Reflections from campaigning in Brussels

Last week I spent a fantastic three days with campaigners from across Europe in Brussels calling on the MEPs and representatives of Member States to help to unearth the truth. We were calling on them to pass legislation that would require all oil, gas and mining companies registered in Europe to be open about the payments they pay for access to these valuable resources to governments.

The group outside the Danish Embassy to the EU

It was the culmination of months of campaigning across Europe and we had a hugely productive time together, meeting with dozens of MEPs, handing over 10,000 actions to representatives of the Danish Government who currently hold the Presidency of the EU and holding a well-attended briefing in the Parliament.

I came back with lots of great memories and some reflections on campaigning towards the Brussels based institutions;

1 – Time – I was struck how much time many of the MEPs gave to the campaigners they were being lobbied by. Meetings of up to an hour happened on a number of occasions and it struck me that the pace of the debate is perhaps slower and more deliberative, coupled with the fact that MEPs are perhaps not as bombarded casework requests that they have time to invest into the issues that they’re interested in, which is predominately shown through their involvement in the different committees and groups.

I also got the impressions that although the political groupings were important they were far less controlling than in the Westminster system where the ‘whip’ is used to ensure MPs vote the right way and as such a space for discussion and agreements amongst those MEPs with similar political views as opposed to rigid voting blocs.

2 – Complexity – The European institutions are very confusing and eyes will often quickly glaze over when you start to explain the difference between the Council of Ministers and the Commission, but its worth investing the time in understanding how they’re meant to work and also the dynamics of how they actually work. I found reading this guide from BOND hugely useful. There are a huge number of opportunities for campaigners to utilise to push their issues.

3 – Importance – In the UK perhaps we’re guilty of disregard MEPs as having limited influence in comparison to MPs but the reality is that they have a significant amount of influence on certain issues. For example, if our campaigning is successful the legislation that we’re asking for will be implemented in all member states, achieving the same using a country by country would take much longer. On issues where the European Union has exclusive or shared competency we shouldn’t overlook the importance of engaging with Europe.

4- Absence – Many of the MEPs that we meet with remarked how much they valued hearing the views of civil society on this issue we were campaigning on as they’d already been lobbied by business groups. I heard one estimate that Brussels is home to 15,000 – 30,000 lobbyists, most of whom are employed by corporate interests, and that clearly presents a challenge for civil society which is likely to be unable to match that level of personal resource!

However, I didn’t get the sense that most MEPs have come under similar campaigning influence to their counterparts based in national capitals, as I walked around I saw lots of posters publishing the European Citizens Initiative (see my post on it here), which I sense is one way that the Commission hopes to engage citizen and civil society, but I also wonder if as organisation we need to be doing more. Perhaps it’s also time to create a pan-European equivalent of 38 Degrees focusing on activities in Brussels?

5 – Being European – Our campaigning was successful because we were able to build a partnership with colleagues from across Europe at the outset of our campaign, it meant that our supporters were lobbying in Brussels alongside campaigners from Portugal, Germany, France and the Netherlands, plus we were able to handover campaign actions from 22 member states. As UK campaigners I think we need to be doing more to help create these partnerships where they don’t exist.

6 – Using constituents to drive attendance. We were involved in hosting a very successful briefing event in the Parliament on Wednesday, with one civil society representative saying that the 15+ MEPs in attendance was unusual. I think this happened in part by asking our supporters to message their MEPs and invite them to come along to the meeting. It’s a tactic that I’ve seen used before in the UK and one that worked well in Brussels as well.

Have you been involved in campaigning in Brussels? If so, what insight would you share? If you haven’t, what are the barriers that stop you? 

What did we really learn from Make Poverty History?

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation is running it’s annual People Power Conference tomorrow. It looks like a fascinating line up of speakers. Sadly I can’t make it in person although I’ll be doing my best to follow via twitter.

