Mark Flannagan: Stop treating people in power like nasty individuals

Charities expend a lot of energy highlighting everything the government does wrong, but they should spend more time helping it to find the solutions, writes our columnist

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

I am going to say something that my younger self would have hated: government is not always the answer. We must stop always asking for more money and regulation from government to fix society’s problems. We must also give those in government the credit for trying, and not simply assign them base motives for what they eventually do. We need to stop treating ministers, advisers and others in power like they are nasty individuals at heart.

I say this because we have a problem. We in our sector like opposition and are very uncomfortable with realpolitik. It is much easier to say what is wrong and draw attention to it than to accept we might be wrong and others are working hard to put it right based on genuinely held beliefs. We love it when some challenge the government and talk of failure, forecast doom and use the word "crisis". The recent statement by the British Red Cross that the NHS was facing a humanitarian crisis played well with our sector’s left-leaning view that the NHS is in danger of being lost to us and that it simply needs more money to fix everything. I don’t have any unique insight into why that statement was made, although I do note that the Red Cross will have since been invited to Downing Street to talk about the problems it highlighted. In this case, strong words and a headline news story will have given a large charity leverage to have the conversation that, perhaps, it was finding it difficult to be had with those in power.

I am sure there are many who will want us as a sector to do more of this type of politics. Some are still, a year on, trying to prove we should have got involved in the referendum on European Union membership to get the result many in the sector wanted. We like campaigning and being noisy: showing our principles sits with our values-driven reasons for working in charities. Perhaps part of our recent problems is that the voters have different values and we just don’t get what these are. We expend a lot of energy telling people what to think and highlighting everything that is wrong. But maybe what people really want is to be listened to and be given a sense that things can be better – and that they are not to blame when things go wrong. Not everyone wears their heart on their sleeve, or wakes up every morning to fight the good fight.

As a result, we really don’t leave much room for engagement and acceptance that much of government is trying to make things better. In the absence of a strong and successful opposition party, perhaps many think that our sector has a duty to act like an unofficial opposition and be more political. There is a problem with this. If we spend all of our time highlighting the problems, we must also have solutions when asked. And these solutions cannot simply be more cash or more laws. Every day we deliver change and experience the troubles of our beneficiaries. We work hard to think about solutions to these problems. But too often we simply highlight the problems, not these solutions. We do magnificent work, but then fail to demonstrate to the politicians the answers that we have.

This is not always the case, of course. Policy papers and meetings to lobby for change do make the case for what we see as the right approach. However, every time I sit in a room with charity people it is easier to talk about what is wrong and just how awful the government is making things. This is too easy and, perhaps as I get older, increasingly frustrating. Governments run on ideas, and ministers need other views to push back on the official proposals they see every day and the nuttier ideas of their party ideologues. This government might be here for quite a while, in the absence of a seemingly viable opposition. Let’s play our vital role and engage and collaborate with it more.

Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlann) is an independent consultant and commentator, and former charity chief executive

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