When a NGO admits it’s wrong. WWF and it’s (non) involvement in the Save Our Forests campaign

It’s not often you see a big NGO come out in public and admit that they got something wrong.

So it’s great to see WWF put out a statement today effectively apologising for its lack of public action and clarifying its stance on UK forest sell-off in response to some harsh criticism it’s received in the press this week.

It’s a spat that started in the Guardian on Monday when environmentalist Jonathan Porritt accused major charities, including WWF, RSPB and the National Trust of “collectively betrayed” for their failure to support the grassroots campaign that has grown in the recent weeks to halt the sale of English forests, while Polly Toynbee put the boot in on Tuesday accusing green groups of keeping their heads down over selling off forests’.

Today, WWF have responded with an excellent statement on their website confessing that they should have done more from the start. 

Porrit stated “There have been no statements, no mobilisation of its massive membership, no recognition that this is an absolutely critical issue for the future wellbeing of conservation in the UK. Nothing”.

Suggesting that the lack of action had “made themselves look foolish and irrelevant as one of the largest grassroots protests this country has seen for a long time grows and grows without them – indeed, despite them.”

There is no doubt that the campaign mounted by 38 degrees and others has gathered a huge amount of momentum in a short time, it’s petition has just gone over the half a million mark.

Perhaps most interestingly, it feels like it’s not only the ‘usual suspects’ who are signing on. A non-campaigning friend of mine posted the link to the petition on Facebook tonight encouraging people to sign, and the Observer reported of the opposition of many land owners last weekend. 

So I’m impressed to see the response from WWF today, who write of the statement that ‘It’s fair to say this is a bit overdue as loads of you have asked us what we’re doing about the proposed government sell-off (or long-term leasing) of UK forests’

Going on to explain ‘Not having much of a history working on UK forests, we did most of our work behind the scenes and focused our public firepower on issues like illegal logging via our ‘What Wood You Choose?’ campaign. We are working with peers getting an amendment tabled in the House of Lords and had questions asked in parliament, but to be honest we did precious little in public (emphasis mine)

In time it might be right to ask if criticising environmental NGOs in such a public way was the right approach by Porritt? As an unnamed source in the original article says ‘Rule one of clever campaigning is that you don’t criticise members of your team, at least not in public’ and WWF say they’ve been working on this behind the scenes.

But for me this spat has once again highlights some of the challenges that the more ‘traditional’ NGOs need to address in their campaigning.

1. Agility
Movements like 38 degrees are so well placed, because they can respond within hours not days. They lack the restrictions of charitable status and often no desire for a seat at the table in ongoing consultation. Combine this with a phenomenal e-mail network mean that they can be ‘first to market’. The challenge that many ‘traditional’ NGOs face is that they’re not set up to turn around a response in the time that online campaigns like 38 degrees.

No doubt heated discussions have been happening at all the NGOs that Porritt choose to criticise (as you can see implied by the response from WWF), but the very nature of these organisations mean that multiple departments need to be involved and opportunities and risks needs to be carefully calculated, but that whole process takes time, and internal compromises often have to be negotiated. In this digital age waiting even 24 hours to respond or act can be too long.

2 – Collaboration
Within a day or so 38 degrees had already collected the first 50,000+ names on its petition, and then you have to ask how much value there is in starting a second competing petition. This for me is the second challenge are traditional NGO prepared to ‘brand’ and ‘profile’ aside and collaborate for the common good when situations like this arise?

Would the NGOs named be prepared to promote the 38 degrees petition assuming they agreed with the essence of what it was calling for?

On this regard I’ve got a huge amount of respect for WWF for saying in their statement ‘To their great credit, 38 Degrees organised a massive public response (sign here if you haven’t already)’ but no doubt that line will cause some anxiety in the organisation as supporters are encouraged to share their valuable data with others. 

Collaboration is essential, and to do it well campaigners need to recognise the different roles and approaches needed for effective campaigns.

Save our Forests is no different, surely it’d be of huge value to have organisations with both years of experience in nature conservation joining the campaign and impressive contacts within Parliament to be involved.  But to do that requires someone to initiate the collaboration, and in situations like this perhaps it’s not clear who that should be.

