’ve found works, what doesn’t work, encouraging those involved to provide advice to newcomers.
  • To communicate rapid changes in strategy, no longer do organisations need to wait for the next mailing slot to update campaigners, the next campaign action or message can be communicated in real time.
  • To engaging people in the development of the journey campaign, suddenly individuals are sharing ideas about targets and tactics, trying them out and reporting back what works. It provide a good platform to crowd source of ideas, and then encourage others to adopt the most effective.
  • To let go of the message, instead of the traditional campaigning method which sees the centre control the communications and asks, those involved will want to shape, change and interpret the message, suggest their own tactics, which might not always be seen as the most effective by the ‘professionals’.
  • To move beyond communities beyond a single issue focus – the strength of these sites is that people who join them have something in common, and go to them for community with those like them. The challenge for organisations working on other issues outside of this will be to get these communities to adopt their campaigns.
    For example the Mumsnet website,already has an active campaign page, most on issues of direct relevance to parents (like breastfeeding, miscarridge, and the ‘Million Mums’ campaign on maternal health).

Twitter – here to stay

So, after a very long summer break I’m back…one of my first blogs back in February was about twitter I asked if it was going to catch on.
I was cautiously optimistic, I wanted it to work, but was wary that it could go the way of other social media phenomena. Well what a 6 months Twitter has had. The numbers of people using it are still growing, and it’s not hyperbole to say that it’s changed the face of campaigning.
Changing Policy – Lots has been written about the role of twitter in mobilising people, but last week was perhaps a high-water mark for twitter.
On Monday, we had the Trafigura story exploding on twitter, within hours of the Guardian publishing a cryptic article on its website about an injunction we saw people starting to tweet what the parliamentary question was.  Before long the story was leading on the mainstream news, and a scandal that was only going to get noticed by a few who had been following the  story was everywhere, a very public PR disaster! Liam from has a good post on this.
Then on Friday, we saw twitter mobilise a record 22,000 people to complain to the Press Complaints Commission about an article in the Daily Mail on the death of Stephen Gatley.
Before that we had the organisation BeThatChange organising a day of action which saw thousands of people trying to get Gordon Brown to go to COP, the response was that Ed Miliband put up a poll on his Ed’s Pledge website asking people to vote for their political priority ahead of Copenhagen.  A few days later, and Gordon Brown announced he was going to COP.
No doubt there are many other examples that one could point to over the last few months, ILovetheNHS for example. Two thoughts about what these examples have in common, an immediacy within moments someone has picked up on the story, and in hours they’ve reached a tipping point that forces the target to respond. Secondly, few of these campaigns have been initiated by organisations but instead twitter has put the ability to mobilise in the hands of people with lots of followers on twitter.  Some more agile movements may have been able to pick up on them (for example 38degrees around Trafigura), but twitter is helping to put mobilising power to those with virtual networks.
Engaging with policy makers – Today, two people I know got responses from @EdMilibandMP to their questions/comment and I’ve seen an interesting discussion with @SadiqKhan about an announcement he was making on parking. So what? Well unlike most communications with ministers/MPs, the chances are those policy makers have actually responded themselves, Twitter has cut out the comms department, the secretary and allowed people to share what they’re thinking directly with those holding the red box. No doubt this phenomena will come to an end when the number of followers becomes overwhelming, but for the time its a great opportunity to take advantage of.
Two others useful things;
– Back in the summer the people who matter in Whitehall issued these guidelines about how government department should be using twitter, while they were ridiculed for being too long, they’re the best set of guidelines I’ve found if you need to persuade senior management in your organisation to understand and use twitter.
– I’ve been experimenting with as a way of getting supporters to use twitter to show their support for a campaign, initial experience is good.

Lessons from the Third Runway

The recent campaign over the third runway at Heathrow reached the media headlines in a way that few others have in the last few months. While the final result was disapointing and the end of the governments short lived ‘pro environment’ rhetoric, I think it provides a number of useful lessons for campaigners to reflect upon.
Creativity counts – The campaign saw some, in my opinion, some of the best and most creative actions that for a long time. From Greenpeace buying a piece of land to the Climate Rush picnic at T1.  We saw some great campaign stunt to complement the more traditional campaign methods. Greenpeace even made headlines for getting Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon banned  from the Latitude music festival.

Building a  broad coaltion
– this article from John Vidal explores the vast coalition that was behind the campaign.  From local groups, local councils to some of the biggest environmental NGOs, the campaign managed to unite a vast group of organisations who don’t normally come together. It demonstrated the breadth of concern.
Undoubtably the Conservative Party came out against the runway, in part because of the pressure from local Conservative run councils under the proposed flight path, and the potential of making this an issue in a number of important marginal seats in London.
Lots of emails to MPs get noticed – So some MPs might have complanined about the e-mail bombing that they were on the end off, but none of the 50 MPs could have ignored the number of people (said to be about 5,000) who over a weekend were concerned enough about the issue to send an email.
Understand the political dynamics – Going forward, the clear divisions that occured within the Cabinet over the final decision, provide a useful insight into any future campaigning on similar issues. Its clear that at least two camps are forming around these issues, and may signal the rise of the ‘Milibenn’ tendency.

Have we taken the fun out of Flash Mobs?

Last month, on a cold winters morning, I joined 100 other people on the banks of the River Thames to take part in a ‘Flash Squat‘ organised by the End Water Poverty campaign to highlight the fact that despite 2008 being the UN Year of Sanitation around the world billions were still denied access to the loo.
This week I’ve been invited to join a banana mob in London to celebrate the end of Fairtrade Fortnight. I’ll be going along, it seems like a fun way to make the end, and I hope the event will help to raise publicity and get more people demanding Fairtrade products in their shops, supermarkets and workplaces.
But judging by this comment in the London Paper it seems that the sudden love of a Flash Mobs by charities hasn’t been met with universal approval! The writer argues that by hijacking the idea, charities are guilty of taking the fun out of the flash mob. So should we plead guilty? Have we taken the fun out of Flash Mobs? I think we can confidently plead not guilty.
Campaigns have a long history of adapting mainstream ideas to get across their message, they’re cheap to organise (surely a bonus in these credit crunch days) and it seems that Flash Mobs still seem to have media currency  – something that can be hard to generate at the best of times.
From a policy change perspective, we probably need to be honest with ourselves that these events don’t have much impact on decision makers, although as my colleague remarked after the Flash Squat, I bet most MPs staff read the London Paper on the way home from the office, but from a publicity perspective they can work brilliantly and that seems like a good reason to do them.
At some point they’ll start to lose their when they lose their originality, but until that happens it, I look forward to joining in with many more flash mobs.