5 Working with conflict outside your organisation
Our attention now turns to conflict and the relationship of voluntary organisations to other organisations. We will specifically address the issue of campaigning. Campaigning can, and we argue should, involve a high degree of challenge. After all, a campaign exists in order to change a status quo in one way or another – the very purpose of a campaign is to challenge something. In particular, we are going to ask what it means for a voluntary organisation to be in agonistic relations with others: how might we think about campaigning differently in this light?
There has been much controversy within the sector concerning both how organisations relate to government and the role of the sector in providing a critical voice in relation to government policy. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 (and who said government legislation was lacking catchy titles?) has been controversial, with well aired claims that the Act resulted in a muzzling of the sector’s voice in relation to government policy and that the government of the time over-reacted to valid concerns. In turn, the government claimed that it was simply trying to focus charitable organisations on delivering for their particular causes.
Various sector organisations expressed their opposition to the Act and to similar legislation in Scotland. Read the case study below to learn about the sector’s response to the introduction of the Lobbying (Scotland) Act, and ongoing concerns about participation and transparency.
Case study 1 SCVO’s response to the Lobbying (Scotland) Act
The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a membership organisation, providing a voice and services for charities, social enterprises, and voluntary groups across Scotland. In August 2020, SCVO responded to the Scottish Parliament’s scrutiny of The Lobbing (Scotland) Act 2016, reflecting on the five years since the initial consultation on the proposed legislation. This reflection highlights concerns regarding the ability of the sector to engage in policy processes; the ways in which SCVO has ensured these concerns are heard; and the compromises made. It also acts as a reminder that there is a variety of experiences and views within the sector, but a shared and continuing commitment to the principle of participation:
When consultation on the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill was launched in October 2015 SCVO made clear our opposition to the creation of a lobbying register, even going so far as to say that we feared the act may have a ‘chilling effect’ on the lobbying activity of Scotland’s voluntary sector. The Scottish Parliament was founded on the principle of “a participative approach to the development, consideration and scrutiny of policy and legislation” and engagement with our membership at the time suggested that the erection of any barriers could restrict or discourage voluntary sector organisations from participating in policy processes (SPICe, 2015).
However, in recognising that the establishment of a lobbying register was highly likely, SCVO’s submission also stated:
…we would not oppose the introduction of a register of lobbyists provided that it is light touch, does not cause an undue bureaucratic burden for the third sector organisations that complete it and is balanced by an increased responsibility on MSPs to be transparent.
Five years on, SCVO’s position remains much the same. We remain unconvinced there is endemic malpractice in lobbying within Scotland. We remain unclear as to what the Act truly seeks to achieve (and therefore whether the Act has been a success) and also consider that compliance with the register places an additional and potential restrictive burden on the operations of Scotland’s voluntary sector. However, as at SCVO, we have detected a general softening of attitudes within the sector and there appears to be an overall acceptance that the register offers useful insight into lobbying behaviour in Scotland. Our engagement work also suggest that some organisations are more in favour of the register than others and many have indicated that they are happy to continue contributing to lobbying transparency, so long as the Act fulfils this purpose and it is understood how compliance with the register can help to deliver this.
This variety of views is illustrated by the claim made by the Electoral Reform Society Scotland (also in August 2020) that ‘’. Furthermore, members of the Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT) – which includes groups like Transparency International and the Electoral Reform Society – wrote to policy makers to mark two years since the Scottish Lobbying Register was introduced, calling for the legislation to be strengthened to protect the interests of voters, amid concerns over ‘glaring gaps’ in the legislation (https://lobbyingtransparency.squarespace.com).
In particular, democracy campaigners are warning of the limitations of a lobbying register in a digital age.
In 2016, a report from the Civil Exchange (2016) was particularly vociferous in claiming that the voluntary sector’s independence at UK level had become compromised. Such a compromising of the sector’s status and position can be tracked, so the argument goes, to a greater role played by voluntary organisations as providers of services previously delivered more directly by government. The report particularly highlighted ‘no advocacy’ clauses in grants awarded via taxpayer resources as problematic for the sector. This is because it is claimed that such clauses will prevent charities from voicing concern about issues that matter to their users. Civil Exchange director Caroline Slocock, launching the report, argued that the sector needed an alternative, agonistic (although she did not use this word directly) approach:
More than ever, the voluntary sector must work together to develop a new and more self-confident narrative which stresses the distinctive qualities of an independent sector, challenges the status quo and shows how it can be even better at delivering its mission.
In 2017, a further report from the Civil Exchange continued to cite ‘on-going erosion of voluntary sector independence’ through factors as diverse as the Lobbying Act, commissioning processes, and an environment set by government that, the report argues, undermines the ability of voluntary organisations to deliver services and advocate for vulnerable groups in society (Civil Exchange, 2017). Again, the report argued that the sector needed to find a more confident, challenging and independent voice.
The idea of agonism, we argue, provides one way of thinking through the challenges and opportunities of the sector in discovering an independent voice. The language of partnership, so common in the New Labour years and throughout the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament since devolution in Scotland, was welcome in one sense, in that it encouraged the voluntary sector to work more closely with government in order to tackle some major issues. On the other hand, as discussed earlier, this language of harmony can actually be counter-productive. This is because it can conceal a range of legitimate grievances and can also dampen the role and importance provided to critique within a society.
So how might a more agonistic sector manifest? We do not pretend to have the solutions, but can start to frame the discussion.