3. Accountability 
Perhaps it wasn’t Porritt’s criticism and the Guardian articles that lead WWF to clarify their position. The statement from WWF certainly indicates that they’ve also been hearing complaints from supporters saying ‘The scale of passion around this issue has led to a lot of emails as to WWF’s role’.

This case seems to be another example of the increasingly complex relationship that organisations have with their supporters. The tools of collaboration and campaigning aren’t just in the hands of a few professionalised campaigners, they’re available to supporters to lobby the organisations they belong to. It also shows that many campaigners are active in more than one campaigning network.

So congratulation on an excellent response from WWF, a response that already seems to be yielding appreciation from supporters with one writing;

Thank you. As a WWF member and supporter of the Save Our Forests campaign, I’m very glad you’ve joined the campaign. The statement above is everything we could have hoped for.

Now I’m left wondering if we’ll see the National Trust and RSPB come out with a statement in recent days.

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Are top ministers avoiding meetings with NGOs?

Tom Watson has shared a treasure trove of information about who’s getting meetings with the new government on his blog

Publishing documents previously available only to those with access to the House of Commons library. It shows who advice is being sought and who’s being locked out.

The first few months of a governments matter, because they set the tone, it’s a time when departments are being bombarded with requests for meetings, so only those whose views are really wanted are invited in.

The information from the three of the ministries of state (No 10, Foreign Office and Home Office) makes for unhappy reading for civil society groups, despite the focus on the ‘Big Society’ their hasn’t been a lot of space created for meetings with representatives from CSOs.

The PM has held just one meeting with civil society, a roundtable with 16 organisations to discuss the ‘Big Society’. The only other non-business or media interest was a meeting with the TUC in July and Bob Geldof to discuss ‘development issues’ in June (presumably ahead of the G8) although many NGOs will remember with horror the way the Geldof threw away the script and fell out with many involved in the Make Poverty History after the G8 summit in 2005.

Compare that to meetings with Rupert Murdoch, Phizer, Facebook and Wikimedia, amongst others that the PM has had and it shows more of an enthusiasm to meet with foreign companies and representatives of News International.

Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, seems to have done a little better, attending the same meeting with Cameron to discuss ‘The Big Society’, and also receiving petitions from ‘Take Back Parliament’ and the Maternal Mortality Campaign, along with holding meeting with The Elders, Gates Foundation and the British Overseas Aid Group (a group of the biggest 5 development NGOs).

The same patterns seems to be repeating itself across at the FCO, William Hague hasn’t found time to meet with any campaigning organisations, although he made space for BAE Systems, delegating to junior minister meetings on a whole range of issues including elections in Burma, human rights and Zimbabwe.

The Home Office appear to have done better, with Home Secretary Thresea May holding ‘Introductions’ with Stonewall, Hillsborough Family Support Group, Migration Watch UK and a large group of equalities organisations. Other minister in the department also appear to have been busy meeting with a whole range of campaigning groups, like Refugee Watch, NSPCC and Women’s Aid.

As an aside my favourite entry from the Home Office is a meeting in July that Human Rights Watch held with Baroness Neville-Jones, the purpose of the meeting ‘Discuss report no questions asked’. It raises interesting questions about how the meeting was conducted, and if a cup of coffee was offered to those attending!

Meetings held by other departments are, as yet unavailable, although Tom Watson has promised to publish them if they are. It’ll be interesting to see if the pattern of senior ministers not meeting with CSOs has been happening at other departments, and if this trend continues in the coming months.

Lists of people who matter

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of lists. Although I’m not a natural Daily Telegraph reader, their annual profiles of the top 100 most influential people in each of the political parties is an invaluable resource when it comes to planning routes to influence.

100 Most influential Left-wingers – 1 to 25, 26 to 50, 51 to 75 and 76 to 100

100 Most influential Right-wingers – 1 to 25, 26 to 5051 to 75 and 76 to 100

Top 50 Lib Dems – 1 to 25 and 26 to 50

Other lists produced in time for Conference season include;
Left Foot Forward – most influential left-wing thinkers
New Statesman – 50 people who matter

Has anyone else found any useful lists?

