Opinion: The politics of winning trust

Rachel O'Brien

I have made a lot of cab journeys recently. A typical chat with the driver might cover London's congestion charge and the mayor. We talk about our children's education, and the amount other people's children drink. The driver will state that, of course, he is not really into politics, as politicians can't be trusted.

Which brings me swiftly to the door of the Charity Commission, which has also been struggling with what politics and being 'political' means in the 21st century.

The commission has just published new draft guidelines on campaigning and political activities for charities. Having been ticked off two years ago by the Strategy Unit for being too cautious, the guidelines, now out for consultation, were launched with a call for charities to embrace their legitimate role in the political process.

For many people involved in charities over the past two decades, the idea that they were not already openly involved in the political process will come as a surprise. Nonetheless, the move is a belated and welcome recognition that charities provide a vast range of essential - and competing - voices, and cannot and should not be divided between those who provide services and those who push for changes to law and practice.

The sector needs to rise to the challenge. This means being ever-vigilant about the evidence it uses in lobbying, and consistently identifying credible solutions as well as problems.

The commission's redraft recognises that change is not something that the state does to us or that we should simply demand of Government. Charities can respond by being more direct with supporters and the public on who it is that can act and who has the power to make choices.

As charities gear up to influence public spending priorities, internal, fixed objectives can be set aside, and investment can be made in areas that fall outside their remit where the evidence shows the greatest impact.

Was it a cab driver who once said: 'politics is too important to be left to the politicians?'

- Rachel O'Brien is director of external affairs at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Lisa Harker is recovering from an accident.

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