When 'normal' resumes what could be different for campaigners?

I’m not sure when the General Election is going to be, if we’ll leave the EU by the end of October, who’ll form the next Government.

Politics is unpredictable at the moment, and like most campaigners, it can be hard to look up from preparing for the next key moment or just keeping up with the latest twist and turn in our current political saga.

Take a step back, and I’ll make one prediction.

Whatever happens in the next few months, when we’ve passed through this current period of uncertainty we’re not going to be returning to politics as it was.

So what does that mean for campaigners, and what are some of the new norms that we’ll need to respond to in our campaigning?

  1. Uncertainty in UK politics is the new normal – Forget predictable election timetables and long periods of government with the same minsters in the same post. It’s time to start to prepare for uncertainty – fragile coalitions, changing ministerial teams, picking up or abandoning policies at a moment’s notice and MPs swapping parties could become the new normal.

    What’s does that mean for planning, as this note about how to approach strategy from the team at Firetail outlines, it’s time to move away from just doing strategic planning which is based on certain assumptions with strategic thinking with an emphasis on insight, adaptation, responsiveness, innovation, and creating synergies.
  2. An electorate split along new dividing lines – we’ve often worked on the assumption that the electorate splits either economically right and left or between those who hold different perspectives on social issues so that you could plot most voters into these four quadrants of the Political Compass.

    To win, campaigners needed to find a way of building power within that dynamic to secure change, but the evidence suggests that now we need to look at a new way of plotting the electorate, with Brexit likely to be at the center of it.  

    As the graph below, from the NatCen Social Research, shows far more people feel a strong attachment to Remain or Leave that consider themselves to be a supporter of a political party, so that presents new strategic challenges for campaigners thinking about where and how they build power at a time of increased polarisation – although John Harries argues that perhaps this sense of polarisation isn’t as acute as the media might like to argue.
Taken from The Emotional Legacy Of Brexit: How Britain Has Become A Country Of ‘Remainers’ And ‘Leavers’

3. The main parties will be even further apart than before – A Conservative Party being influenced by members of the European Research Group, and the well-reported growth of Labour Party membership under Jeremy Corbyn with a more active role in setting party policy, coupled with lots of retirements at the next election (whenever it happens) it’s likely the partisan make-up of our political parties will mean that they’re even more entrenched in their positions.

That might create both opportunities for campaigns, as can be seen in this article by the impact of grassroots organising within the Labour membership have had on advancing Labour policy agenda on issues like the Green New Deal, four day week and free personal care for the elderly.

But for those campaigners who’ve sought to ensure their issue holds cross-party support from both politicians in both parties that could present new challenges at a time when there could be fewer politicians looking to occupy it.

4. A decline in civility at the heart of how we do politics this blog outlines some of the trends that we’re seeing that have not simply crept into our common political life, but seem to increasingly dominate it – from the promotion of conspiracy theories to the increasing normalisation of dehumanising language and imagery in our political conversations, it’s noisier and uglier out there than it has been, and often increasingly hard to cut through with considered and balanced content.

And the implications of this aren’t just that it’s harder to cut through, it also means an increasingly hostile atmosphere for those who choose to engage. The result, many decide that they’re less prepared to do that and as this fascinating research from a few years ago in the US shows those who are least engaged in politics are often from those who find themselves in the political middle ground

5. A new role for the judiciary? – perhaps it’s too early to tell but it feels like the focus on the work and role of the Supreme Court over the last few week could mark an important shift in the way and role this institution, which has often been overlooked by those focusing on what happens on the other side of Parliament Square.

Who know if we’ll head in the direction of the US, where the role of the US Supreme Court appears to play a vital role in delivering change, but the role of judiciary has certainly risen in change makers awareness and I sense that the idea of using the courts to challenge or question political decisions feels like it’s not going away.

Campaigners would do well to explore the work of the Good Law Project, which is one organisation looking to uses strategic litigation to deliver a progressive society, including being behind the recent progration ruling in the Supreme Court.

6. Will anyone ever believe in petitions again? Over the last year, we’ve seen some of the biggest petitions on the Parliament petition site, over 6 million people signed to ‘Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.’ back in March, and another 1.6 million called on ‘Do not prorogue Parliament’ in September but either have directly led to any policy change.

While it’s easy as a campaigner to sit and write a critique of why those petitions weren’t unlikely to ever be successful, I have this concern. What happens if many of those who did sign believe that this could lead to change – does the failure of a petition to do that further undermine the role of petitions in delivering change, while at the same time raising the bar for what size a successful petition needs to be?

In short, if the largest petition in recent UK history can’t be successful, can any petition be expected to be?

When is a petition, a BIG petition?

