From Blair to Boris: Has the insider track reached the end of the line?

Following lacklustre government support for the sector during the pandemic, Rebecca Cooney asks whether it’s time for charities to stop relying on insider influence to drive change

“You have not been forgotten.” Flanked by two Union Jacks and behind a bright yellow podium that urged people to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, looked straight into the camera during a daily government coronavirus briefing and made an announcement the charity sector had been waiting for in growing desperation.

It was 8 April. The country was two weeks into lockdown, the Prime Minister was in intensive care and 60,734 people had tested positive for coronavirus. With need spiralling and donations falling, charities were staring at a £4.3bn black hole in their income over the first three months of the pandemic – and under the banner #EveryDayCounts, the sector’s umbrella bodies had united to plead with the government for extra support.

Finally, it seemed, it had heard them.

“We in government will do our part,” Sunak said, announcing £750m worth of funding to tide charities over throughout the crisis. The response from charities and umbrella bodies was enthusiastic, but measured; it was a good start, they said, but more would be needed.

More was not forthcoming. In fact, it was several weeks before the process for even applying for the emergency funding was operational and, to this day, not all of the money has actually reached the front line.

The message was clear: charities may not have been forgotten, but that didn’t mean they were a priority. All the meetings, the earnest conversations and lobbying had resulted in warm words about the importance of charities to society, but little practical support.

The past six months could be viewed as a focal point for a tension charities have wrestled with for decades: as organisations that exist to change the world, how should they view themselves in relation to the governments that could help them make that change?

Are they challengers, calling out government failings and loudly demanding better for their beneficiaries? Or are they partners, working alongside policymakers and offering supportive nudges to create change from within?

From Blair to big society

Kathy Evans, the chief executive of Children England, has spent 25 years lobbying government through both internal and external campaigning, and believes it is getting increasingly difficult for charities to influence the government from the inside track.

“For some time now the challenge has been that it’s really difficult to discern what the government’s policymaking processes are,” she says, adding that the sector needs to think carefully about how much effort is being put into insider campaigning for the impact it has. “It is harder than it might have been previously to get the ear of government on the basis that you’re an expert in your field.”

Like any relationship, the one between the first and third sectors ebbs and flows over time, even within the same administration. Nonetheless, Rita Chadha, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, says there are particular challenges for those working with the current government.

“When a government sets itself aside and doesn’t behave like a part of society, which it’s doing at the moment, then it becomes difficult for charities to feel like they’re working in unison with it,” she says, adding the relationship is increasingly a transactional one.

“All the way through the Blair years there was a lot of talk about partnership working, but I don’t hear that any more.”

Though few can name a golden age of sector-government relationships (and as Kristiana Wrixon of the charity leaders body Acevo notes, “if there ever had been a golden era, perhaps a few social problems would have been solved by now”), the Blair government is a definite contender.

Just a year after its 1997 election win, New Labour created the Compact – an agreement setting out key principles in the relationship between the government and the voluntary sector, including transparent funding and respect for charity independence.

When a government sets itself aside and doesn’t behave like a part of society, then it becomes difficult for charities to feel like they’re working in unison with it.

Rita Chadha, chief executive, Small Charities Coalition

Susan Elan Jones sat on a local authority compact board as a representative of the voluntary sector at the time, and agrees that this was a good period (she later went on to become a Labour MP and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering). But, she notes, there’s a reason this time is fondly remembered.

“It came with money,” she says. “It’s very easy to intellectualise all of this, but I think the bulk of people who work in charities want to do practical good, and that often takes money.”

And that money came with strings attached. Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, says there were positive aspects of the Blair government, but warns against a rose-tinted nostalgia.

“They were very controlling, and people conveniently forget that it was Labour who turned grants into contracts and allowed the private sector in to compete,” she says.

Jay Kennedy, the DSC’s director of policy and research, also points out that John Major’s pre-1997 government was the one to take the “visionary” step of establishing the National Lottery. “Those ideas where you really do the work and set up something that will have a long-term impact on civil society – where are they now?” he asks.

Recent administrations arguably have had big ideas, but have rarely delivered in practice. The 2010 election ushered in a coalition government and one of the best-known, and later widely derided, policy initiatives: the big society – emphasising volunteerism and moving control away from politicians to empower communities.

The 2010 election ushered in a coalition government and one of the best-known, and later widely derided, policy initiatives: the big society. Lewis Whyld/AFP via Getty Images

Former MP Nick Hurd, who was the charities minister at the time, believes he may have been the only person ever to serve in the role with a strong mandate from their Prime Minister “as part of a political programme to which charities were central”.