One of the sessions that stands out to me is the panel debate on ‘The Legacy of Make Poverty History‘, it was one of the first campaigns that I worked on professionally, so I’m interested in what the panel have to say about how we can still learn from the campaign.

The Foundation have managed to organise an impressive line-up of speakers who were involved in the original campaign, including;

If I was able to attend here at the questions I’d be asking;

1. If we’d had the research and thinking done by the Common Cause team around the role of frames and values in campaigning available to use back in 2004 what might we have done differently?

2. Have we done enough to capture the learning from the campaign and share it with others across civil society? To my knowledge there has only been one significant academic study of the campaign by Nick Sireau. Do we need to be doing more to encourage academics to study our campaigns to help us increase our understanding of what works?

3. Make Poverty History was one of the first campaigns that effectively utilised email as a tool for action, building an email list of hundreds of thousands of individuals. How much should campaign movements like 38 Degrees and Avaaz thank Make Poverty History for demonstrating the effectiveness of this campaign target? How much impact did the e-mail actions actually have?

4. Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs that the campaign worked because ‘Bob, Bono and the NGO alliance had mounted an effective campaign…by demonstrating the breadth of public support for action on Africa. It was done cleverly, with them always giving enough praise to the leaders to encourage them’. I’d be interested in knowing if the panel agrees with the statement and if we need to do more to praise and encourage our targets?

What are the OccupyLondon protests teaching us?

Now in its fourth week, the OccupyLondon protests outside of St Paul’s Cathedral have been able to keep their cause in the media for such a sustained period of time, something many other campaigns fail to do.

While this was certainly helped by the mess that the Church of England made over it decision to close the Cathedral in the first week of the protest, I’m sure that the name recognition of the protest across the UK will be high.

Combine that with the rise of Occupy movements across the world, I’m in Washington DC this week and passed an OccupyDC in the city today, I think it’s legitimate to say that we’re seeing the birthing of a new campaigning movement, and with its emergence, a challenge to some of the assumptions about campaign structures that have guided more traditional organisations.

1 – Campaigns Needs Leaders

The OccupyLondon protests have spokesman but not leaders; they’ve adopted a non-hierarchical which means that decisions are made by a General Assembly which gathers each and every day to reach agreement by consensus. So far, even the media haven’t been able to bestow the title of ‘leader’ upon an individual associated with the protest.

The approach they’re taking of course isn’t an entirely new one, it’s been used by other campaigning movements, like Climate Camp, in recent years but it brings into focus one of the key questions I think that campaigns are facing at the moment, do campaigns need leaders?

Some would argue that a strong central leader or leaders is essential to a campaign’s success, for example Ann Pettifor who lead the Jubilee Debt Campaign writes in Cutting the Diamond ‘Contrary to the views of many in not-for-profit organisations, I believe that sound leadership is fundamental to successful public advocacy

Going on to contrast the Jubilee 2000 campaign which had a tight hierarchical leadership structure with a single clear message, to that of the climate change movement, which is made up of ‘thousands of small and large well-meaning organisations stumbled leaderless, disunited, and without a clear achievable ‘ask’ into the United Nations Copenhagen process’.

At the moment OccupyLondon are demonstrating that it’s possible to take a different approach and run a high-profile campaign. If this public profile can be sustained without a smaller group of identifiable leaders coming to the public conscience it could be seen as another blow for those who hold the position that campaigns can only succeed with a strong leader (or leaders) at their heart.

2 – Campaigns Need Clear and Concise Asks

One of the things I found striking from the first few days of the protest, was the lack of an apparent clear set of campaign asks coming out from the protesters, indeed a number of media outlets had to resort to pieces speculating on ‘what do the campaigners want’.

After a couple of days this statement was released from the General Assembly, but it still lacks the ‘elevator pitch’ that many campaigns rest upon, but is this needed?

