358: Engaging with government: the charity challenge
A new report has examined the relationship between charities and government with some very worrying conclusions. Unless charities take their public affairs seriously then misunderstandings, misconceptions and policy errors are likely.
A new report published by the Law Family Commission on Civil Society focused on the relationship between charities and policy makers. The findings suggest that some fundamental public affairs errors are being made.
Whilst it found that MPs and councillors would like more contact with charities, it was felt that this needed to be tailored. A ‘mass mailing’ approach is rarely, if ever, an effective way to engage. It does not treat the politician as an individual and would not signal the start of an effective, long-term relationship.
The report also found that civil servants and MPs thought that charities needed to improve their understanding on how government works. Again, this is one of the cornerstones of good public affairs advice. We talk to the right people, at the right time and suggest solutions that they can help deliver. That is based on an understanding of how government works.
The findings of the report appear to suggest an over-reliance on political engagement by charities with more than nine in 10 councillors and MPs (92%) saying they have had contact with a local or national charity in the last year. But compare this to engagement with civil servants which is down at 34%. This is a fundamental error of approach.
Charities also seem to have a real problem with the Conservative Party and civil servants. According to the report:
- 35% of civil servants, 40% of Conservative MPs and 35% of Conservative councillors trust charities to provide services reliably and on budget; and
- 53% of civil servants, 42% of Conservative MPs and 35% of Conservative councillors trust charities to tell them the truth about the scale of a problem.
But those Conservative MPs who know certain charities well will use their evidence and insight. So, the quality of the relationship appears fundamental.
The report also found that there needs to be an improvement to the quality of evidence, campaigning and services delivered by charities.
Meetings remain critical to engagement. 69% of MPs said their preferred method of communication is one-to-one meetings with 65% believing that attending an event organised by a charity is an important way to communicate. The results for councillors are similar.
But when it comes to civil servants, written reports are critical along with the use of a website and one-to-one meetings.
The report contains several recommendations to improve understanding between the audiences but the finding of a perceived lack of professionalism from some in their interactions is deeply worrying.
It is not clear how some of these basic and fundamental errors have come about. It could be the result of a lack of appropriate resources, inexperienced teams, a lack of skills or public affairs advice not being taken seriously by senior management.
Whatever the reasons there is a clear need to employ the right people, get advice and look at skills development.
The prospect for the sector is otherwise pretty dark.