Sock puppets? What utter nonsense!

In a new report the IEA (Institute for Economic Affairs) has suggested government should stop funding charities to support advocacy work – effectively paying for themselves to be lobbied. I admit that this is a good line that seems to fall somewhere between George Orwell and Edward Lear. But this soundbite is misguided and highlights the ideologically driven approach of the IEA who would rather put their faith in free market economics that have proven such a success over past few years (ahem).

Let’s look first at some of the ‘research findings’ from Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why:

In the last 15 years, state funding of charities in Britain has increased significantly” – a partial truth as public spending cuts are having a huge impact on the sector right now. The last couple of years have massively eroded the increase over the previous decade. The comment is also ill informed as the increase has overwhelmingly been in the form of contracts – that is being paid to deliver a particular service or goods. Grant funding – and in particular ‘unrestricted funding’ that the IEA are particularly averse to – is in decline.

“State funding weakens the independence of charities, making them less inclined to criticise government policy”. State funding can indeed weaken the independence of charities. This is a theme that the National Coalition of Independent Action has picked up in earnest and there is some evidence to support this. However there are also examples of charities that have received public funding but still maintained their independence – I’d like to think Urban Forum has done so! – so we need to understand the reasons for this. My own view is that delivering contracts – as opposed to receiving grants – is more likely to lead to this sort of problem. In fact, if grants were unrestricted – which the IEA argues against – they might give charities more freedom to say what they really think, instead of gagging them over any problems they may encounter in delivering services.

The IEA criticise government funded charities which “…usually campaign for causes which do not enjoy widespread support amongst the general public”. If it wasn’t for the fact that some people will take this point seriously I would be inclined to laugh. This is utterly ludicrous. Of course they don’t enjoy popular support…that’s why advocacy charities are needed in the first place. If Gypsies and Travellers, for example, were less discriminated against, we wouldn’t need charities that sought to address this in public policy, would we? If everyone loved asylum seekers, no one would need to ensure they were being treated with respect and fairness. Just because something is unpopular doesn’t make it wrong to fund it. Take homeless provision for example; most people would agree that it is important that we have provision to provide a roof over the heads of those who are homeless. But far fewer people would be supportive of a homeless hostel next to their house. So we know some public policy decisions are going to be unpopular – even if, in more general terms, the need was recognised. Does the IEA really think popularity is a determining factor in whether a charity ought to be funded? If that were the case we’d have x-factor funding…and the mind boggles at the implications of that sort of approach.

I did manage to find one comment that I can (sort of) agree with – “It is vital that more transparency is introduced so the public know exactly what the government is funding”. The need for transparency applies equally to government and to the charitable sector, but the purpose of transparency is to support accountability. We have seen too much emphasis on making things transparent with far less concern consideration of how this contributes to greater accountability of the state to the public – or in the case of charities, to their beneficiaries.

The IEA seem to be suggesting that we leave the vulnerable, the marginalised and those who lack a voice to fend for themselves. If the public aren’t interested in supporting ex-offenders, or Gypsies, or asylum seekers or homeless people or the victims of domestic violence – all groups that traditionally struggle to secure funding – then let them suffer. It’s tough but the market has spoken.

And if big business is able and willing to employ lobbyists to represent their interests – as the Leveson Inquiry has helped to show is exactly what happens – then that is their prerogative. 

IEA criticise charities for “…typically lobby(ing) for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws”. Or, you could say, for advocating in the interests of their beneficiaries…quite obviously unlike big businesses’ lobbying efforts. Can it actually be called lobbying if it isn’t reflecting the lobbyist’s interests? Or is it simply that the IEA are ideologically opposed to state intervention, taxes and regulation? That sounds remarkably politically motivated and not quite the ‘independent research institute’ the IEA’s website claims to be.  Who are they advocating for?

