New research reveals tensions between policy makers and NGOs

Policy makers often question the legitimacy, interests and conflicting roles of some community and voluntary organisations when providing services for the state while acting as critics of government policy, according to new research to be presented tomorrow.

‘In Other Words: Policy Makers’ Perceptions of Social Justice Advocacy’ provides a rare glimpse into the views of those making policy towards those trying to change it. “It reveals the synergy and the tensions which can exist between the two worlds, and the urgent need for change on both sides of the lobbying table,” stated Anna Visser, Director of the commissioning organisation, The Advocacy Initiative.

While the overwhelming view in the research was that NGO lobbying was valuable, policy makers questioned the connection between those doing the lobbying and the people they were representing. In addition, a number of policy makers saw that the work that they did also made them social justice advocates – something which was not always recognised by NGO advocates.

Across the 33 interviews (with Politicians and Civil Servants as well as representatives of state and semi-state organisations)the value and democratic contribution of NGO lobbying was highlighted to ensure that vulnerable communities are at the policy making table not on the menu, Visser explained. As one elected representative interviewee stated, “Social justice advocacy is about channelling real experiences and campaigning for the realisation of rights”. 

The research was undertaken by seven social justice advocates from a range of organisations+, and led by Research Co-ordinator, Kathy Walsh. The main areas of criticism by policymakers include:

  • Legitimacy - The legitimacy of some community and voluntary organisations was queried with questions being posed such as: “What is the mandate of these groups to advocate on particular issues?” and “Are they genuinely connected?”
  • Perception of self-interest and absence of self-reflection– Some interviewees believed that some organisations were more interested in sustaining their organisations and jobs: “A lot of advocacy work done by non-profit organisations in this field is simply for the good of the organisation rather than for social justice objectives”. In addition in regards to the lack of self-reflection one interviewee said: “There is a huge amount of critique of public services… but there is very little critique, looking in or at their [C&V sector] services”. 
  • Challenges of being both an insider and an outsider- tension was identified for community and voluntary organisations between being part of the system (providing services for the state) and acting as an independent critical voice, working on the inside and criticising outside: “ [those who provide services are] inside the system and therefore dependent on often diminishing levels state funding”.

According to Research Co-ordinator, Kathy Walsh: “The research has generated some challenging findings that the community and voluntary sector need to address, while the participatory research process has generated significant learning for all those involved.”

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