Focus: Policy and Politics - Charities 'can target the civil service'

Whitehall is an underused resource for campaigners, writes Nathalie Thomas.

The huge public trust in charities gives the sector a host of opportunities when it comes to political campaigning, according to a number of experts at the NCVO's political conference last week.

"Charities enjoy extraordinarily high levels of trust," said Deborah Mattinson, joint chief executive of Opinion Leader Research.

Charities' public affairs campaigns have become increasingly sophisticated, and the civil service is another route through which their political agendas can be highlighted.

"Yes, the civil service is a target for you," said Mark Luetchford, a speechwriter at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Luetchford said the civil service is a useful way to access ministers and decision-makers, yet it is one that few charities currently pursue.

"The voluntary sector does not show up on my radar," he said. "I cannot think of a single member of the sector who has rung me up."

Delegates heard that approaches to civil servants of particularly high rank should be carried out with caution. "It's about relevance, it's about authority and it's about solutions," said Campbell Robb, director of public policy at the NCVO. "You have to make a very, very good case."

Charities were warned to think carefully about what they wanted to achieve when contacting the civil service. Robb stressed that contact needs to be precise and professional, and providing answers to problems should form a key part of the approach. Luetchford agreed with his analysis.

"You need to find solutions," he said.

Delegates were also warned to bear in mind the fact that civil servants cannot themselves make decisions, although they can set a process in motion.

Luetchford said that some lateral thinking was needed when contacting the civil service. "If you're blocked in one way, you have to think about how to get those people to do what you want them to do," he said.

One method he suggested was through "people like me" - civil service speechwriters - who he argued could provide the key to getting an issue into ministerial speeches.

Another route to decision-makers is through ex-civil servants and special advisers. "Think tanks are stacked full of ex-special advisers," Luetchford said.

Using the media to boost political campaigns was another key theme of the conference. Again, careful planning was advised.

"It's as simple as knowing who to send the press release to," said Camilla Cavendish, a columnist at The Times.

Press officers were urged to find out more about specific writers and contact them directly.

Speakers also recommended reading publications properly and suggesting the sections where a story could be placed.

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