Russell Hargrave: May the doors of communication remain open

When Rob Wilson was charities minister, communication failures were the fault of both sides, writes our columnist, and it is up to the sector to let Tracey Crouch know what charities really want

Russell Hargrave
Russell Hargrave

We might get to kick our politicians out of their jobs, but they never really go away.

Ed Balls, dumped by voters in 2015, returned to us via an endearingly awkward turn on Strictly Come Dancing. Michael Portillo, booted out of one parliamentary seat in 1997 only to emerge in another almost immediately, is now a constant presence on TV chatting about politics and trains.

Our esteemed former charities minister Rob Wilson, meanwhile, chose a different way to remind us he was still around: a piece for this very website, four months after being handed his P45 by the good people of Reading East in June.

Given that Wilson has returned to talk with the sector again – "as a minister, my role couldn’t just be warm words," he said, a riposte to those who had wanted him to champion the sector more – it feels like a good time to take stock of communications during his reign.

Was this a meeting of minds, or did all sides struggle to find the language they needed?

To be frank, no one emerges with much credit. Wilson’s obvious interest in social investment, for example, meant he ended up talking about how cash was funnelled to charities rather than what charities were actually doing.

At best, this was irrelevant to tens of thousands of charities that would never need social investment. At worst, it made it look like the minister cared little for what charities actually did every day to help people. Whatever the majority of charities did want from their minister, it wasn’t one more Cabinet Office announcement about social impact bonds.

But hold that thought for a moment. What did the majority of charities want to hear from Whitehall? That isn’t clear either.

The sector wasn’t very impressed when the government joined in bashing charity misbehaviour in the press. But officials felt, with some justification, that charities had largely brought this upon themselves. (I have written about this before.)

There were demands for the return of grant funding, but this was always going to be a dialogue of the deaf. The idea is completely at odds with the narrative of austerity that has run across all of government for seven years. No one in power was ever likely to take it seriously.

Which leaves us with the so-called "gagging clause". This goes right to the heart of the communications problem. The government was essentially saying to charities: "We don’t want to know; we don’t want to hear from you."

The legislation might have been more nuanced than that, but – and this is generally how comms works – it was the emotional message that resonated. In common with most communication breakdowns, it left the other side hurt and then angry.

Will things get better? The new minister, Tracey Crouch, recently baffled the sector by retweeting articles supporting reform to the lobbying act, even while progress on that reform seems as far away as ever.

But it is for us to persuade her what matters to us, and for her to respond openly and clearly. Talk a bit, listen a bit. May the doors of communication remain open.

Russell Hargrave is press manager at the independent trust Power to Change

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