A colleague asked recently – what I’d consider a ‘big’ petition number.
Putting aside the discussion about the role of petitions in campaigning and their effectiveness, plus the reality that a big petition is so dependent on the context that it’s being used as a tactic for – if you get 1,000 people in a village of 2,000 to call on the local parish council to take action on something then I’d argue that’s a ‘big’ petition.
But given the discussion was about influencing Westminster and Whitehall, I decided to dive into the data that’s available on the Parliament Petition site. It’s a site that I’ve had misgivings about in the past, but one thing in its favor is that it does make the information really easily accessible by allowing you to download it in a format that means you can manipulate the date.
The Parliament site already sets some suggestions of what it considers to be a significant petition – if you get 10,000 people to sign you’ll get a government response, and 100,000 could mean that the petition will be considered for a debate.
So working on an assumption that anything that gets over 10,000 must at least get on the radar of the relevant Secretary of State or Minister – because presumably, the response gets put in the ministerial red box, and if it’s 100,000 they need to attend the debate, so I decided to look at every petition that had got over 10,000 signatures since the start of the current Parliament – a total of 165 petitions when Parliament went into recess for the summer (the number is now at 174).
So what did I find out?
I’ve made the whole dataset available to download here. I went through each response to code them against the government department that was asked to respond as a way of identifying who they targetted.
1 – There is a very long tail – even when you’re looking at just those petitions that get over 10,000 signatures, it’s very much the case that you find a few petitions with very large numbers of signatories – there are 4 current petitions with over 200,000 signatures.

It’s useful to look at the largest petitions that each department has received, as it gives an indication of what might be considered ‘big’, and for many departments – they’ll be the recipient of one very significant petition and lots which are closer to the initial 10,000 thresholds;

2 – Some departments receive lots more petitions than others – Officials at the Department of Health, Home Office and Department for the Environment have been kept busiest having to respond to the most petitions over the last 18 months, each dealing with over 25+ petitions, compared to just 1 for DFID, Northern Ireland Office, Minister for Equalities and Leader of the House (who had to respond to a petition about subsidised meals in the House of Commons). The average for a department is 6.

3 – Getting over 50,000 is a significant milestone – there are only 7 petitions in my dataset that are between 50,000 and 100,000, 22 which have gone beyond 100,000, and just 4 over 200,000 – so 20% get over 50,000. Of course, the challenge here is that officials and ministers are only obliged to respond when the petition hits 10,000 or 100,000, but if you’re looking for a sense of what’s a big petition then anything over 50,000 feels like it is.

4 – Looking for an average number? Then this really does differ by department, with the average number of signatures that get on to the radar of the relevant ministerial teams going from around 20,000 for departments like Transport or the MoD but up to closer to 75,000 for the Treasury and over 100,000 for BIS. The Department of Justice has the highest average of 115,000 but that’s based on just two petitions – one of which has got over 210,000 signatures.

If you’re looking for an average number across government then the mean average is 39,932 and the median average is just 18,189 – which shows the impact of the handful of very large petitions on the overall total.
5 – Other petition sites, of course, exist – 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, but a quick look at the petitions set up towards the FCO, a department I have a particular interest in for work, suggests that the numbers for actions on those platforms aren’t dissimilar to those on the Parliament site, but there are a few organisation petitions that are much more significant. (As an aside if anyone from change.org or 38 Degrees wants to provide me with a similar data set I’m happy to add this in!)
So what makes a big petition? Well with lot’s caveats, but from the data, I‘d suggest that anything over 50,000 could be considered a big petition to the government. It’s a clear milestone that most petitions don’t get over and it’s a number that can’t easily be dismissed as an ‘average’ number, but I’d be interested in what other readers think.

Meet the Lords – lessons for campaigners

For the last few weeks, political geeks like me will have been watching BBC2’s Meet The Lords. It’s the follow-up to the Inside the Commons series from a couple of years ago, but this time focusing on the second chamber.
For campaigners, wherever you stand on reform of the House of Lords, the programme shows why thinking about how you can most effectively influence the second chamber is important in the current political context.
It’s essential viewing, but what clues does the series give us about how best to work with them?
Lords often really are working alone – Peers don’t come accompanied by lots of staff, at best some share a member of staff, but in episode 2 we literally watched Lord Dubs repeatedly answer his own phone to respond to media enquiries as he was pushing his amendment on refugee children
As Esther Foreman points out in her brilliant report ‘Peering In‘, which look at how Peers respond to the campaigning techniques many of us use, this means campaigners need to consider the best approaches. So while we’ve grown used to MPs having staff and increasingly sophisticated mechanisms to respond the same isn’t true of Lords. So you have to question the effectiveness of mass email campaigns towards peers.
For Esther, that means the following when thinking about campaign communications with peers;

  1. Clear, well-written, thoughtful and timely communication.
  2. A personal link between the Peer and the individual/s sending the email. (note – on this www.writetothem.com/lords allows you to enter a place, topic or birthday to join you with a Peer)
  3. When it is combined with, or pointing to, strong evidence-based policy position or personal stories/ case studies.

