After an altercation with his mum, my nephew Freddie sobbed “I can’t leave home because I haven’t got a house, and I can’t buy one because I haven’t got a credit rating”. He then asked my father if he had sorted out his PPI. He’s nine years old. A week later he was discussing Syria with my mother-in-law: how it began, where it all went wrong and what should happen now. All right, his solution that we should “nuke them” until they “learn how to be nicer to each other” was a bit extreme. But after some discussion he conceded that his brother Charlie, who advocated a more peaceful solution, had a point. A few days after that, in a discussion about the EU with my 73-year-old father, who has yet to decide his position, he recommended an in vote and gave a very articulate explanation as to why. He’s nine, let me remind you.
Why am I sharing this story (apart from my nepotistic desire to boast about my amazing nephew)? It’s because I noticed that Freddie clearly had views, but was open to listening to others and changing his mind. By the time we get to adulthood most of us have pretty much made up our minds about stuff, so genuine debate, where views are articulated and listened to and new views formed, is much rarer.
So it is in our sector’s relationship with government. The government has been systematically withdrawing from the position of “expert” in many social matters. Reduced provision, cuts to staffing, the disappearance of whole layers of local and central government, outsourcing and/or privatisation of public services such as social care, healthcare, prisons – with the transference of responsibility to either the private or voluntary sector – mean there is a growing knowledge gap between those who make the policy decisions and those who deliver services. This often leads to a stand-off between those who don’t know but think they do and those who actually do know.
Clever private sector companies know how to play the game. They don’t challenge the government’s agenda and they sell solutions that match it – probably through quiet, unseen lobbying in dark corridors, playing to ministerial egos by telling them they’re right and that the solution they are selling is the one that will serve them (both) best.
What charities are doing is the exact opposite. We’re telling the people in power, often publicly, that they’re wrong, that they don’t know the reality of the problem, that their solutions won’t work – in fact, we’re telling them that the entire premise on which they are building their solutions is flawed.
With limited internal expertise for government to turn to and rely on, which of the two sectors are they most likely to listen to? No surprise that it’s not us. But we have to speak truth to power – if we don’t, who will? But they’re not listening. Indeed, with the gagging clause and the lobbying act they’re metaphorically sticking their fingers in their ears. So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know.
I think I might start a new movement – #askFreddie. But I suspect his response would be “nuke ’em”.
This article was first published in Third Sector Magazine April edition.