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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 11, Issue 2, February 2009

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Special Section: Reformist Leaders and Civil Society

Increase Engagement with the New Government
Ingrid Srinath

A Confidence Gap Needs To Be Bridged
Francis N. Pangilinan

There Is a Danger That the Government Starts to Think It Owns the Sector
Liz Atkins

Getting Too Close to New Leadership Can Be Blinding
Boris Strečanský

Be Prepared to Get Your Hands Dirty
David Robinson

Bind Reformist Leaders to Campaign Commitments
Arthur Larok

A Reformist Leader Is No Guarantee
Dragan Golubovic


The Legal Framework for Not-for-Profit Organizations in Central and Eastern Europe
Douglas Rutzen, David Moore, and Michael Durham

The Legal and Regulatory Framework for Civic Organizations in Namibia
Benedict C. Iheme

International Grantmaking
Foundation Center in Cooperation with Council on Foundations

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Download this issue (PDF) | Editorial Board

There Is a Danger That the Government Starts to Think It Owns the Sector

Liz Atkins1

What innovations have worked, and what lessons have been learned, for civil society to enhance its engagement with the government when a reformist leader takes office?

Don’t rely on past favors being returned. Remember that you must understand what problems the government faces and help come up with answers. Unless the issue is already on the government’s agenda, it will be difficult (though not impossible) to put it there without firm evidence, realistic, workable solutions, and trust.

Build the capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) to campaign and influence through building their knowledge, skills, campaign planning, and confidence. Ensure that they understand that campaigning is not just a legitimate but a necessary activity to meet the needs of their beneficiaries.

Ensure that government officials and elected representatives are open to influence and prepared to do things differently. Government must be willing to balance representative and participatory democracy – both are necessary – as well as value the contribution of CSOs and be open to facilitating engagement from the bottom up. People must be convinced that through involvement, they can influence things and make a difference to their own or others’ lives.

In 1997, when the Labour Government under Tony Blair was first elected, social media and even email were not widely used, but now, such sites as YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook have of course taken off as campaign tools. They allow grassroots supporters to have a voice. They have enabled millions of people to organize their local communities (at least in the States) – no longer as passive consumers of the Internet or as supporters of a specific campaign with a uniform message but as active participants with their voices heard. This approach could help build long-term support.

In the run-up to the election of a reformist leader, there is often an increase in civic mobilization. What are some innovations and lessons learned about sustaining civic participation over time?

In the years running up to the Labour Party’s election victory in 1997, many civil society organizations, particularly those focusing on poverty, civil liberties, and homelessness, worked with Labour to help develop its policies. That insider influencing was important in at least two respects: it meant the incoming government had policies that appealed to a very wide civil society agenda, and that agenda created a groundswell of support for the incoming government and huge expectations that key policies would be implemented. 

What was important in the run-up to the election and immediately after it was maintaining lines of communication with key players on what should and could be achieved.

Many of the Labour Members of Parliament who were elected and secured ministerial office had close personal and policy links with CSOs, which then helped government implement key policies such as a national minimum wage, equalizing the age of homosexual consent with that of heterosexuals, and child protection legislation. 

What are some of the challenges that civil society organizations face when a reformist leader is elected?

In the case of the 1997 Labour Government, there were many challenges. As mentioned above, many civil society activists did move into Parliament and government as ministers, MPs, and advisers.

This made it especially difficult for CSOs accustomed to developing policies with senior Labour Party figures and getting most of their demands accepted as part of the party’s agenda. Government was a culture shock – in particular, recognizing that government is about deciding priorities and that therefore they might have to settle for less than they demanded in their lobbying; and that government ministers, even if they had worked with them in the past, might make decisions that they fundamentally disagreed with. Learning to compromise and to accept that their advice would not always be taken was difficult.

It was and remains difficult for CSOs to decide how to use their influence – as insiders or outsiders or a mixture of both. CSOs rightly value their independence and the right to work with government on some aspects of policy and work against it on others, using their supporters to publicly criticize the government’s position and its ministers’ records. Government ministers have on occasion found it difficult to accept that independence of action, operating on the assumption that a CSO that supports government on one thing will support it on others.

There is a real danger of mission drift and of incorporation by the state – a CSO being seduced by a sympathetic government into doing things that are not central to its mission or central to the needs of its beneficiaries, by chasing grants or contracts and acting like an arm of the state. There is also a danger that the government starts to think it owns the sector or, worse, that the sector is in fact part of government, rather than having an existence and purpose beyond the needs of government.

What are some lessons learned relating to the management of high (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations that can accompany the election of a reformist government, and how can civil society help hold governments accountable for pre-election promises?

CSOs need to understand the fundamental difference between being lobbyists who further a cause to meet specific needs and being in government. Through their activities, CSOs create a more deliberative as well as a more participative democracy – enabling policy-makers to reach a much wider range of interests than would otherwise be possible, and, through increased participation, better holding government and other public institutions to account. But they can never and should never assume the role of representative democracy. Only elected bodies have the legitimacy to make decisions in the public interest.

Mechanisms for holding governments to account are of course various: outsider approaches, including mass campaigns with high-profile advertising and media and celebrity support; blogging and local campaigns focused on individual MPs; and insider influencing – working with government officials, ministers, and MPs, and using the party’s policy-making processes to set the agenda internally in its various forums and conferences.

The current financial crisis has created challenges for governments, governance, and civil society actors. What advice would you like to convey to civil society actors in light of the financial crisis?

My advice is to ensure that any demand is based on solid evidence of the impact of the financial crisis on CSOs and their beneficiaries and is proportionate – and to use outsider and insider strategies to make a strong case even stronger. Explain and demonstrate the value that CSOs can bring to alleviate the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable – e.g., help with homelessness or provide advice to the most financially excluded. Ensure that the case is well documented and communicated in the media, so that government trusts and supports CSOs to deliver elements of its economic recovery strategy.

Make the most of online opportunities – go directly to people you want to reach; don’t wait for them to come to you. Ensure that you have the skills and resources in your CSO to understand and exploit low-cost social networking tools – and synchronize such networking with your current supporter database.


1 Liz Atkins is the Director of Public Policy for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in London.


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