But many of them are really know their stuff – if it’s true that MPs are often required to know ‘a lot about a little’ then peers are the opposite. Many of them have extensive experience in different sectors before entering the Lords, including the recent creation of the People’s Peers like Big Issue founder Baron Bird who we followed in Episode 1.
This is a potential goldmine for campaigners as it means you can get a real expert with extensive knowledge of an issue. So as campaigners do your homework and make sure you’re looking for those who have connections to your issues. My bet is that many charities will find former board members or even staff are now sitting on the red benches. Quality engagement with them might be most effective way to reach peers – for example in a previous campaign I was involved in we got supporters to write handwritten letters to selected peers.
They are an independent bunch but they can secure real change – the series follows a few examples of peers pushing specific amendments in bills, for example, Baroness King of Bow who was looking to secure changes for parents that adopt in episode 1. The key to success appears to be able to a) picking on a specific amendment, b) building a compelling case backed up by evidence, c) engaging allies in the Commons and d) pushing on it at every opportunity informally in the tea room and formally in the relevant committees. It’s not glamorous but it can be effective.
Ping Pong doesn’t mean Table Tennis – Instead, it’s the to and fro between the Commons and the Lords when they disagree on something. The series shows how Lords Dubs pushed his amendment and Labour Peers push against reforms to party funding and secured change. The key to winning change here seems to be that you can secure change when a defeat in the Lords enables a group of backbench MPs to push again on an issue. So it’s not a shortcut to good work with MPs but it can help to keep an issue on the agenda or push for concessions from the Government.
You need to rethink partisan politics – The series also highlights the important role that Crossbenchers play, it’d be easy to see this group of peers as just another political party, but instead they are an independent group of Peers who can be persuaded on issue, as we see in episode 1 when they’re being lobbied by MPs. But beyond that, the series shows that many Peers are more willing to break the Whip than in the Commons or look to collaborate across party lines on amendments – which leads to the sight in episode 2 of Green peer Jenny Jones collaborating with a Conservative Lord and property magnet.
But beyond that, the series shows that many Peers are more willing to break the Whip than in the Commons or look to collaborate across party lines on amendments – which leads to the sight in episode 2 of Green peer Jenny Jones collaborating with a Conservative Lord and property magnet.
For those interested in how to influence the Lords, NCVO is running this training in June.

What it's really like as a Junior Minister

I’ve been enjoying Hinterland, the memoir of former MP and Minister, Chris Mullin in the last few weeks, so it’s reminded me of this post I wrote in 2009 after reading the first volume of his diaries.
I’ve always highly recommended Mullin’s diaries for anyone understanding how Parliament really works (I’d also recommend Power Trip by Labour spin doctor Damien McBride, all of Alastair Cambells diaries and more recently Sir Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Deamons) .
The diaries are a little dated now as Mullin stood down in 2010 – his valedictory speech is one of the best Parliamentary speeches I’ve watched – but I still think they have lots of useful insight.
I’ve be reading the very enjoyable diaries of Chris Mullin MP over the Easter weekend, entitled ‘A View from the Foothills‘ they’re a great look at life somewhere down the ministerial pecking order.
Mullin was a junior minister at the Department for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), DFiD and the Foreign Office. It’d be fair to say that Mullin isn’t a great advocate of the lower rungs of ministerial responsibility, but reading the book provides some useful insights into what the work of junior minister is like. Something of tremendous use given that much of the engagement campaigners and lobbyist often have is with junior ministers.
A few key lessons stand out;
1. Junior ministers aren’t often particularly interested in the brief they have. Mullin, who before becoming a minister was a influential chair of the Home Affairs Select committee, implies he knew next to nothing about the environment when he started in that job, and kept up simply from reading the briefs provided to him.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when they’re not especially interested, Mullin seems to infer at times that the best issues to deal with are the ones that are trouble free, uncontroversial and mean that they won’t cause any embarrassment. Some lobby for the post they really want but most don’t get it.
2. Ministers sign lots of letters. Mullin talks about spending hours at the office often late at night signing letters from MPs. Few get mentioned, although he does despair when thanks to a Friends of the Earth campaign he has to sign over 500 letter. A good way to make a point, but perhaps a quick way to loose good will?
3. They spend lots of time giving speeches – part of the life of a junior minister is to go out and about around the country and give speeches to organisations which have some link. Mullin suggests most aren’t very well written and he was often embarrassed to deliver them. So the next time you hold an event and the minister doesn’t give the barnstorming speech you expect after watching too much West Wing, it probably isn’t their fault.
4. They don’t have huge amounts of access to the Secretary of State or the PM. This obviously depends on the department they’re posted to (so access seems to be better at the Foreign Office under Jack Straw than at DETR under John Prescott) but most seem only to have access to the Secretary of State at weekly departmental meeting and occasional rushed conversations here and there. Generally Mullin doesn’t give the impression that they get to  set a departments agenda, this comes from the Secretary of State (or often even higher up government).
5. They are advised to pick a few issues to change policy on – Mullin while at the environment and region chose try to deal with leylandii hedges, rent paid to absent landlords and getting away without a ministerial car. All valuable but hardly groundbreaking, and even then it was hard work navigating between special interests, civil servants and government priorities to make progress.
6. So much of politics is informal – from the diaries you get the impression that many decisions are made through quiet conversations in tea rooms, chats in the lobby, a call to a friend who is a friend with another minister or a written note slipped into a box.
7. MPs spend lots of time on the train! Mullin is often talking about catching the 20.00 back to Sunderland and bumping into this or that MP.  I think my next campaign strategy is going to map the MPs my target might catch the train home with!