This was a theme that Adrian Lovett, Director of ONE in Europe picked up upon in an excellent debate on The World Tonight last month, when he suggested that ‘the two things that a campaign needs is that its got to describe the destination that it want to get to, the world the campaigns want to create in as vivid as way as possible, but if that’s hard to get to some of the steps along the way’. For me, it doesn’t feel as the OccupyLondon movement has that at present, and I wonder if that’s hindering the movement growing.

I’m struck for example that movements like 38 Degrees don’t appear to have mobilised their supporters behind it, despite many of the aims of the movement being in keeping with its ‘progressive agenda’. Is this because they’re not able to reduce the demands of the movement to a concise and communicable few lines that will translate well into an email?

What do you think? Do you agree that campaigns need leaders? Does OccupyLondon need a clear ask to succeed?

UpdateThird Sector has an article about how charities could learn from the OccupyLondon communication approach.

What we can learn from the Robin Hood Tax campaign

The Robin Hood Tax campaign has used a range of new and innovative tactics that other campaign coalitions could learn from. 

I suspect that you’ll be hearing a lot about the Robin Hood Tax in the coming week. The campaign has a great opportunity to succeed when G20 leaders meeting in France at the start of November, while the ongoing #OccupyLSE protests have increased the level of debate about what’s stopping the UK government implementing the tax.

I’ve highlighted before that the campaign has produced some fantastic campaign videos, but a few other tactics that I’ve seen the campaign use stand out.

Innovation Day – Back in the summer, the organisers behind the campaign opened up the planning process to anyone who wanted to come along and attend its Innovation Day. The day was hosted in London and facilitated by a team involved in the campaign. It’s great to see a campaign ‘open-source’ its planning process in this way, inviting supporters to help to shape the direction and contribute their ideas. The day ended up producing two ‘concepts’ that supporters were invited to provide further feedback on and get involved in. I’m not sure what happened next, but it’d be good to see more invite committed supporters to get involved like this.

Fundraising for adverts – The campaign isn’t the first to invite supporters to make small contributions towards advertising or other campaign activities, but by using it the Robin Hood Tax campaign has highlighted a growing trend by campaigning organisations – asking for small donations for specific items of spending.
You can see the strengths in the idea with PayPal it’s easy for people to donate, and micro donations of £1-£3 don’t feel like an enormous cost to an individual. My only concern with this approach is that is doesn’t help to communicate the less visible costs of a campaign (producing a policy report, paying for staff, etc). We need to ensure that we’re encouraging people to commit to long-term support for campaigning organisations as well.

Gone after the vested interest – Often in campaigning I think we’re guilty of not spending enough time thinking about the forces and organisations who don’t want our campaigns to succeed. We campaign under a belief that if our arguments are ‘right’ then we’ll succeed. The RHT campaign was clearly aware this wouldn’t be the case when it came to heavy resistances from the financial sector, and it’s been good to see how the Robin Hood Tax hasn’t been afraid to highlight the ideological and financial links between the current government and the bankers.

Exemplary use of a expertsBill Nighy has been an inspired choice as a spokesperson for the campaign. He’s been active in the campaign for the last year, appears on TV to talk about why we need a RHT, writes op-ed pieces and turns up at events. Unlike other celebrities he appears committed for the long-haul of the campaign.
It’s also been good to see how the campaign has used Economists, like getting over 1,000 to sign a letter ahead to G20 financial minister and more recently Jeffery Sachs writing to the UK Chancellor, to counter the financial voices that say that a FTT can’t work.

What else has impressed you about the Robin Hood Tax campaign? What hasn’t worked so well? 

Working in coalition – learning from the last 10 years

A new report provide some important lessons about what works when it comes to campaigning in coalition.

Make Poverty History, The Treatment Action Campaign, Jubilee 2000, The Global Campaign for Climate Action (GCCA). All campaign coalitions that have been active in the last 10 years or so, but what lessons can we draw from them for current and future coalition campaigning?

With funding from the Gates Foundation, Brendan Cox has written ‘Campaigning for International Justice – Learning Lessons (1991 – 2001)’ which attempt to do this. It’s a really excellent read and is based on conversations with hundreds of NGO staff, politicians and civil servants to draw out key lessons from coalition campaigning over the last 20 years.

