It’s not often you see a big NGO come out in public and admit that they got something wrong.
So it’s great to see WWF put out a statement today effectively apologising for its lack of public action and clarifying its stance on UK forest sell-off in response to some harsh criticism it’s received in the press this week.
It’s a spat that started in the Guardian on Monday when environmentalist Jonathan Porritt accused major charities, including WWF, RSPB and the National Trust of “collectively betrayed” for their failure to support the grassroots campaign that has grown in the recent weeks to halt the sale of English forests, while Polly Toynbee put the boot in on Tuesday accusing green groups of ‘keeping their heads down over selling off forests’.
Today, WWF have responded with an excellent statement on their website confessing that they should have done more from the start.
Porrit stated “There have been no statements, no mobilisation of its massive membership, no recognition that this is an absolutely critical issue for the future wellbeing of conservation in the UK. Nothing”.
Suggesting that the lack of action had “made themselves look foolish and irrelevant as one of the largest grassroots protests this country has seen for a long time grows and grows without them – indeed, despite them.”
There is no doubt that the campaign mounted by 38 degrees and others has gathered a huge amount of momentum in a short time, it’s petition has just gone over the half a million mark.
Perhaps most interestingly, it feels like it’s not only the ‘usual suspects’ who are signing on. A non-campaigning friend of mine posted the link to the petition on Facebook tonight encouraging people to sign, and the Observer reported of the opposition of many land owners last weekend.
So I’m impressed to see the response from WWF today, who write of the statement that ‘It’s fair to say this is a bit overdue as loads of you have asked us what we’re doing about the proposed government sell-off (or long-term leasing) of UK forests’
Going on to explain ‘Not having much of a history working on UK forests, we did most of our work behind the scenes and focused our public firepower on issues like illegal logging via our ‘What Wood You Choose?’ campaign. We are working with peers getting an amendment tabled in the House of Lords and had questions asked in parliament, but to be honest we did precious little in public’ (emphasis mine)
In time it might be right to ask if criticising environmental NGOs in such a public way was the right approach by Porritt? As an unnamed source in the original article says ‘Rule one of clever campaigning is that you don’t criticise members of your team, at least not in public’ and WWF say they’ve been working on this behind the scenes.
But for me this spat has once again highlights some of the challenges that the more ‘traditional’ NGOs need to address in their campaigning. 1. Agility
Movements like 38 degrees are so well placed, because they can respond within hours not days. They lack the restrictions of charitable status and often no desire for a seat at the table in ongoing consultation. Combine this with a phenomenal e-mail network mean that they can be ‘first to market’. The challenge that many ‘traditional’ NGOs face is that they’re not set up to turn around a response in the time that online campaigns like 38 degrees.
No doubt heated discussions have been happening at all the NGOs that Porritt choose to criticise (as you can see implied by the response from WWF), but the very nature of these organisations mean that multiple departments need to be involved and opportunities and risks needs to be carefully calculated, but that whole process takes time, and internal compromises often have to be negotiated. In this digital age waiting even 24 hours to respond or act can be too long. 2 – Collaboration Within a day or so 38 degrees had already collected the first 50,000+ names on its petition, and then you have to ask how much value there is in starting a second competing petition. This for me is the second challenge are traditional NGO prepared to ‘brand’ and ‘profile’ aside and collaborate for the common good when situations like this arise?
Would the NGOs named be prepared to promote the 38 degrees petition assuming they agreed with the essence of what it was calling for?
On this regard I’ve got a huge amount of respect for WWF for saying in their statement ‘To their great credit, 38 Degrees organised a massive public response (sign here if you haven’t already)’ but no doubt that line will cause some anxiety in the organisation as supporters are encouraged to share their valuable data with others.
Collaboration is essential, and to do it well campaigners need to recognise the different roles and approaches needed for effective campaigns.
Save our Forests is no different, surely it’d be of huge value to have organisations with both years of experience in nature conservation joining the campaign and impressive contacts within Parliament to be involved. But to do that requires someone to initiate the collaboration, and in situations like this perhaps it’s not clear who that should be. 3. Accountability Perhaps it wasn’t Porritt’s criticism and the Guardian articles that lead WWF to clarify their position. The statement from WWF certainly indicates that they’ve also been hearing complaints from supporters saying ‘The scale of passion around this issue has led to a lot of emails as to WWF’s role’.
This case seems to be another example of the increasingly complex relationship that organisations have with their supporters. The tools of collaboration and campaigning aren’t just in the hands of a few professionalised campaigners, they’re available to supporters to lobby the organisations they belong to. It also shows that many campaigners are active in more than one campaigning network.
So congratulation on an excellent response from WWF, a response that already seems to be yielding appreciation from supporters with one writing; Thank you. As a WWF member and supporter of the Save Our Forests campaign, I’m very glad you’ve joined the campaign. The statement above is everything we could have hoped for.
Now I’m left wondering if we’ll see the National Trust and RSPB come out with a statement in recent days.
The Observer today has a brilliant article and film about the ‘Kingsnorth Six’, the team of Greenpeace activists who scaled the chimney of Kingsnorth power station and the court case that saw them found ‘not guilty’. Its a fascinating look at both the tactics and the people behind the action and the subsequent legal battle.
