#SaveOurForest – a campaign reader

Put a note against Thursday 17th February in your diary, as it marks an important moment for campaigning in the UK. The coming of age of 38 degrees.

Today, the online campaigning movement celebrated as it notched up its most high-profile victory yet, the government make a U-turn and abandons its plan to sell of the forests (watch the announcement to Parliament here).

Lots has already been written about the campaign, and I don’t think I can add much at present,  here is a reader of some of the top articles which explore how the campaign unfolded and the impact it’s had.

1. The Guardian explores the important role that social media played in the campaign in Forest sell-off: Social media celebrates victory

2. Johnny Chatterton, from 38 degrees writes for Left Foot Forward about the size of the campaign, with his boss, David Babbs, Executive Director saying  ‘Forest sell-off U-turn is a victory for people power

3. Chris Rose wrote last week about how ‘Clicktivism By-passes Inside Track To Harry Potter Forest‘ and also the roots that this campaign had in previous battles for forests around the country.

4.  Jonathan Porritt criticised the larger environmental NGOs by not supporting the campaign of ‘collective betrayal‘ on his blog, while this blog argued that the campaign had highlighted some of the challenges large NGOs faced in responding to an issue with the agility an organisation like 38 degrees can.

5. The Sunday Telegraph ran many articles, demonstrating the broad support the campaign had ‘Save our forests, say celebrities and leading figure’ something that was clearly important in the victory.

6. But not everyone has been so kind, with Anthony Barnett at Open Democracy, suggesting that 38 degrees shouldn’t take all the credit for the campaign victory, following up on an earlier post challenging them not to compete but campaign with others.

7. But the last word picture should go to cartoonist Steve Bell in today’s Guardian.

What other articles have you read that help to explain the story behind the campaign? Why did this campaign work when so many others haven’t?

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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.

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.

Love and hate – a contrast in approaches to climate campaigns in the UK and US

Justin Roswlatt, BBC’s Newsnights ‘Ethical Man’ had an excellent piece on last nights programme about the new approach that the Obama administration is taking to win over environmental activists.

It’s fascintating to see how the administration is reaching out to these radical students to get them to be ambassadors in their communities. One can only imagine how excited the activists must feel after spending so many years in the wilderness under the Bush presidency.

The slot started with an interview with Ed Miliband, the UK Climate Change minister discussing the way that the police have been violating the rights of UK activists in the last few weeks (although some would argue that it shows that the movement is making an impact because it’s attracting attention).

Miliband once against affirmed the right to protest at being at the heart of our democratic rights and talked about the importance of creating a ‘Make Poverty History’ like movement on the issue. It might be needed but the movement won’t grow if the supporters of organisations like Christian Aid get hastled by the police at campaign events.

MPs and digital media

Using supporters to engage and influence MPs remains the core work of many campaigning organisations, and many organisations have chosen to make this easy for supporters by investing in software such as Advocacy Online, but what do we know about how MPs use technology and respond to eCampaigning. Two reports might help.

How MPs use digital media.
The Hansard Society has recently released ‘MPs Online – Connecting with Constituents‘ which explores how MPs use digital media to communicate with constituents.  The finding are useful for campaigners, as it gives an insight into what MPs are themselves doing, and provides ideas about how organisations can increase their digital engagement with MPs.

The report finds that almost all MPs are using email, most have personal or party run websites but the numbers using other forms of electronic communications is smaller. Social networking, blogs, twitter and texting is used by less that 20% of MPs.  The overall picture seems to be that MPs, much like many campaigning organisations, have started to adopt digital media as a way of communicating out to constituents, but less have been able to make a leap into using using web 2.0 tools which might help to ensure a more meaningful conversations with constituents.

Their are some interesting differences dependent on party membership (Lib Dems are the positive about digital media, Conservative the least) and age (younger MPs are more likely to use it, so as older MPs stand down we’re likely to see a bigger take up of digital media ), but little difference dependent on marginality of seat.  The report suggests that their is potential for greater engagment and closer ties in the future.

MPs also make useful observations saying that email has been great for them to communicate with constituents but the immediancy of the tool means that people often assume that they’ll be able to engage in a ongoing discussion that MPs simply don’t have time for, indicating that their office staff often struggle to cope with the volume of emails recieved (an increase which hasn’t been accompanied by a fall in the number of letters) , and the challenge of  identifying if the correspondent is from their constituency.

Attitudes towards eCampaigning
In 2006, Duane Raymond at Fairsay was comissioned to carry out some reasearch about MPs attitudes to eCampaigning, the whole report can be read here.

Although its a few years old, the findings from the Hansard Society would indicate that many of the key learning probablly still remain true. The main findings of the report is that every MPs is very different in how they respond to and engage with eCampaigning, but that most organisations still offer their campaigners a one-size fits all approach to commnications.

This means they’re not  having the biggest impact they could and the findings encourage organisations to be much more savy at how they segment their communications to MPs, for example by segmenting the message that they ask supporters to send.  Many MPs report that quality is as important than quantity when it comes to messages.

Another finding that stands out is the need to show that MPs that the person contacting them is actually from their consituency. The internet may have in many ways removed geographical barriers, but they are still of considerable importance to MPs.

Some conculsions
For me both reports indicate that it makes sense to have an online campaigning presence, but also reinforces that this shouldn’t simply replace more traditional low tech campaigingng method but should work in tandem.

