When it is politic just to keep shtum

Knowing what to say and when to government can be a tough call, writes Peter Stanford, but strategic thinking will help

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There is always a delicate line to walk when a charity is working hand-in-hand with government, as so many do nowadays. Do you bite the hand that feeds you and speak out when you feel ministers get it wrong? Or does a seat on a government advisory body amount to a gagging order?

It is a tough call, and trustees should take a strategic view, especially in relation to the public activities of their chief executive and chair. Some charity leaders working closely with government seem to have decided that silence is golden – or at least necessary to keep the money coming in and vital services funded. That might explain why so many heads of major charities have absolutely no public profile, yet mavericks who run much smaller organisations crop up here, there and everywhere.

In some cases, the "keep-shtum-or-else" code is written into funding deals. One charity I know has a clause in its grant agreement with a government department that says it must give prior warning if it ever plans to speak to the media. The practicalities of print or broadcast deadlines – as the drafters no doubt knew – mean this condition effectively bars the charity from ever accepting an invitation to air its views. That is surely a step too far.

But if you already have the ear of ministers, should you be mouthing off from your soap box? As a journalist it pains me to admit it, but there is often more to be gained in matters of policy reform by working the softly-softly Whitehall route than by making a few national headlines. In one project in particular that I am working on with a government department, it is plain to me that there are major potential benefits to a disadvantaged group if I curb my natural tendency to blab.

Which brings me (almost) neatly to Sir Stephen Bubb, distinguished champion of our sector. In a recent interview celebrating 15 years in charge of Acevo, he put up a stout defence of his trademark approach of telling it to ministers as he sees it. "Some say," he opined, "that if you work with government, you need to be cautious and not speak out publicly. That’s bollocks. Peoplewalk over sycophants. If you never criticise government, they will never talk to you."

I bow, of course, before a man who has addressed the full Cabinet, but I have to add that his approach hasn’t worked, in my (limited) experience. A red rag might attract a bull, but rarely a minister who is committed to reform but has to balance it with many other demands, ranging from budgets to vested interests and public opinion.

So, reluctantly, caution would be my byword here for trustees – although by caution I mean risk assessment andmanagement, not risk aversion. Throwing caution to the wind, tempting as the gust of ego-inflating headlines might be, couldbe far from heroic. Now the sector has formed a partnership with government that sustains both sides, pragmatism should no longer be regarded as a dirty word.

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