I thought I might take a look at where the IEA’s funding came from – not government clearly – but I wasn’t able to find a copy of their annual accounts on their website…which is obviously perfectly legal, but hardly the benchmark for transparency. I did find them on the Charity Commission website however, and they showed they received income from foundations, corporations and individuals of £634,000 in 2010. I couldn’t however find out precisely who this money came from – which trusts and foundations, which individuals or companies were giving them money. Are they receiving funds from companies whose interests are threatened by charities lobbying for better regulation or the protection of exploited groups? I don’t know…..as I couldn’t find out. Perhaps this information is there and I just didn’t look in the right place or look hard enough.

But, being transparent does not mean hiding pertinent information away where no one can find it.

In the interests of being perfectly clear about my own position: I run a charity that has traditionally received government funding – often for doing the sort of advocacy work which the IEA so detests. However that has changed and we now receive no direct funding from central government – for advocacy or for service delivery – though we are sub-contracted to a small amount of work organising events and producing information on community rights. My views are unaffected by whether we are funded by government or not and my responsibility to advocate for the charities beneficiaries are what guides my work. But, in case anyone mistakenly assumes otherwise, I am not holding myself up as a beacon of good practice….just expressing an opinion.

There is much more we could and should do to; improve government funding of civil society, to ensure that government and charities are fully transparent and accountable and that we create conditions for a diverse and independent civil society to flourish. But with this report, the IEA have contributed nothing to that process of improvement.

 

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10 thoughts on “Sock puppets? What utter nonsense!

  1. i was usefully signposted to this article by George Monbiot – http://www.monbiot.com/2011/09/12/think-of-a-tank/ (thanks @NJ_Davies!) – which highlights that the Institute for Economic Affairs doesn’t actually want you to know where its money comes from. One might argue that public money is different to private donations…but as IEA is a registered charity, this means that donors are benefiting from tax breaks on their donations. So there is surely a public interest issue here.

  2. @polleeetickle – thanks for your comment. i think you’ve missed the point here…i’ve simply responded to what the IEA said about state funding of charities – that it has gone up for 15 years…which is true, but not the whole truth.levels of funding today are higher than they were 15 years ago…but they are lower than they were 2 years ago.and, there has been a major shift within those figures away from grants – which IEA say they dont like – to contracts. that is delivering services in return for money. you can argue the amounts involved are too high or too low….but that’s not what they are talking about and not what i responded to.:)

  3. "Does the IEA really think popularity is a determining factor in whether a charity ought to be funded?"Popularity is certainly how the public’s taxes are meant to be spent…we call it democracy. If you want to make the case that the public are too bigoted or stupid to decide what they think is a good cause to support (ie through donation) and so you need a wiser, more enlightened state who are somehow ethically superior to force them to contribute through taxes, then good luck to you…

  4. @mark – i think you make a good point. We do need to ensure that taxes are spent in ways that meet the needs and aspirations of the public. if only we were anywhere near that. Would you agree that we currently have far too little transparency or accountability of how public money is spent? I do not consider publishing thousands of lines of spending data to improve transparency or accountability!However there are some minority or unpopular groups who, by the very nature of their size, are always going to be left out if we always go with a majority. is that right? If a majority of people say we want to scrap all funding for women’s refuges, Gypsy caravan sites and youth projects (where all the beneficiaries of these services are small groups), is that okay? Or would you accept JS Mills’ notion of the ‘tyranny of the majority’?Mind you…i think we should aspire to all being wiser, particularly in the Internet age, as after all we get the politicians (and the state) we deserve. dont we?

