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.   
  • 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. 

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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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