A snapshot of campaigning

Posted on September 24, 2011

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Campaigner-blogger Tom Baker has compiled an invaluable snapshot of civil society-government engagement in Britain between 2010 and 20011. In particular it provides interesting insights into who has been able to mobilize mass action by members, on what campaign and aimed at which department between 2010 and 2011.

In a field that is generally under-researched nobody else – as far as I am aware – has compiled this type of data, usingthe Freedom of Information Act to capture ‘campaign actions’ aimed at British government departments. Campaign Actions are defined as the total number of submissions (letters, postcards and emails) within a co-ordinated campaign and are broken down by topic and organization. What I like about this research is that it captures a snapshot at a particular moment in time of what issues mobilized the most people to lobby government. The data does include some interesting surprises. I expected sustainable development to be one of the top issues because of the size of the membership of the environmental NGOs. But I was surprised by how effective the RSPB was in mobilizing members to campaign against cuts to rural/conservation budgets in the run-up to the comprehensive spending review. I was also surprised by how active and prominent international development NGOs were on mobilizing members to campaign against poverty – water and other forms.

However, as with all data, it does need to be treated with care. In the academic literature there is an unresolved debate on whether business organizations are included or excluded from ‘civil society’. Evidence to MPs on lobbying in 2008/9 highlighted just how clandestine the campaigning by corporates is and the deep-seated suspicion that they have better access and more influence with ministers so better able to mount effective counter-campaigns to those of NGOs.

As far as the NGOs themselves are concerned it only captures one part of their campaigning activities – there are a wide range of other activities that seek to exert pressure on ministers. It is also difficult to assess how effective the NGOs were at mobilizing their own members given vast differences in the size of their memberships. So it may well be that organizations such as Mind and the Bingo Association may have relatively small memberships compared to Greenpeace so for them to make the ‘top 20’ would require a greater proportion of the members to be activated. More research could usefully be done on this with but what it would not capture is which membership profile is more politically significant with the government of the day. So would a Conservative government have been less sympathetic to an anti-foxhunting lobby than the Labour government but this would require a degree of interpretation that would invalidate a quantitative study such as Baker’s. It could, however, support a follow up study.

Baker also admits his research does not capture what the government response was to these actions. This is a much trickier thing to do. Obviously, paid – and in-house – consultants need to demonstrate ‘results’ and the ones that matter are policy change. But any attempt to reach definitive conclusions about the impact on policy is problematic. Not only is there the issue of who might be silently and secretively using their access to ministers to counter-campaign. There are also relatively few situations in which a government would want to admit it changed policy as a result of a campaign – unless of course it could spin it in terms of ‘listening, responsive’ government. Also policy change is usually incremental, taking place over a long period of time – often ten years may be needed to capture a full picture of this. While that makes a useful academic study, it may be too long for organizations that need to demonstrate to members that their money is not only going on a good cause but it is having an effect.

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