  5. "public spending cuts are having a huge impact on the sector right now"Talk about partial truths. The cuts do not reverse the 15 year trend; they merely take the sting out of it."there are also examples of charities that have received public funding but still maintained their independence"You fail to address the possibility that advocacy groups are frequently paid for the very purpose of pushing the government further – see p27"Just because something is unpopular doesn’t make it wrong to fund it"Here you are being deliberately disingenuous. The IEA is not saying that unpopular causes should not be funded; it is saying that the government should not fund otherwise-unsustainable advocacy groups to create the illusion of a popular movement. If politicians want to fund an unpopular cause, they should do so publicly and make the case politically, rather than working Rthrough shadow groups.So no, the IEA is NOT "suggesting that we leave the vulnerable, the marginalised and those who lack a voice to fend for themselves." That’s just a wilful mid-reading of the report with the aim of misrepresenting it and malinforming your readers."IEA criticise charities for “…typically lobby(ing) for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws”. Or, you could say, for advocating in the interests of their beneficiaries…quite obviously"Indeed. But as the report makes clear, the beneficiaries are the politicians and bureaucrats who control this public money. They are paying lobbyists to convince us to allow them to take more of our money and take more control over our life’s. And in the process they are undermining civil society, as demonstrated by the number of so-called civil society spokespeople who would rather take the king’s shilling than stand up for a truly "Independent", "Voluntary" sector. It’s sad, really.

  6. Tom, i’d like to pick up some of the points you’ve raised:"The cuts do not reverse the 15 year trend; they merely take the sting out of it."Of course we’ve only had 2 years of cuts, but i think it’s a matter of some debate whether we they mark a direction of travel or we will return to the levels we saw a few years ago. But the overall numbers mask an equally significant shift – from grants to contracts. they are not the same thing and when talking about trends in charity sector funding we should be careful to avoid lumping them together. "You fail to address the possibility that advocacy groups are frequently paid for the very purpose of pushing the government furthe – see p27"yes….page 27 is a case study about ASH being funded by the Department of Health. Ummmm, is that the research basis for your assertion that advocacy groups are frequently paid to push government further? one dubious example of funding for a public health advocacy charity."The IEA is not saying that unpopular causes should not be funded; it is saying that the government should not fund otherwise-unsustainable advocacy groups to create the illusion of a popular movement. If politicians want to fund an unpopular cause, they should do so publicly and make the case politically, rather than working through shadow groups."I dont think anyone would argue that Gypsy and Traveller groups or refugee groups or ex-offender groups were popular movements. but there are very few self financing advocacy organisations among these groups. Should we worry about them disappearing then? I dont see how you could have politicians being the sole advocates for these groups. i believe is self help. i would have thought you and the IEA might too. I wouldnt want a politician being my only means of voice."the politicians and bureaucrats … are paying lobbyists to convince us to allow them to take more of our money and take more control over our life’s."frankly if you think that the voluntary and community sector is being paid simply to call for government to raise taxes and exert control over citizens you’re just paranoid. That is simply ridiculous. If by taking control over our lives you mean , for example, regulating out of control bankers who have reaped havoc on our public finances and our economy, then i am all for that sort of control. Adam Smith was a strong advocate for regulation of banks, something the free market economists conveniently like to forget.I am not defending everything the voluntary sector does. Some things i think are shoddy and i am prepared to say so. but to offer up this opinionated, unsubstantiated rubbish as ‘research’ is frankly ludicrous.

  7. Sorry this comment is slightly out of date to when you initially had this discussion, I was just interested to know if you think in the context of the language of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ whether charities are as able to effectively challenge legislation which either fails to redress inequality or which causes further discrimination and oppression.I of course see the faults with the sock puppets report, but find issue with DC’s Big Society idea and the implications it could present to lobbying

  8. @A.Mose – it’s a good question and i’m not sure, is the answer. i guess you could argue that things like the Right to Challenge offer opportunities around services, but i’m not sure that extends to legislation. Or perhaps e-petitions – with any getting 10,000 signatures being considered and debated by parliament – might be.but, in an indirect-representative democratic system it’s unlikely that there’s going a vast amount of direct influence people can have over legislation. The Equalities Act ought to make it illegal for discrimination against particular groups, but we’ve seen this doesnt always prevent particular decisions adversely impacting on specific groups.

  9. Pingback: Big Society Network affair continues to shine a light on murky workings of government | tobyblume

  10. Pingback: The edvocates for austerity now have charities in their sights | tobyblume

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