The Parliament Petition Site – a missed opportunity

At the time of writing the petition to Prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit to the United Kingdom has reached 1,500,000 signatures – and I’m sure by the time you read this it’ll have grown further.( This site is a nice for tracking how quickly they’re growing).
And while it’s great that people are finding out an outlet for their anger at the policies of Donald Trump, every time I see a House of Commons Petition get shared I’m always frustrated that it’s probably not directing people’s views in the best way.
For me, the site feels as much as an attempt to dissuade people from emailing their MP than a real tool for change. That’s a missed opportunity.
From the launch of the petition website in 2010, I’ve been critical about it’s purpose, and while it’s improved under the guidance of the Petition Committee, watching the numbers tick up today on the Donald Trump petition has once again reminded me of some of the limitations of the site.
1 – The can create a debate but do they change policy? While any petition that get’s over 100,000 signatures is considered for a debate in Parliament, not all do end up getting debated (46 have since the 2015 election), and even then the debate almost always takes place in Westminster Hall (which is seen as a secondary debating chamber).
So while they debates can be good opportunities for MPs to put their views on the record, the outcome is unlikely to change government policy, there are a few examples of the opposite but they’re rare when you consider the number of people who’ve signed petitions in the last 12 months.
While those of us who run campaigns on other platforms might not see that as ‘our’ problem, its bad for all of us, because it undermines our claims that taking action can deliver change.
2 – They don’t channel energy productively. The petition on Trumps visit is a great example of try to harness stop energy but because the petition site has no function to develop a supporter journey that energy doesn’t go anywhere else. If you sign a petition the only other email you’ll get it as notification of if it’s been successful or not. It’s hardly a way of turning people into engaged citizens.
3 – I can’t see any evidence that the petition signatures get noticed by MPs – I know that some of the petitions get debated (46 so far, with another 300+ getting a response from Government) so will be picked up by some, but the way that the information is expressed on the site (with the exception of this map) doesn’t do anything to show specific MPs what their constituents think about an issue.  It feels like a missed opportunity.
Now the site isn’t going to go away and as I’ve suggested before with MPs growing tired of ’email your MP’ actions it could be an effective way to channel views of constituents.
So what could be done to make it more user friendly? Here are a few suggestions;
1 – Make it easier to connect MPs with constituency level information – while data is available on a constituency level, it’s not easy for any MP to find out how many people are signing in their patch. To address this, it could be a tool that displays the number of signatures on a petition per constituency, or ranks the most popular petitions in a constituency. It’d be a dynamic way to help MPs see what their constituents actually think.
2 – Find ways of getting real Parliamentary champions to back the petitions – although petitions that go to debate get an MP allocated to it (normally a member of the Petition Committee), I’ve not seen any real evidence that those MPs are really passionate about ensuring that the demands of the petitions are actively pushed – for some doing that would go against the position of their party. But many MPs are passionate about issues, so why not connect those MPs with the issues they’ve long worked on event if they’re not on the Petition Committee.
3 – Ensure any petition that gets over 100,000 signatures get raised directly with a Minister – rather than just a Westminster Hall debate, the most issues raised in the most popular petitions could be raised in the relevant Ministerial Question Time. Taking that a step further, when the Prime Minister comes to the Liaison Committee could they be asked about the issues raised in the top petition in that period.
4 – Allow third party sites to submit petitions – at the moment you can only submit your petition, but what about working with Change.org, Care2 or other digital providers to allow for petitions signed on those sites to be submitted. It would incentives organisations. In the US, the White House under Obama worked to develop an API that allowed people to contribute to their petitions site via third party sites.

