This blog was originally written in 2015. It was produced during my time as a contributor to the (now defunct) Orator publication.
I sometimes think of the first and third sectors as an awkward, uncommunicative couple. Government, the more affluent of the two, wants to go to the store for some wallpaper. Charity, the poorer but more creative of the pair, has extensive experience and enthusiasm for DIY, but is swamped with work; our love-birds are busy, and the ramshackle chaos of their lives doesn’t allow them to talk. They won’t get to bottom-out the turquoise-teal conversation, meaning someone will be angry about the decor.
As it happens, our richer partner doesn’t have the time to go shopping AND hang wallpaper. They instead pay an unscrupulous handyman to decorate, allowing them creative license to choose any colour they want, charging hefty sums to the couple’s joint account. It sounds a bit like a story I read a year ago. Despite the economic climate we find ourselves in, a Freedom of Information request highlighted the payment of substantial funds from government departments to elite consultancies in 2014. Individuals were paid up to £3,000 a day to lead transformation within, amongst others, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Energy and Climate Change. It has been argued that large institutions such as our government can only be developed by significant specialist expertise, but I challenge that conclusion. The co-habitees should talk more.
Many of the charities that collaborate frequently with government departments would be more than willing to aid them in internal reform, and exceptional business practice has been exhibited by charities revamping their models to survive the financial crisis. Despite a drop in donations for 25% of charities in 2008, over 150,000 survived, and Britain remains the world leader in charity income at £64 billion annually. Charities are the most price-sensitive organisations, with considerable expertise of operating to budget. Sector leaders in charity strategy can certainly teach government a thing or two for less than £3,000 a day.
The two sectors are inextricably intertwined, and the relationship will of course survive being ripped off by our handyman. The poorer partner is humble enough to let minor financial indiscretions slide. A much more fundamental issue clouds this relationship, and undermines the ability of either party to achieve; they work too often in silos on major projects, not embracing one another’s potential. The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 is an example of this. The government placed obligations on universities, doctors and other public agents to monitor “suspicious” behaviour, under penalty of criminal sanction. The aim of the legislation, or the “mischief” that it sought to rectify, was the gap between instances of nascent terrorist activity and the amount of reporting that takes place.
This goes far beyond the common place conservatism that organisations often have with the wording of legislation, before issues are clarified by case law; this goes to the very heart of the debate around race, our communities and public life. As a six-foot, second generation Nigerian immigrant, I have been “suspicious” before. Walking in Birmingham city centre in a replica Nigeria football shirt, I was once stopped by a policeman that assumed I was part of a gang that identified themselves in green. I am actually a former youth parliamentarian and law graduate. Who is to say that, not unlike stop-and-search, the “suspects” under this regime will not disproportionately comprise ethnic minorities? Is this perhaps a carte blanche provision to monitor “the enemy of the day?” It is not difficult to imagine situations in which innocent young Muslims will be targeted by this provision when passionately speaking about their
beliefs. Though the aims of the legislation are clearly meritorious, whether those aims could be achieved by other means is a question that a number of organisations, including the National Union of Students’ Black Students’ Committee, have been asking.
I’m not sure if government asked its partner, the charity sector, many questions at all in creating this proposal. If it had, it might have acknowledged that the charity Citizens UK recently launched a Commission into Islam, Participation and Public Life, chaired by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC, to tackle extremism at its root community cause. These commissioners will grapple for an understanding of why there is a void of participation in public life within black and minority ethnic, and in this instance Islamic, communities. Attempting to fully analyse an issue before developing a strategy is the perennial first step in any campaign by our less affluent partner, the charity sector.
The commission will begin at this analysis stage, then move to producing its findings, and it will then conclude with various recommendations for civil society, business and government. Legislating appropriately in light of these findings might have saved universities from the need to discuss spying on students that do not fit conventional norms. It might have kept the international debate about terrorism out of our doctor’s surgeries. It may even have spurred those that detest our recent foreign policy record out into democratic debate and conversation, rather than the distressing alternatives.
This all followed the conceptual uncertainty of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, which restricted charities’ uncosted spending during the election season, creating a duty to inform the Electoral Commission of any spending over a certain amount where they show an alignment with party policy.
Though many viewed this as a cynical attempt to “gag” charities that campaigned on themes convergent with Labour’s manifesto from being able to publicly voice that agreement, in de facto terms supporting the party, the government’s stated aim was to create accountability over the funding of political parties, so that votes could not be bought. Suspending my disbelief and scepticism of the government’s actions, the process by which the bill was swept through parliament exemplifies the fact that government simply does not heed its partner’s warnings.
When this law was in bill form, a sizeable coalition of charities grouped together in opposition, foregrounding their concerns that it would encumber their charitable purposes, yet government did not back down. The eventual Act created a climate of paranoia where Students’ Unions did not know the extent of their latitude to register students to vote. A climate where community charities in constituencies with polarised Labour/Tory contests had to go out of their way to find irrelevant Liberal Democrat and minor party candidates to fill seats on stages (with the concomitant need to hire larger stages). This Act was administratively burdensome for small charities, which found themselves outside of the democratic conversation at an incredibly important time.
In every change, there is an instinctive defensive response by those that favour, or are comfortable with, the status quo. In organisations, supposedly change-ready people take issue with features of proposals so that they can suspend change, but I do not believe that the voice of both partners was heard in this conversation. Where such reasonable objections are brought, there is a major risk of getting policy wrong.
The cost of government not consulting charities that are truly experts in their fields is greater than a mere monetary figure, though there is a raw financial cost. Where the dominant hand acts without regard to the abilities of the weaker, it takes on a burden that it need not carry alone. Nation-building is not an exercise for one party. We need to communicate to establish the best means of resolving contemporary issues, and I would like to see charities more often consulted, and at an earlier stage, in the creation of substantial government projects. More widespread consultation with membership organisations such as Citizens UK and the National Union of Students would alleviate the exorbitant amounts that government might be tempted to pay in order to expedite its well-intentioned work, whilst producing policy that, on the whole, shows a better understanding of those it will practically affect. Civil society gives tremendous value comparative to its contribution, and its partner should listen up.