Hurd insists there was a genuine ambition to support and empower charities embedded in the notion of the big society, which led to the creation of social investment organisation Big Society Capital and the National Citizen Service. But he acknowledges: “We had a lot of issues around building trust for that agenda because there were cuts to public spending.”

Elan Jones is sympathetic to his argument, despite having served in opposition. “I don’t take the view of some on the centre left that it was just a cost-cutting gimmick, I think it did come from a place of belief,” she says.

Chadha’s assessment is less generous. “It changed the dynamic dramatically, because it was the first time charities felt unloved,” she says, arguing that the initiative was a proxy for austerity, and driven by the belief that getting neighbours to help each other would eliminate the need for charities and save the government money. “I never saw big society as being engaged in charities.”

Whatever the impact of big society, Hurd says he has always been an advocate for charities’ right to campaign, and argues that both the inside and outside routes were needed.

Asked whether he thinks the same is true of today’s government, he says: “Charities need to remember every government is different, even if they are wearing the same colour shirt – every time there is a new government, the sector needs to ask how relevant they are.”

Allcock Tyler says charities have done exactly that, but the answer they have found is not reassuring. “The relationship between charities and government has been deteriorating for years,” she says. “Our current government sees charities as an irrelevance.”

Where did it all go wrong?

When asked to identify the rift moments in the sector’s deteriorating relationship with government, almost everyone identifies two key points – the first being the lobbying act.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, to give it its full title, requires charities to register with the Electoral Commission if they plan to spend more than a certain amount on campaigning in the year before an election.

While many argue that the act itself does not actually prohibit lobbying and charities are unlikely to seriously fall foul of the rules, others say that the mere existence of the act has been enough to tell charities that their attempts to advocate for their causes are not welcome.

“Some of the feelings of suspicion rightly come from that situation,” Elan Jones says. When charities with no money for legal teams are genuinely frightened, she adds, the effect of the law is as important as the legal reality.

The fear was compounded by attempts in 2016 to introduce anti-lobbying clauses to government grant agreements, in essence forbidding grant recipients from campaigning.

The gagging clauses were eventually dropped, but once again, the damage to the sector’s confidence was already done.

In the same year, then-Prime Minister Theresa May pushed the Office for Civil Society from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a move many in the sector bemoaned as a demotion.

This, many argue, is the second event that damaged sector-government relationships. Hurd describes it as “taking OCS out of the centre of government”, while Chadha, among others, points out: “It says that we’re at society’s periphery – we need to be back in the Cabinet Office to have any real impact [and] clout”.

Elan Jones believes representation in government should go a step further – arguing that charities minister ought to be a cabinet-level job. The current minister, Baroness Barran, “is very experienced and competent”, Elan Jones says, “but I don’t feel like that’s been backed up by the rest of government”.

Barran herself denies that she has been hamstrung by her current position.

“I haven’t felt any issue with it, but then I haven’t got anything to compare it to – what is important is to try to build relationships across different government departments, which I have done,” she says.

Barran points to the £750m bailout, one of only two to specific sectors (the other being the £1.57bn awarded to the arts), as a sign of “how seriously we take” the role of charities. She also points to the Kruger review (see boxout).

“I’m sure there’s a real cross-section of opinion about government, but all I can say is that we’ve tried to be fair, transparent, responsive and recognise the incredibly hard work charities have put in,” she says.

While Barran is widely respected, charities’ relationship with government extends beyond the OCS to the departments that oversee their cause areas, and in many cases fund them.

Acevo’s Wrixon says that while the past five months have highlighted that this government struggles to understand charities as a sector, individual organisations often have good relationships with departments.

“Specific causes have had some successes in getting their voices heard in recent times,” she says, citing homelessness charities’ work to ensure that all rough sleepers were urgently supported into appropriate accommodation during lockdown and secure £3.2m from the government to help fund it.

Evans says that in her experience, insider lobbying works best when the issue is not that a change of policy is what’s needed, but a change in practice, or resolving a problem created by an oversight.

“The whole point is to give them the chance to say: ‘This is what we really meant,’” she says.

However, this inherently makes it hard for the organisations engaging in this kind of lobbying to take credit for their work and demonstrate what they are actually achieving for their service users.

“You can’t build that influential relationship by having those conversations in private and then saying publicly: ‘You know they changed their minds? That was because of us’,” Evans points out.

“You’d create a serious risk of damage to that relationship and of them retrenching – so if you’re in the serious business of trying to get people to change their minds and their behaviour, then you have to be ready to
give them all the credit when they do.”