In/Out, Leave/Remain – the EU Referendum and what it means for campaigners

So the starting gun for the EU Referendum has been fired, and for the next 4 months it’s going to dominate the political discourse.
So what does that mean for campaigners? Here are a few initial thoughts.
It’ll shape all political decisions – I’ve highlighted the comment from Tim Montgomery below before, but I think it’s really pertinent and worth every campaigner thinking about.
This government is behaving differently because the outcome of the In/Out referendum (likely to be held in June 2016) may well determine David Cameron’s place in history and is uppermost in his mind. He risks Britain’s membership of the EU if he’s an unpopular mid-term prime minister at the time he is recommending Britain should vote to “remain” (as he certainly will). I underestimated Downing Street’s determination to organise everything in terms of avoiding Brexit. The go-slow on cuts, the living wage announcement, the retreat on tax credits, the extra money for defence… this pre-referendum behaviour is pretty boilerplate pre-election behaviour.
As Tim says the Government are going to want to go into the Referendum looking like they’re in step with the public mood. What does that mean for your campaign, does it provide new opportunities to push, or should you be prepared for an unexpected announcement? Also, now that Cabinet Members have come out for and against the deal what will that do the dynamics of the Cabinet will it effectively mean more briefing against each other?
Prepare if you get caught in the crossfire – Many campaigners will chose not to get engaged in the Referendum, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be immune to the Referendum. My work is on international development and I can already see how the ‘out’ campaign might choose to use that issue to demonstrate another reason we should leave the EU. I’m sure lots of other examples exist in other areas as well, basically any issue where the EU has some involvement. Scenario planning and preparation is essential.
See which messengers get cut through – The anti-politics/anti-elite mood that seems to be engulfing the country mean that I think, that while we’ll see a lot of them, it’s unlikely that politicians will be those who deliver the most convincing messages (see the YouGov Tracker to see why George Galloway was a spectacularly bad idea to use at the Grassroots Out rally on Friday). This is particularly a challenge for the ‘Remain’ campaign, with it focus on a message that staying in is good for both economic and national security, need to find credible alternative messengers to motivate people to get out to vote to stay. Look out for who are the messengers who do get cut through – there might be some good learning in here for your campaign.
Watch out for the grassroots interest groups – To counter the ‘politician’ problem that both sides have, we’re already starting to see an emergence of grassroots groups to amplify the voices of different interests (see this list of some of the pro EU groups emerging – I think Football Fans 4 EU is my favourite so far). These groups are presumably aimed at making the case for different issues and engaging specific audiences to vote. It’ll interesting to see if the most vocal manage to cut through. One of the things I’ve already liked about US election is the emergence of grassroots interest groups, but it’s not really a trend that seems to have caught on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps the Referendum will change that.
Lookout for innovation in campaigning tactics – To be honest, I’ve not seen very much of this from either the Remain or Leave campaigns so far. It seems that they’re both deploying a fairly standard field operation which combines phone calling (and the US primary elections have shown how hard it’s becoming to reach people) and street stalls, with some interesting social media content – which often ends up in an echo chamber of those who’ve already decided what they think. But keep an eye on what the Remain campaign does, it’s got some smart people working on it and has the bigger challenge on its hands, to motivate those who are instinctively ‘in’ but perhaps don’t have the same motivation to get out to vote as the ‘out’ campaign does.
Understand what you can and can’t do – Lots of the rules for how the specifics of this referendum will be run still don’t exist, but in CC9 we already have general guidance about what Charities can and can’t do around a Referendum. In short the guidance says that ‘The principles that govern political activity by charities also apply to referendums. This means that, depending on the nature of the referendum issue or question, there may be some circumstances in which it is appropriate for a charity to set out the pros and cons of a yes or no vote for their beneficiaries’. It also goes into more detail about when it might be appropriate to take a specific position around the referendum when a charity thinks it will directly affect the work they do.  NCVO is holding a breakfast briefing on Friday for anyone interested in this. 
Think about what happens with a Brexit – While negotiating the details of a Brexit will be protracted, it’s worth starting to scenario plan what that could mean for your work. What routes to influence it’d open up or close down. How would your strategy have to change?

Did you know you can sign up to get new posts delivered direct to your inbox? Subscribe here.