Twitter – here to stay

So, after a very long summer break I’m back…one of my first blogs back in February was about twitter I asked if it was going to catch on.

I was cautiously optimistic, I wanted it to work, but was wary that it could go the way of other social media phenomena. Well what a 6 months Twitter has had. The numbers of people using it are still growing, and it’s not hyperbole to say that it’s changed the face of campaigning.

Changing Policy – Lots has been written about the role of twitter in mobilising people, but last week was perhaps a high-water mark for twitter.

On Monday, we had the Trafigura story exploding on twitter, within hours of the Guardian publishing a cryptic article on its website about an injunction we saw people starting to tweet what the parliamentary question was.  Before long the story was leading on the mainstream news, and a scandal that was only going to get noticed by a few who had been following the  story was everywhere, a very public PR disaster! Liam from louder.org.uk has a good post on this.

Then on Friday, we saw twitter mobilise a record 22,000 people to complain to the Press Complaints Commission about an article in the Daily Mail on the death of Stephen Gatley.

Before that we had the organisation BeThatChange organising a day of action which saw thousands of people trying to get Gordon Brown to go to COP, the response was that Ed Miliband put up a poll on his Ed’s Pledge website asking people to vote for their political priority ahead of Copenhagen.  A few days later, and Gordon Brown announced he was going to COP.

No doubt there are many other examples that one could point to over the last few months, ILovetheNHS for example. Two thoughts about what these examples have in common, an immediacy within moments someone has picked up on the story, and in hours they’ve reached a tipping point that forces the target to respond. Secondly, few of these campaigns have been initiated by organisations but instead twitter has put the ability to mobilise in the hands of people with lots of followers on twitter.  Some more agile movements may have been able to pick up on them (for example 38degrees around Trafigura), but twitter is helping to put mobilising power to those with virtual networks.

Engaging with policy makers – Today, two people I know got responses from @EdMilibandMP to their questions/comment and I’ve seen an interesting discussion with @SadiqKhan about an announcement he was making on parking. So what? Well unlike most communications with ministers/MPs, the chances are those policy makers have actually responded themselves, Twitter has cut out the comms department, the secretary and allowed people to share what they’re thinking directly with those holding the red box. No doubt this phenomena will come to an end when the number of followers becomes overwhelming, but for the time its a great opportunity to take advantage of.

Two others useful things;
– Back in the summer the people who matter in Whitehall issued these guidelines about how government department should be using twitter, while they were ridiculed for being too long, they’re the best set of guidelines I’ve found if you need to persuade senior management in your organisation to understand and use twitter.
– I’ve been experimenting with act.ly as a way of getting supporters to use twitter to show their support for a campaign, initial experience is good.

Ministerial Correspondence

It has long been believed that getting an MP to write to minister is a more effective than sending postcards directly to a government department. Why? Because protocol dictates that a letter from an MPs requires a ministerial response, but how many items of correspondence are government departments getting?

This ministerial statement from last month gives details of the number of ministerial correspondence (letters from MPs and Lords) each department receives in 2008.  The top 10 departments and agencies are;

1. UK Border Agency – 51,905
2. Department of Health – 20,242
3. Department for Children, Schools and Families – 15,810
4. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – 14526
5. HM Treasury – 14,057
6. Foreign and Commonwealth Office – 10,334
7. Department for Communities and Local Government – 10,227
8. Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – 9,875
9. Department for Transport – 8,393
10. Child Support Agency – 7,313

A couple of others to note included DECC which received over 2,500 letters in the few months after it was created, and DFID which recieved 3,100.

Many of the letters recieved by agencies (like the UK Border Agency where a large number of the enquiries will be individual imigration and asylum requests) from MPs won’t ever be seen by a minister so will have little or no political impact.

Taking out agencies the average government department receives just under 7,000 letters per year. When you divide that between 4 ministers (an average number of ministers per department based on a quick look at this Cabinet Office list) it means that each minister is dealing with about 34 letters each week but many will be signing many more.

This is a useful briefing for civil servants about how to draft responses to ministerial correspondence.

The life of a junior minister

I’ve be reading the very enjoyable diaries of Chris Mullin MP over the Easter weekend, entitled ‘A View from the Foothills‘ they’re a great look at life somewhere down the ministerial pecking order.

