NEWS IN FOCUS: Organisations could face lottery of the public vote

Mathew Little

The lottery White Paper aims to give the game back to the people - but how will public voting on grants affect the sector?

Do you suffer from a recurring nightmare featuring Dale Winton, an oversized lottery grant cheque and a donkey sanctuary? If so, the cause is probably ill-advised consumption of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's White Paper on the future of lottery funding.

The paper promised to give the lottery back to the people through citizens' juries, tick-box consultation slips and even television referendums. It envisages that the public will vote for which projects receive some funding from the lottery following a short presentation on TV by each candidate.

"We must explain to the public what the priorities for spending are, ask them whether they agree and what they might do differently," said Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell.

But is this a long-overdue attempt to wrench back public control of the lottery from elitist "quangocrats", or a threat to its original vision of serving all sections of society, regardless of their popular appeal?

Is the lottery, in future years, going to resemble a Big Brother-style phone vote where the least offensive, rather than the most interesting, contestant always wins?

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, believes so and is scathing about the Government's "pandering to popular prejudice". "If this happens, animals, cancer and children, which are already pretty well funded, will win out and smaller groups will suffer," she says. "Giving funds is a sophisticated process. That's why there are trusts and foundations and why the Government and the Active Community Unit fund organisations. The public don't understand the issues and are very difficult to educate."

She argues that giving lottery players a say in who gets grants will fundamentally change the nature of distribution of funds to good causes and leave organisations working with ex-offenders, drug users, asylum seekers or even the homeless high and dry.

"When the lottery was set up, the whole point of it was for organisations that couldn't normally access funding and, at the time, it was a fantastic solution," she says. "These proposals will lead to disproportionate funding and some groups are already losing out."

But there are others in the sector who welcome the prospect of realignment of lottery grants with the enthusiasms and, if necessary, the aversions of the public at large.

"We have to address issues of lack of support among players for unpopular causes and, more significantly, support for popular causes that are noticeable by their absence," says Diana Garnham, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities.

"The voluntary sector has just looked at what it wants to happen to its share - but there is no point in discussing a diminishing pot. Why people aren't playing is a pressing issue."

But whether you dread or relish the coming of a people's lottery, certain issues remain cloudy. Such as whether the public will decide the destination of all or just some lottery funding. Whether they will be able to pick individual organisations for funding or just lay down general guidelines.

Or, not withstanding the popular chords seemingly struck by tabloid campaigns against grants to asylum seekers or prostitutes, what people's views on who should get funding actually are.

But some future trends may be discernible. As part of their preparations for the White Paper, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Camelot commissioned a research consultancy to trial citizens' juries using a cross section of lottery players in Manchester and Essex.

The participants questioned by Opinion Leader Research strongly believed that money raised by the lottery was theirs and were suspicious that an upper-class elite or "Tony's cronies" were running distribution bodies.

When asked to define what constitutes 'a good cause', there were suggestions about charities working with children, the disabled and older people.

However, there was strong opposition to funding international projects and 'political' causes. Respondents also regarded arts and heritage projects as the least worthy of funding.

But, interestingly, though they wanted a say in how grants were made - through for example, elections to grant committees - there was little support for a direct role in allocating grants.

"Having gone through the process of trying to decide on what principles good causes awards should be made, respondents felt they did not want the responsibility for making those decisions," the researchers noted.

There was also an appreciation that there needs to be "breadth and diversity" in the choice of beneficiaries and that some decisions will always be subjective.

Viki Cooke, joint chief executive of Opinion Leader Research, says the public don't want blunt methods of opinion polling on grants, but greater transparency. "The public want more involvement in underlying principles to make informed decisions," she says.

This may be the solution to the conundrum of increasing public involvement while protecting funding to unpopular causes.

"You need broad categories," says Boni Sones, senior counsellor at Chelgate Communications, a consultancy on lottery issues for charity clients. "You could ask generalities, while the specifics are left to the experts. For example, categories for young people with grants within them to disable asylum seekers. You need public acquiescence and accountability but it mustn't be prescriptive."

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