Debra Allcock Tyler: There can be power and influence in walking away

It's a struggle in our sector, but we must tread carefully to stay on the side of using our influence to effect positive change rather than, in effect, colluding with those in power who can damage the lives of the people we serve

Debra Allcock Tyler

For a significant period in my adult life I was in a relationship with an alcoholic. He was great to be around when he was sober, but when drunk he was violent and abusive.

For years I felt that I could influence his behaviour and help him to change. But over years of recovery and reflection I have come to know that this sort of thinking, while common, was misguided. In effect, my belief that maintaining our relationship was more important than his behaviour meant that I ended up enabling him, not influencing him.

I share this because some of the emotions I experienced when struggling to find a way to manage that relationship are flittering around my edges when I think about our sector’s relationship with government and those serving in it.

Our sector, of course, campaigns publicly and vigorously when needed. But our natural approach is usually to co-operate; to build relationships and try to influence behind the scenes.

These can be very powerful ways to effect change. But I worry that we are in danger of collusion when we continue to engage with people who are doing what some of us consider to be real damage, indeed abuse, to those we serve.

Putting aside cabinet ministers, who most of us don’t meet often, if at all, we do engage with other ministers and MPs when we are trying to influence government policies. Many of them are really personable folk who believe that they are there to do good.

The problem arises when our desire to build relationships with them means we overlook actions and attitudes that are effectively damaging to our cause. When those MPs who say that they care deeply about people in poverty, on the one hand, then vote for policies that make life worse for them – such as a rise in National Insurance or the reduction of benefits.

When we still collaborate with those folk, are we in effect ‘enabling’ those behaviours? Should we turn a blind eye to voting records on the off-chance that we might nonetheless influence? Or should there be a point at which we say “we won’t collaborate with you unless you change”? That the relationship is not more important than your beliefs and behaviours?

Government actions massively impact our people – there is no doubt about that. And there is a danger that, in walking away, you lose the chance to influence. But does there come a point where we become part of the problem?

My colleagues and I in the Civil Society Group (of charities and umbrella bodies that aim to increase collaboration with government) struggle with this. We have rigorous discussions about where our power lies. Is it in engagement or walking away? Do we have any power at all if we are not around the table?

I don’t know the definitive answer, I’m afraid. But I can say that my life became immeasurably better when my relationship ended. And I’m told he did subsequently stop drinking. I think there can be power and influence in walking away – and that it should always be on the table.

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