By Michael Hammer, former INTRAC Executive Director.
The UK government has announced that it will shortly be inserting clauses in funding agreements aimed at preventing organisations receiving such funds to advocate for changes in UK law and policy. The argument is that under the current rules taxpayer’s money can be used to lobby the government, something that is somehow perceived as being an abuse of those resources and does not constitute ‘value for money’.
Here is why the government should rethink its plans:
1. The work of charities and many other government grant or contract funded not-for profit organisations in the UK and abroad has demonstrated that the real expertise of running services and understanding does in many cases not sit with the government, but the implementing organisations. It is these organisations who often have the best lessons and findings to share for the improvement of how public goods can be delivered and their access can be ensured. For the government to effectively ask those most involved in key areas of public services to stop feeding back their insights transparently limits the government’s ability to learn lessons.
2. Reflections on the nature of think tanks, or the nature and basis of policy oriented research and evidence gathering, shows that this is not a black and white field. In fact the integration and close interaction of those ‘who do’, those ‘who think’ and those ‘who advocate’, often in the same organisation and even people, is part of the credibility of the outcome. This inevitably also means that seeking to fully separating the funding out for such integrated activities is unproductive and an obstacle to value for money.
3. It is of eminent public interest that the experiences with government policy and practical implementation of public service provision models get aired as part of a mature public debate about what works and what does not, and how especially the weakest in society can be supported. The policy lobbying scene must not be driven further behind closed doors. Evidence gathered by the Commission for civil society suggests that limitations placed on charities and other organisations to put forward their insights and proposals for change to government and parliamentarians have already had a chilling effect on charities and NGOs.
4. Many UK government supported governance and civil society programmes abroad work on the basis of a strong integration of work on service delivery, accountability, advocacy, and capacity building for advocacy directed towards governments. The DfID supported family planning agenda work is a strong example of this integration and the understanding that it delivers indeed value for money. The positive lessons learned from the useful combination of such approaches for the benefit of citizens, and their continued funding, should be applied in the UK as well.
There may be many different drivers for the Cabinet Office Announcement of the planned new rules, and many of them UK domestic. Experience from different integrated governance and civil society programmes in other countries, many of these funded in fact by the UK, suggests that citizens’ access to public services, as well as accountability of government and others for their delivery, benefits from an open climate and space for debate. There is no reason why the UK should not learn from positive experiences abroad. Restricting this integration and imposing rules which drive self-censorship of NGOs may only lead to the government talking even more to itself.