NPC recently hosted an online policy reception on the charity sector’s relationship with government. The event was chaired by Sonia Sodha, Chief Lead Writer for The Guardian and Deputy Opinion editor at The Observer. Our speakers were Samuel Kasumu, Co-founder of Inclusive Boards and former Special Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson; Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice and ex-Permanent Secretary for the Department for Exiting the European Union; and Dan Corry, Chief Executive of NPC.
Communication is key in a relationship, so we’re told. It’s frustrating when your partner doesn’t seem to be listening. Maybe they want to, but they don’t make the time to talk. Or what if it’s not them, it’s you? What if you’re not speaking clearly, giving them mixed messages?
Like an aggrieved spouse, we in the charity sector often complain that government doesn’t care about our needs, doesn’t pay enough attention to our insights. What if it does, but we’re not communicating in the right way to be heard? Or is it that we both need to try a different tack?
Last week we brought together a group of ex-government figures for the policy equivalent of a couple’s therapy session. Samuel Kasumu (Boris Johnson’s ex-aid), Clare Moriarty (ex-Permanent Secretary for the Department for Exiting the European Union) and our very own Dan Corry gathered for our Winter policy reception to discuss how we can improve the relationship between charities and government.
When discussing his time under Boris Johnson in Number 10, Samuel Kasumu reflected: ‘the idea that we wanted to strengthen the relationship with civil society was always there’. Although there were some in government who would ‘get into a fight with their own shadow … the majority of people in government are very keen, in my experience anyway, to have that relationship with civil society’.
Despite this, when Samuel came into Number 10 there was ‘a lack of coherent dialogue with the charity sector,’ which was not helped by the churn of events and the distractions concurrent to leading the country. Dan agreed saying even the last Labour government ‘didn’t see charities as fundamental to how society works’.
So then, what do charities need to do to be heard and what bigger issues are at play when it comes to the government’s relationship with the charity sector?
‘Everyone wants the same thing—the challenge is how do you get there?’
The main blocker, from when Samuel was in Number 10 at least, was that ‘at times there is a lack of coherence’ in the charity sector. He gave the example of the £4bn rescue package that the sector was lobbying for at the beginning of the pandemic. He felt there was a lack of coherence about how the figure was arrived at.
‘That was one example where, actually, we could have done with better information from the sector. That isn’t just your responsibility though, it’s also the responsibility of the government.’
This is not a new issue in the charity sector of course, but it speaks to the difficulty we have in using the tools at our disposal to be understood.
What more should charities do
1. Use data to tell a story
Charities are better placed than many other organisations to tell an up-to-date, relevant story about the issues affecting communities across the country. By combining real-time quantitative data on needs with stories and testimonials about people’s lives, we can tell a credible and compelling story about issues that arise and the impact we are having. Conveniently, we at NPC just launched our new databank which combines UK-wide data on social issues with charity data. Take a look at our Local needs databank here. From the government side, we also welcome the efforts announced in the new levelling up White Paper to better measure the impact of the charity sector as a whole. Work like this, paired with your own organisational knowledge, can be invaluable in crafting compelling messages which can influence policy.
2. Assume good intent
Clare pointed out that, as with any relationship, things worked better in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Charities might disagree with Government over the best way to get there but should avoid attributing motives to Government that created barriers to working together. Taking time to understand the perspectives of people in Government, and the pressures they were navigating, was likely to make it easier for charities’ voices to be heard.
Empathy should be the starting place for any would-be campaigner. It’s too easy to ignore the angry heckler who does not understand you, and the work of charities is too important to risk being ignored.
3. Use a shared language
Finally, once we are armed with our data and understand our audience, we need to speak in a language which they will understand. Clare referred to the possibility for a ‘new narrative coalition’ around levelling up, for example around how to make ‘social infrastructure’ appeal to Number 10.
Organisations like FrameWorks UK have done data-driven testing of messages on social issues like poverty and crime to find out how to trigger the right reactions, and minimise the wrong ones. These toolkits are valuable resources, but you don’t need extensive focus groups to identify a language which will appeal to government. It begins by thinking about the priorities and objectives of those you are speaking to, and thinking about how the message you are trying to get across appeal to the values they hold.
Relationships are hard, but we’ve invested far too much to give up now. Maybe with a little better communication, we can both see the bigger picture and remember why we got together in the first place.
Watch the full recording of our policy reception here.