But charities also need to weigh up the risk of a lack of transparency being seen as colluding with the government, Evans says.

In the clubhouse

The insider track is also not available to everyone, of course.

The SCC’s Chadha says that, while many smaller charitable organisations have strong relationships with their local MP or even relevant ministers, “there’s not a single one of my members, that I know of, that has a strong relationship with government or has the influence to create change through that relationship alone”.

Allcock Tyler agrees that there were certain types of organisations, and people, who traditionally did well on the inside track – which could be part of the reason why the sector has struggled to wield influence in this way over recent years.

“It’s about very white, male power structures,” she says. “Once upon a time we had leaders who would be doing things like having lunches or drinks or meeting in their clubs, and when the sector played into those structures we did have more influence.

“But the profile of the sector has changed quite a lot; there are more women, more people of colour – though clearly not enough – and more people who don’t normally fall into those structures. The look and physical makeup of the sector is changing, while the political sector isn’t, really.”

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has historically been a strong advocate and practitioner of insider lobbying: but Sarah Vibert, director of policy and volunteering at NCVO, agrees that the insider approach isn’t always the most inclusive, and says the membership body’s approach is starting to evolve.

“It’s not a tactic that disenfranchised groups are able to use, and NCVO needs to find ways to ensure those voices can be included in conversations and given our seat at the decision-making table.”

Evolution is vital, she says, particularly because the behind-closed-doors element of the inside track is unlikely to survive into the future.

“You need to be open and transparent,” she says, suggesting that larger lobbying organisations should tell stakeholders about plans for meetings with government and find mechanisms to report back what was discussed.

Like many, Vibert argues that to be truly effective, the sector needs to harness both approaches – and points out the £750m wouldn’t have been assigned without a blend of insider lobbying and the external #EveryDayCounts campaign. But in the current environment, can the outsider approach be any more useful?

Campaigns that capture the public imagination or indignation can successfully put pressure on the government to change a policy. In recent years, for example, the campaigns to make upskirting a crime and to get rid of the ‘tampon tax’ have resulted in changes to policy.

The power of the courts can also be harnessed to create meaningful changes, as in Shelter’s victory in banning landlords from discriminating against people on Universal Credit.

When the chips are down

Many organisations worry about alienating the government if they are seen to have been too critical in external campaigns, although Wrixon argues this may be unfounded.

“I do understand where the concern comes from and I don’t want to downplay it, but I think sometimes we are more worried about it than we potentially need to be,” she says.

Honest and open communication is crucial, she says, adding that it is possible to convey staunch opposition to government policy without setting out to embarrass or insult them.

The DSC’s Kennedy argues that external campaigning might be the best tool available in dealing with the current administration in particular. “If you want to get this government’s ear, the way to do it is to get the public’s ear,” he says.

“They’re all about attracting public opinion and what the latest headlines are and what people think about it, rather than a clear decision-making path.”

He points to the recent campaign by the England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to provide food vouchers to children who receive free school meals in term-time.

The government made vouchers available during lockdown, but had refused to extend the programme into the summer holidays. Rashford’s campaign forced a U-turn.

Evans says the success of this campaign may provide a way forward for charities looking to sway government in the future.

“What many of us have moved on from [is] thinking about campaigning, in the quite specialist way that it is often referred to, to thinking instead about movement-building – finding people wherever you can who share your values and your intentions and your concern, and keeping that momentum,” Evans says.

Charities can no longer expect to "own" a campaign, she says, and instead should present themselves as one member of a bigger movement for change. Additionally, she says, social media has created an expectation that people will be able to engage with people, not an organisational persona.

“Maybe that’s why the Marcus Rashford campaign worked – everything that he was saying and representing was what poverty charities have been trying to get across for years, but he was speaking about himself, his own experiences and taking a personal stand,” she says.

Wrixon believes that one of the best ways charities can achieve this, as well as balancing insider and outsider campaigning, is to centre the experience of those most affected by the issue you’re campaigning around.

“As an organisation, when you have access to a room, you make sure you bring those people along – and if you can’t, you make sure you use the words that they would want you to use, and to honour their experience.”

Ultimately, even as campaigning becomes more difficult, Evans believes it has never been more important for charities to stand up and be counted.

“One of the things that happens in a state of emergency is that people read your behaviour and ask: ‘Did you really care about this when the chips were down? Did you speak out about injustice?'” she says.

“This feels like a period of time where politically, and also because of the pandemic, being part of the historical record as having stood up for what you believe in is going to be significant.”

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