Right to campaign in doubt in a challenging environment? Guest blog from Brian Lamb
Campaigning for social change has never been so important, as we are confronted with a new coalition Government committed to recasting the relationship between the state and civil society.
Yet there is an open question about the role and legitimacy of campaigning within this new society – and a few recent and worrying, but by no means widespread, answers from members of the political classes.
As campaigners are confronted with a hugely challenging and changing environment, there is a danger that what is left unsaid may seed doubts about the effectiveness and legitimacy of campaigning as an activity, a right and a means to achieving social change. We (Campaigning Effectiveness) have asked Brian Lamb to guest this blog piece and would love to hear your comments on the subject.
Reading recent coverage it may have seemed a bit like open session on charity campaigning last month with some members of the Public Administration Select Committee questioning the role and focus of charity campaigning and one offering advice to us on how to successfully lobby your MP (clearly not everyone has been reading NCVO’s new indispensible guide to campaigning and influencing).
In doing so they have added to a growing sub theme in some quarters of the political classes that charity campaigning has become too strident, too professionalised, but not in the good sense, falling outside their remit of public benefit or service provision. On the other hand, the Government have committed to the right of charities to campaign, in the renewed Compact, (the agreement between the Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector), and, as upcoming research by NCVO indicates, many Parliamentarians welcome campaign communications, informing them of issues, particularly if it is from their constituents. Ironically the discontent of a few has come about precisely because of the growing visibility and impact of campaigning by the sector.
The case for charity campaigning needs to be refreshed; campaigners cannot be complacent that what they see as a justifiable social good does not need demonstrating and defending. There is much evidence to demonstrate significant public support for charity campaigning, people not only accept it they expect it, in recent years MPs have also expressed a willingness to meet more with charities than business and place more credibility with their arguments. With the membership of some charities or campaigning organisations outstripping that of political parties some have argued that campaign groups have a claim to be regarded as representative organisations on particular issues where political parties cannot.
This should not make us complacent. MPs on the Select Committee had a litany of complaints that taken at face value look to be evidence for at best clumsy campaigning and at worst completely misguided - from pro forma emails to MPs to badly conceived approaches. These assumptions or generalisations need to be challenged and examples of good practice, innovation and success championed.
Campaigners also face a more challenging environment than we have for many years. No more rising tide of public expenditure on which to float new policies or address needs; business is being squeezed by recession with one eye firmly on the balance sheet. Cuts programmes across public services may provide fertile soil for campaigning but only if organisations get the pitch of their campaign right to ensure it stands out from the increasing clamour for public attention. In this environment campaigners need more than ever a clear approach and understanding of how to make change happen made explicit in their campaign strategy and planning. The new Coalition Government has not changed the rules of good campaigning but has made life more complex.
Changes to many of the accountability structures we have all depended on are moving fast; policy development within government is changing radically. The old distinctions of insider and outsider campaigning have broken down as organisations have to apply a sophisticated mix of strategies, engaging audiences to exert pressure while also deploying influencing skills through less public channels. In this environment ideas germinate and take hold much more quickly which requires a much nimbler response from the voluntary and community sector.
This environment will test campaigners who may need to think more strategically about the change they wish to bring about. Campaigners will need to be more attuned to how to understand and create policy and turn these ideas into compelling messages that chime with their target audiences, as well as to understand the scope and keep up with the possibilities for effecting change in a communications environment which is itself changing rapidly.
When we get it right, campaigning remains one of the most effective means of achieving social change, tackling the causes not just the symptoms of issues, protecting or extending rights and freedoms, releasing more resources through the creation of new programmes and services. Pursuing a vision of the good society belongs in the campaigner’s remit as much as it does in service provision and volunteering, and this needs to be put at the heart of discussions about the Big Society.
Brian Lamb is author of NCVO’s new Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing which explores the life cycle of a campaign and brings together latest thinking and new opportunities to help you increase the impact of your work. These themes are explored in greater detail and as well as a huge amount of practical advice on all areas of campaigning and influencing. Find out more http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/goodguidetocampaigning