Now What? 9 post-election thoughts

Caught up on your sleep and back in the office after the election. Not sure what the result on Thursday means?
I’ll leave others to dissect why Labour lost, what the left in England can learn from the SNP, if now is the time to campaign for electoral reform and more.

While personally I’m gutted at the result having spent 5 years of my spare time organising for a Labour win, for now a few thoughts for campaigners from the last 30 days;
It’s time to re-read the Conservative manifesto. Put aside the work you did on what similarities it had with the Lib Dem manifesto, and what you’d like to see in a coalition agreement, perhaps also have a re-read of the 2010 Conservative manifesto as well, it could contain policy clues to what they might have done if they’d not been in coalition after the last election.
We need to ensure our campaign messages resonate in places like Lincoln, Nuneaton and Thurrock, not simply within Zone 1 – 2 – This article on why Labour struggled is bang on, but can the same can be said for many NGO campaigns? It’s easy for our campaigns to receive adulation on twitter, but do they play well to the floating voters on the High Streets in the marginal seats across the country?
The small majority might be an opportunity, so campaigns that have cross-party support, can work with independently minded Tories who can leverage their influence or find ways to demonstrate to those Tory MPs with small majorities that votes on a specific issues will cost them at the next election could win. It could mean uncomfortable coalitions, but it could mean successful campaign. 
We (probably) won’t have another election until 2020, but elections in Scotland, Wales and London are less than 12 months away, as is a referendum on Europe, start planning for them now, but also keep an eye on the impact of the boundary reviews on the 2020 election.
Look at the campaign tactics that worked for the political parties. I’ve written before about elections being the birthplace of many campaign tactics that NGOs are using in years to come. The General Election had its fair share of clever tactics and approaches, some very smart digital tactics that the Labour Party used for example.  This interview with the mastermind of the Conservative campaign, Lynton Crosby is worth a watch as well, as well as this list of NGO campaigns that cut through.
Parliament returns on 18th May but for lots of new MPs they’ll be spending the first few weeks actually looking for an office in Parliament, hiring staff, working out how to get emails on their phones, etc. Those campaigns and organisations that are helpful to new MPs are likely to be remembered favourably in the months and years to come.
Don’t forget those that didn’t get reelected, as Chloe Staples points out ‘It’s not inconceivable that many of these will turn up in the Lords or in public life in another way (perhaps in think tanks or even as charity chief executives!) so don’t forget to maintain the relationships you have so carefully built over the last five years’. So if you champion is returning later in the month, don’t forget to thank them.
The environment for campaigning could get tougher. It’s unlikely that repeal of the Lobbying Act is going to be easy (but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try), but we need to be prepared for bigger battles to come on the space for charities to campaign, like protecting CC9 the guidance that allows us to influence, which the government is likely now to review.
We need more charity campaigners to get involved in party politics. Some have suggested that charity workers shouldn’t be active members of political parties. It’s not a position that I agree with, not only does it seem illogical, many of those we’re fighting against are lobbyists who are member of political parties, but being involved in election campaigning has helped me to be a better campaigner, its taught me about what issues people really think about, how to mobilise volunteers, and much more.

Happy Birthday to the Government e-petition site

The Government e-Petition site celebrated its first birthday last month, and the team at the Government Digital Services released figures about usage in its first year.
In short;

  • 15,600 petition were opened, but a massive 47% of petitions submitted were rejected.
  • 6.4 million signatures were collected from the 13 million unique visitors to the site.
  • Only 10 petitions reached the 100,000 target that allows them to be discussed in Parliament, and all have been or are due to be debated by members of the House of Commons.
  • 97.7% of e-petitions receive less than 1,000 signatures.