Joanna Lumley has been successful in her campaign to guarantee that all former Ghurkha solders are allowed the right to settle in the UK if they wish. Its a campaign that has seen the government make a dramatic U-turn and for days dominated the news headlines. But what are some of the elements that made the campaign a success. The right person to front the campaign – Lumley has also proven herself to be an effective political operator holding impromptu press conferences and using her profile to secure meetings with politicians from all parties to drive the case. As this profile in the Observer explained it was not only asking the actress who most people recognised and liked helped to give a face to the campaign, but also the personal link that Lumley had with the issue. Her father was a major in the Army who lead a troop of Ghurkha solders, and it meant that she was able to speak from a position of integrity, and appeared to be prepared to invest a huge amount of her personal capital in leading the campaign rather than simply providing a face for a media opportunity before moving onto her next engagement. Framing the issue correctly – At the heart of this campaign this was a immigration issue, normally something that plays badly with most of the media, but the campaign framed the arguments in clear moral terms, these people had fought for our country with honour. The right thing, the British thing to do was to let those who wanted to come to the UK, the Ghurka Justice website talks ‘a debt of honour’. The campaign picked great examples of heroic soldiers and meant that the press found it hard to do anything but ‘back the boys’. It wrong footed the government who thought that the immigration argument would prevail by proving that a stronger narrative existed. Involvement of national newspapers -Both The Sun and The Mirror ran a petition in support of the campaign. Collecting tens of thousands of names and demonstrating broad public support for the issue, and showed that while newspapers might be loosing influence when they back an issue they make it hard for the government to ignore. Building slowly – Although it’s made headlines in the last few weeks, this is a campaign that has been working hard in parliament for over a year building support, both amongst the opposition parties who got the issue to be debated in parliament, but also amongst backbench Labour MPs. Much of this work has happened quietly, but it meant that when the issue came to be debated many had considered the arguments and were prepared to vote against the whip. Good timing – Undoubtedly luck has played a part in this campaign. The issue was debated at a bad time for the government that had been rocked after a number of potential defeats and PR disasters. It meant the opposition parties saw they could further wound the government and show that they had a better sense of what the mood of the country was.
The Observer today has an inspiring interview with Jenni Williams of the leaders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), a campaign group which has been doing amazing things in Zimbabwe.
It’s a humbling read and a reminder of how fortunate we are to be able to have the right to free expression in the UK.
John Stewart spoke at the latest CASS Business School Charity Talk event. In a talk entitled ‘Campaigning with Effectiveness and Flair‘.
John is Chief Exec of HACAN, the largest voluntary organisation dedicated to those campaigning on behalf of those affected by aircraft flight paths, and chair of Airport Watch, a broader coalition of organisations campaigning against the issue of airport expansion.
In his talk he unpacked some of the reasons why the campaign was so successful at dominating the discussions and debates around the building of a 3rd runway. I’ve written before about the Heathrow campaign and some of the reasons I think were elements of its success but Stewart provided a first hand account from the inside. The KnowHow NonProfit website, which is linked to CASS Business School, has some excellent resources from the evening (which also includes Brian Lamb’s presentation which I’ll blog about later in the week).
Stewart drew out three main lessons from the campaign and argued that these were also based on things that they’d learnt from previous defeats that HACAN had experienced over Terminals 4 and 5. A good reminder to always learn from campaigns that don’t succeed! Bring together the widest possible coalition In previous campaigns, HACAN had drawn together a small number of residents groups and local authorities around Heathrow but the 3rd runway campaign managed to build a much bigger coalition not just of the usual suspects but a much bigger range of organisations, such an environmental groups, direct action groups alongside MPs, local authorities and residents groups.
Stewart said that this strengthened the campaign enormously, but also introduced new issues (climate change wasn’t a central part of the previous campaigns which had focused more on quality of life issues). Stewart shared the tactics that the coalition had used to keep together what must have been a disparate group of people, including regular face-to-face meetings, which meant that people got to know each other on a personal basis.
You have to admire the campaign for managing to bring together local Conservative councillors to direct action activists from Plane Stupid, but Stewart argued that united around a common aim to stop a 3rd runway was the strength of the coalition. The range of tactics meaning that it made it much difficult for authorities to know how to respond because their tactics couldn’t simply be put into a box or be predicted. Don’t dodge the economic arguments The campaign realised from its previous defeats that it had to engage with the central issue and argument that the government was using to justify building the runway, that the UK economy needed it. In previous campaigns, Stewart implied they’d focus on quality of life arguments that although important to those involved in the campaign didn’t resonate with decision makers who could suggest that these were the arguments of NIMBYs.
Stewart shared how they commissioned independent research on the economic argument, which was undertaken by an independent and respected consultancy firm which the EU also used, so it couldn’t be immediately dismissed by government as a being written by a pro-environment consultant. The campaign found that this report was vital in helping to counter the central arguments of the government, and convincing the opposition parties to get involved . A good lesson to remember the importance of independent research in supporting your campaign asks. Engage in pro-active campaigning
Early on the campaign realised its tactics couldn’t simply be limited to working through the official structures that the process would provide, like official enquiries which was its previous approach. Stewart argued that if these processes were effective at changing things they’d soon change the structures, perhaps a slightly cynical approach but the argument that they don’t favour community campaigns who have little of experience of making quasi-legal arguments is a good one.