Mullin was a junior minister at the Department for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), DFiD and the Foreign Office. It’d be fair to say that Mullin isn’t a great advocate of the lower rungs of ministerial responsibility, but reading the book provides some useful insights into what the work of junior minister is like. Something of tremendous use given that much of the engagement campaigners and lobbyist often have is with junior ministers.

A few key lessons stand out;

1. Junior ministers aren’t often particularly interested in the brief they have. Mullin, who before becoming a minister was a influential chair of the Home Affairs Select committee, implies he knew next to nothing about the environment when he started in that job, and kept up simply from reading the briefs provided to him.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when they’re not especially interested, Mullin seems to infer at times that the best issues to deal with are the ones that are trouble free, uncontroversial and mean that they won’t cause any embarrassment. Some lobby for the post they really want but most don’t get it.

2. Ministers sign lots of letters. Mullin talks about spending hours at the office often late at night signing letters from MPs. Few get mentioned, although he does despair when thanks to a Friends of the Earth campaign he has to sign over 500 letter. A good way to make a point, but perhaps a quick way to loose good will?

3. They spend lots of time giving speeches – part of the life of a junior minister is to go out and about around the country and give speeches to organisations which have some link. Mullin suggests most aren’t very well written and he was often embarrassed to deliver them. So the next time you hold an event and the minister doesn’t give the barnstorming speech you expect after watching too much West Wing, it probably isn’t their fault.

4. They don’t have huge amounts of access to the Secretary of State or the PM. This obviously depends on the department they’re posted to (so access seems to be better at the Foreign Office under Jack Straw than at DETR under John Prescott) but most seem only to have access to the Secretary of State at weekly departmental meeting and occasional rushed conversations here and there. Generally Mullin doesn’t give the impression that they get to  set a departments agenda, this comes from the Secretary of State (or often even higher up government).

5. They are advised to pick a few issues to change policy on – Mullin while at the environment and region chose try to deal with leylandii hedges, rent paid to absent landlords and getting away without a ministerial car. All valuable but hardly groundbreaking, and even then it was hard work navigating between special interests, civil servants and government priorities to make progress.

6. So much of politics is informal – from the diaries you get the impression that many decisions are made through quiet conversations in tea rooms, chats in the lobby, a call to a friend who is a friend with another minister or a written note slipped into a box.

7. MPs spend lots of time on the train! Mullin is often talking about catching the 20.00 back to Sunderland and bumping into this or that MP.  I think my next campaign strategy is going to map the MPs my target might catch the train home with!

The death of the local paper

Should campaigners be concerned at the rapid death of local newspapers?

As the Guardian reported on Monday many titles are looking to make significant cuts as sales of their publications fall and advertising starts to dry up. While most of the big regional titles don’t appear to be at risk of closing in the near future, they’re facing a bleak future.

Living in London its easy to overlook the importance and reach of many of the regional papers,  some like the Yorkshire Post, Eastern Daily Mail, Manchester Evening News and the Kent Messenger have impressive circulation figures. While weekly titles and the free papers that are delivered through letter boxes are read by millions more. While campaigns are often disappointed when they register little or no national media coverage, acres of local and regional coverage could reach as many people.

Local papers are also trusted source of news and information. I’ve heard of surveys that indicate that the letters page of a local paper is the most trusted section of any paper, because they are seen to speak for a community in the way other news sources can’t.  Moreover for many MPs local papers provide an important way of communicating with constituents, as well as acting as a barometer for local opinion. MPs might not have time to read all the national papers, but you can be sure that their likely to at least browse the pages of their local paper, which means they’re vital places to be trying to place our campaign messages.

So we should be concerned about the potential death of local newspapers. In the short-term, a reduction in the number of journalists might even be good news for campaigns, as those who remain will increasingly be looking for the easy win that lightly rewriting a campaign press release provides.

Over time some will evolve looking to place more of the emphasis on digital media, but the decline of the local paper from our newsagents shelves means the death of powerful tool in our campaigning toolkit.

UPDATED – This article from Labour List argues losinig local papers means a loss of local democracy