Organisations should remember that n individually composed letter (or email) is better than an automated one – many organisatiosn know this, but perhaps more needs to be done to encourage people to spend the extra 5 minutes to write it.

Individual constituency level activists will always have a value, the MPs indicate that those people who have the time to write a hand written or visit an MP are ‘worth their weight in gold’. Organisations should do all they can to encourage, support and inspire these people.

How many actions do DFID get each year?

Using the Freedom of Information Act, I’ve found out the following about the number of campaign actions that DFID get each year.

Total number of actions and delivery method
Year    Postcards             E-mails               Letters          Petition signatures    Total
2007    34,215 (38%)    31,514 (35%)    4503 (5%)    19,808 (22%)              90,040
2008    42,796(40%)    41, 683(38%)    4049(4%)    19,612 (18%)                 108,140

Breakdown by Topic (2008)
HIV and AIDS
45,583 (42%)
Debt 22,675 (21%)
Trade 20,811 (19%)
Water 8137 (8%)
Health issues (excluding HIV and AIDS).
2962 (3%)
Rainforests
2152 (2%)
Fulfil G8 promises 993 (1%)
Burma 988 (1%)
Various other development issues, where we received less than 750 items
3839 (3% )

Breakdown by Organisation (2008)
Stop AIDS Campaign
33, 229 (31%)
Jubilee Debt Campaign 20,371 (19%)
Trade Justice Movement 13,809 (13%)
Tearfund 12,171 (11%)
Traidcraft 5321 (5%)
World Development Movement (WDM) 5451 (5%)
Oxfam
2,001 (2%)
ActionAid 2138 (2%)
UNICEF 2678 (2%)
MICAH Challenge 1039 (1%)
World Vision 1097 (1%)
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (Burma)
862 (1%)
Various other  organisations, where we received less than 750 items
7973 (7%)

Undoubtedly their is some double counting in the lists, but it still makes for interesting reading, and shows the relative mobilising strength of a number of the main campaigning organisations in the UK. Christian Aid are perhaps a surprise exception from the list, but looking at their website they focused almost exclusively on Climate Change in 2008.

It shows the fact that some coalitions are better at getting their members to run their actions. For example the 45,000 actions on HIV and AIDS of which about 25% didn’t come from Stop AIDS coalition, against the 22,000 on debt most of which came from the Jubilee Debt Campaign (although its shows the influence the campaign still has that they can mobilise that many supporters to take action).

Finally it raises the question how much did the different organisations make of the opportunities to use their postcards to influence policy. It’s all very well to have lots of postcards but they don’t do much to influence policy if they just end up in the DFID postroom. Looking at the list, I think Stop AIDS Campaign are one of the best examples of how to use their actions to maximum effect, holding a high-profile hand in the autumn with Ivan Lewis MP to hand over 14,000 actions on patent pools, and running a significant campaign earlier in the year around DFIDs new three year strategy on the issue.  Its a good lesson to remember that without an effective strategy to use the actions you’ve generated

I’ve made a number of other requests and I hope to be able to share them with readers of this blog in the coming months, along with further analysis.

Will twitter change campaigning?

It can only be a matter of time before the verb ‘to twet’ ends up in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Last month the BBC reported that the micro-blogging phenomenon had for the first time made it into the top 20 most used social networking sites and that Twitter grew ten fold in 2008.

So should campaigners care? Rachel at The Charity Place has a whole number of excellent posts about Twitter and how to get started, wtwitterhile Econsultancy asks if more charities should be using Twitter.

Enough has already been written about twitter to generate a lifetime of tweets, so I just want to summarise a few ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ for campaigners.

For Twitter
Its free
Its instant – within moments you can be updating your followers about a new action they can take, a campaign victory to report. No longer do you need to build and send an e-mail or wait until the next campaign publications to tell your supporters.
So what if you fail – working with social media means a change in attitudes for many, its forcing organisations to be less risk adverse, perhaps a difficult things for NGOs who are aware that everything is paid for by donations, but isn’t the spirit of social media to try things, knowing that some with fail, but many will succeed.
Politicans are using it The Economist reports on the use of Twitter among US senators , OK so the UK is different but number 10 has been twittering for the last 12 months, and now a number of MPs are.
Its growing and fast– are we witnessing a ‘tipping point’ for twitter?

Against Twitter
Who uses it? Twitter may have experienced phenomenal growth in a short time, but who actually uses it? Labour Home asks a good question. Is Twitter just the domain of a small circle of ‘early adopters’ or is it about to break into the mainstream.
Its more than a just another PR channel – it seems that those who have been most successful with Twitter have embraced the fact its a conversation not another place to post your press release to, but doing this well has time implications.
You need the right technology – unless you have a web enabled mobile its hard to really follow people. But sales of the iPhone and other similar phones would suggest that more and more people are adopting these
Does anyone care Tweetminster is a wonderful idea, but will most MPs respond to a question/comment via Twitter – especially when they’re isn’t any evidence that the followers are from their own constituencies.

Instinctively I’m an ‘early adopter’ so I think Twitter is a great thing. My early adventures (at a UN conference and on a trip to Liberia) have been fun and insightful for thinking about the possibilities of Twitter.

From those experiences I’ve learnt that you need to put some serious time into promoting your feed, and then keeping the messages going to build up a head of steam. Equally you need to invest in putting time into replying to others and building a network on line. Twitter is not going to replace the more traditional methods of communicating with decision makers, but it might be a new one, an opportunity to demonstrate concerns and put issues onto the agenda within moments.