I had mixed feelings when the site was launched a year ago, so a year on has the site proven to be a good addition to the campaigning landscape?
Here are a few observations;
It’s got people signing petitions – I’ve not been able to find any figures for the number of individuals who’ve signed a petition and I suspect some significant duplication, but even with that included getting millions of people used to taking action has got to be a good thing.
If you’ve signed a petition here, I think it makes you much more likely to sign a petition sent to you from 38 Degrees or others. Anecdotally I’ve seen a number of the petitions shared on my social media channels beyond those who normally express an interest in campaigning.
It’s provided a clear outcome to those petitions that reach their target. Their was some concern at the launch of the site, that Parliament wouldn’t have time to debate all the petitions that reached the 100,000 signature target, but until the recent rejection of the petition launched by Virgin Trains against the loss the franchise to run the West Coast mainline, it has.
Whatever you think about the topics that have been debated as a result, its good that they’ve been debated by Parliament, and in the case of the petition to get ‘full disclosure of all government documents relating to 1989 Hillsborough disaster’ helped to push an important issue that had been largely forgotten by much of the media back into the public consciousness.
However as the Hansard Society point out ‘the system is controlled by government but the onus to respond is largely placed on the House of Commons’ and many people might be disappointed to learn that the majority of petitions are debated in Westminster Hall, where votes cannot take place and are therefore held on non-votable ‘take note’ motions. As the case of the Virgin Train petition shows, it’s an especially ineffective tool when Parliament isn’t sitting and a petition responding to a current issue gains traction quickly.
It’s disempowering for the majority who have signed a petition. A handful of petitions have been debated, but many more have fallen short. At present there are 12 petitions with between 30,000 – 80,000 signatures on them, perhaps a few of them will make the 100,000 target but most won’t. My Campaigns Totals research has shown that 50,000 actions is a significant number, but the e-Petition site doesn’t provide those who create the petition with many tools to keep those interested in the topic engaged.
They get to send an email at the close but that’s it. I’m concerned that for most they sign a petition hopeful that it’ll actually change something, but that when that doesn’t happen they’ll start to question if other forms of campaigning actually work. As the Hansard Society point out ‘if an e-petition does not achieve the signature threshold but still attracts considerable support (e.g. 99,999 signatures) there is no guarantee of any kind of response at all’. The rigidity of the system means that many are going to be disappointed.
Most campaigning NGOs haven’t launched petitions on the platform, looking through the petitions that have reached the 100,000 target they’ve appeared to have provided an opportunity for individuals or very small campaigns with fewer resources to generate support for their issue . This has often come on the back of an effective social media campaign but the number of ‘failed’ petitions should add a note of caution that this is a high-risk strategy for organisations with limited resources.
Other successful petitions have been those backed by media organisations, for example the ‘Make financial education a compulsory part of the school curriculum’16 was backed by Money Mail, a sister paper of the Daily Mail, and the ‘No to 70 million’ petition on immigration has been heavily mentioned in some parts of the media.
So what next?
The Hansard Society has some good recommendations about how the procedure of dealing with the petitions in Parliament could be improved, for example;

  • The creation of a Petitions Committee with staff which would tasked with sifting petitions that secure lower levels of support to ensure that, where appropriate, relevant petitions are, for example, still tagged to debates, that MPs are made aware of their existence, and petitioners receive some form of feedback.
  • The Petitions Committee and its staff should respond ambitiously and flexibly to petitions, embracing the full range of parliamentary processes for consideration of them.
  • Using petitioner postcode registration data to develop heat maps on the website to help MPs and others identify issues of specific concern to a community.

I’d also suggest that while the site has seen some innovation to it since it was launched, for example the inclusion of a ‘trending petitions’ section on the homepage to help you identify those that have been most active in the last hour, lots of other changes that were suggested at the launch haven’t been included which would help to make the site more engaging for petitioner to use.
Finally, I think as a sector we need to be doing more to help provide those looking to take action with information on if this is the most effective tool to use, this is in part being done by organisations like Change.org and 38 Degrees who allow people to create their own petitions, but others can do more to help inform these decisions and support the many campaigns that don’t actually need 100,000 signatures to deliver change.

What makes a policy success? Lessons from inside government.