Instead the campaign focused their campaigning on what communities are good at doing, talking to each other, and mobilising around more traditional tactics like marches and rallies. This was successfully combined with more traditional lobbying using a cross-party group of MPs, and excellent cheap media activities, like flash-mobs at the opening of terminal 5.
At the end of the presentation, Stewart spoke about how the campaign had worked with direct action groups. He argued that they’d been good for the campaign, and an important part of the campaign mix. While the campaign didn’t want everyone taking direct action, they helped to prevent the campaign from easily being boxed by the government. Listening to Stewart talk about the role of groups like Plane Stupid in the campaign, its clear they have a central role, and its fascinating to see how these groups co-existed and even shared platforms with those with much more conservative approaches to policy change.
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!
Liberty, the civil liberties organisation is 75 this week, set up to champion the rights of ordinary people and hold the powerful to account, it has a long history of doing just that. In recent years, the organisation has never been far away from the headlines, as we’ve seen an erosion of our rights on issues like ID cards and 42 day detention but why has it been such a successful organisation, and what could others learn in order to make it to their 75 birthday? Ensure you have a media friendly director. In Shami Chakrabarti they have a director who is articulate and a media savvy spokeswomen. Shami isn’t afraid to be explosive in her comments (see recent Question Time response to Geoff Hoon) but also has an ability to explain often complex legal arguments in media friendly terms. The organisation has been ruthless about using her for everything public facing, few would be able to name the number 2 at Liberty but it’s a strategy that works as they’ve created a virtuous circle of being the organisation the media call when they want a comment on anything to do with civil liberties. Build alliances that work not simply build alliances with those you know. Liberty are prepared to take difficult positions which can lead to criticism from some in politics and the media (for example when David Davis resigned as Shadow Home Secretary, which lead to criticisms from Labour ministers that they we’re to close to the Conservatives). But Liberty appear to ignore this, when others would stand back and instead they build alliances that give them traction on issues, and sometime begin to work with those who have previously criticised them. They’ve learnt not to let previous differences get in the way if it’ll further their aims. Be strategic in what you do. Liberty is an organisation that employs 23 staff, and must have a smallish budget for its work (I couldn’t find the exact figures on the website), so it can’t follow every debate it’d like to be involved in, instead it has chosen a few to focus its capacity and money on, and has had a big impact on the policy debates surrounding those issues.
I went to hear a guy called Clay Shirky speak at the LSE earlier this month. More efficient people that me have documented what he had to say here and here.
I hadn’t come across Shirky before, but he’s the author of a book called ‘Here Comes Everybody’ and is regarded as a an expert at online collaboration/online movements. He’s been advising the Obama team about how to keep the web outreach going now they’re in power. It was an enlightening 90 minutes, not all of it is necessarily relevant to campaigning, as much of it was about how governments engage with citizens.
This summary also comes with a ‘the room was full of tech geeks like me so does it work in the real world’ warning! But a few take home messages that got me thinking;
1 – The central premise of his argument is that the web is that ‘group action just got easier‘, and that the web has lowered the transaction costs. He pointed to the example of Facebook being used by students to close down HSBC a/c when they changed the T+C, suggesting that no longer do companies (and I think by extension but less so, governments) have the information and cooperation advantages that they used to have. The web makes it easier to cooperate and share the information you need (this case about how to close down your HSBC a/c).
2 – He argued that Obama was the first ‘platform candidate’ that is, he encouraged people to take his message and make it work for them. He contrasted the McCain online outreach, which was ‘here are some points to make on your blog’ with the activities that people like will.I.am and others had done to take the Obama message.
The challenge for me from this to campaigners, was how do we do this, albeit it on a much smaller scale. Do we needto more to just give our campaigners some key messages/points and let them work for them, or do we do this already?Are their any good examples to
3 – In the Q+As at the end he got into an interesting discussion about the ongoing value of newspapers, he was arguing that the newspaper model of making people pay for news is dying, because people will increasingly get their information from online sources, often ultra local and more interactive. I don’t know if I agree, but got me thinking about two things, a) what would our campaigning look like if we didn’t have newspapers to try to communicate our messages to decision makers, because that’s in part why we do reports, stunts, etc, and b) if paid for newspapers are dying what about the magazines we produce will people want something different from us, does it mean an end to print publications?
4 – He had some insightful stuff to say about the way that new media needs to be incoporated into an organisation. That it should sit somewhere between the technology and communication teams, but allowing space to innovate was criucial as was regular reviewing of what was working and not. He said that because the web changes so quickly it challenges the traditional planning cycles of many organisations.
5 – Finally he pointed to the recent campaign by mysociety on MPs expenses, as an example of one of the first completely web based campaigns. More on their blog – Its a fascinating example of not only how to mobilise lots of people in a short time just using the web, but then getting them to translate into action, and one I think I’m going to come back to.