The whole report is packed with useful reflections, some that you’ll agree with, others that you won’t, but as Cox quotes those who want to ‘repeat their successes must first learn from them’ so its worth reading.

For me, the most interesting section is ‘Identifying Themes’ where Cox tries to identify some core elements that have helped campaigns to succeed or fail. Here are the 10 or so that struck me the most.

1. Organisations are increasingly keen to demonstrate clear attribution of their impact, as such they become concerned that working in coalition can make it harder to attribute impact to one’s own organisation. This is pushing organisations to consider focusing on more and more niche areas where they can provide ‘impact’ but this overlooks the fact that the most important issues often need grand coalitions to achieve change.

2. INGOs are actually coalitions in themselves. That many of the largest organisations like Oxfam, Save the Children and Amnesty are made up of multiple national chapters and as such getting them to agree on a priority campaign can take a long time in itself, and as a result those INGOs are able to be as flexible as others would require them to be to help form effective coalitions.

3. Unusual coalitions still get noticed. The report cites the example of the Publish What You Pay (PWYP) campaign that got Shell on board which added more creadibility than the addition of many NGOs would have had. Cox also highlights the role that faith groups can have in helping to mobilise a more ‘mainstream’ public.

4. Coalition structures follow the ‘last worst experience’. Make Poverty History was set up without a high-profile secretariat to avoid the tensions that many had found in the Jubilee 2000 campaign that had one. Cox argues that the desire to avoid tension and compromise brand profile in a coaltition means that we’re forming a series of ‘lowest common denominator’ collaborations which are reducing their impact. We need to rethink our models of coaltition advocacy.

5. Trust matters. Cox points to the examples of the Treatment Action Campaign and PWYP which he describes as having ‘a close-knit group at the centre of thea campaign’ which meant high levels of trust. at the centre of the campaign. He contrasts this with the GCCA which started out with a small group, but over time saw that broken down as more staff came into the campaign and reduced its functionality.

6. The challenge of the ‘moment’. Cox highlights the challenge of a campaign focusing on a moment, a political opportunity where the campaign comes to a head, but argues that while they provide focus they can provide real challenges of keeping a campaigns momentum going beyond this.

7. Incrementalism can be a successful approach. Cox suggests that incrementalism in a campaign, the belief that a campaign should take a step-by-step approach to achieve its aims, is often the most successful approach. Suggesting that the evidence of the Internaitonal Camaign to Ban Landmines which successful focused on a targeted definition of landmines rather than going for a broader definition of cluster munitions, or the Jubilee 2000 campaign which focused on debt cancellation for specific countries rather than heading calls to focus on the cancellation of all debt.

8. The role for radicals. One of the main tensions in a coalition can be between those who want a incrementaal approach as opposed to a more radical approach. In practice this has often meant the formation of two coalitions but Cox suggests that utilising these differences can be helping to ‘shift the centre of gravity within a political space, and make the demands of the centerist group sound more resaonsable’.

9. Using celebrities. Another point of tension in many campaigns. Cox finds that those campaigns that have gone beyond a ‘photo call’ and invited celebrities to be involved in policy advocacy have often found that they’ve brought alot of strength to a campaign. He cites the use of George Clooney in the Save Darfur Coalition who has testified before Congress in the US as well as lend his ‘brand’ to the campaign.

10. Finding a common approach to evaluation. Their are lots of recommendations at the end of the report, but the one that caught my immagination the most, was a proposal to create a commonly reconised body responsible for high-quality evaluations which would help to improve future campaigns as well as providing reassurance to funders and supporters.

So what happens next? All in all a very useful report, but at the end of the report I’m left asking, what happens now? Brendon Cox makes many thoughtful recommendation and highlights some stark truths for the sector but my fear is that now the ink has dried on the report nothing else happens, especially as Cox has recently moved into a new role at Save the Children.