Most campaigns are looking to get government policies changed, but what can we learn from those working in government about what makes a policy success? 
The Institute for Government has recently published a fantastic paper, which looks at what makes a ‘policy success’, drawing on insights from number of ‘policy reunions’ that were held with senior civil servants and government ministers involved in a range of ‘policy successes’ over the last 30 years.
These success including the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, to the Climate Change Act, and Privatisation in the 80s (I appreciate some readers wouldn’t see this as policy success!’).
The report defines a ‘policy success’ as “the most successful policies are ones which achieve or exceed their initial goals in such a way that they become embedded; able to survive a change of government; represent a starting point for subsequent policy development or remove the issue from the immediate policy agenda”.
Then sets out to identify some common factors which lie behind these successes, before providing detailed case studies for each of the issues. I’d recommend reading the paper for anyone who is interested in getting the perspective from the ‘other side of the fence’ about how ministers and civil servants perceive who successful policies come about.
For campaigners, I’ll concentrate on three of the factors that I think our noteworthy for our planning;
1 – Need for strong leadership. The paper suggests that in all of the cases they have benefited from a senior minister who has taken a personal interest in passing the legislation, in some cases staking their personal reputation on it coming about, but also having officials with credibility working on the issue.
In the case of climate change the paper cites the role that David Miliband played when he joined DEFRA and also the role of Sir David King, the Chief Scientist in highlighting that the issue was a bigger threat than terrorism.
For me this is a validation of the strategy that some campaigns use to make a particular minister a ‘champion’ for the topic, but also raise a note of caution of the difficultly of getting an issue on a ministers agenda if they’ve already decided what their priorities are going to be.
It also suggests that campaign can do more to make use of those posts within Whitehall, like the Chief Scientist, Chief Medical Officer, etc who are able to give independent advice from a position of authority within Whitehall.
2 – It takes time. Those involved in the discussions that helped to inform the paper are all quick to suggest that for most of the policy success the groundwork and ideas had taken significant amount of time to develop.
For example, the paper argues that much of the work that lead to the creation of the Low Pay Commission that brought in the minimum wage was done while the Labour Party was in opposition in the mid-90s, where some of the most contentious issues were raised and began to be addressed. This meant that when they won the 1997 election they were able to give extensive proposals to officials.
This lesson, coupled with the suggestion from some in the paper that the first year or so after an election are the critical window of opportunity, suggest that organisations that are looking to achieve policy change in the medium to long-term, perhaps because a proposal isn’t getting traction with the current government, would do well to engage in the ‘long game’ of opposition policy making.
3 – A robust evidence base – This factor is unlikely to come as a surprise to most campaigning organisations, whose campaigning is grounded in policy work, but the paper affirms the need for good evidence and analysis, but it also goes further by highlighting that the creation of an independent group/individual to look at the issue, like the Pension Commission or the Stern Report on Climate Change, were critical in providing the evidence that allowed governments to act on the issues, and providing a basis for the consensus necessary from all involved.
In the case of the Climate Change Act and the Ban on Smoking in Public Places, the paper has much to say about the important role that organisation like Friends of the Earth and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) played in influencing the final outcome and providing ideas from outside government.
For learning from the ‘other side’ I’d strongly recommend a read of this report, as it provides some excellent challenges for the way in which we go about trying to get policies changed. If you read it, I’d welcome your comments and reflections.
Be first to know about new posts by subscribing to the site using the box on the right, adding http://thoughtfulcampaigner.org/ to your RSS feed or following me on twitter (@mrtombaker)

The National Trust – the UKs most influential campaigning charity?

The Guardian had an interview with Dame Fiona Reynolds, the Director General of the National Trust on Saturday, where it asks if she is the most powerful woman in Britain at the moment based on the way that the organisation is currently campaigning against reforms to planning laws that threaten the countryside.

The National Trust has over 4 millions members in the UK.

While, we don’t have a way of systematically ranking organisations based on influence, I think that the National Trust could make a genuine claim to be one of the most influential campaigning organisations in the country at the moment. Here’s why.
1. Membership – The National Trust announced earlier in the month that their paid membership is now over 4 million, that’s around 1 in every 10 voters. I’d suggest that many of these members are based in marginal constituencies around the country, as well as  in safe Conservative areas, for example Surrey is the county with the most members. That means its members views are likely to be heard by lots of Tory MPs.  Moreover, I’m sure that many MPs, Lords and other key influencers are also members, and share a natural affinity with the organisations aims.
Their reach is simply put enormous, with a membership far bigger than any single political party or trade union in the UK. Moreover, I suspect many members of the National Trust wouldn’t see themselves as the ‘campaigning types’ so the organisation has an opportunity to introduce campaigning to a whole new audience.
2. Influence – As Dame Reynolds says in her interview, the National Trust doesn’t want to be ‘became rentaquote, that wouldn’t be right. We reserve our voice for something that is really important, absolutely at the heart of our core purpose and touches what we stand for and where we make a difference’.
As such I’m sure when the National Trust chooses to campaign on an issue I’m sure it send panic through the heart of the government. They’ve proven they can mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to take action, most recently collecting 200,000 actions on a petition around the changes to planning legislation, and a look at the Guardian data on ministerial meetings suggest that the National Trust has met with ministers from across Whitehall.
But equally they’re smart about selecting issues that they campaign on, with Dame Reynolds saying they’d only work on issues that are ‘central to what we do and I suspect it would be rare, but when we make a contribution it matters’. Their influence meant that when they speak up those at the top of Government need to act, for example the Prime Minister recently writing to say ‘we should cherish and protect it [the countryside] for everyone’s benefit‘ in response to the Trusts most recent campaign.
3. Communications Reach – The organisations magazine has the 6th biggest magazine circulation in the UK, and is estimated to reach over 3.75 million people, which provides a great platform to inform and mobilise individuals to take action, imagine inserting a campaign postcard into every one that gets mailed. While their social media penetration is also impressive, the recent Charity Social 100 Index put them at number 7 and they have over 40,000 followers on twitter. All add up to a significant base from which they can mobilise.
Do you agree? What criteria would you use to identify the most ‘influential’ charity?