Lobbyists need to be transparent too

Daran Hill says the co-dependency between Welsh Government and some of the third sector in Wales has led to a lack of transparency.

Last autumn when I and others spoke out against the decision of the Welsh Government to discontinue publishing Ministerial Decision Reports – a decision reversed after we persisted in challenging the move – several people warned me to be careful. As a lobbyist, they said, why the hell are you going out of your way to challenge government so openly? Where’s the business case in antagonising the very people you’re trying to influence?

Of course, I thought long and hard about taking such a public role on such a matter. But is my view that it is not just opposition parties which have an obligation to challenge and expose bad policy making. We in the public affairs community have an important role to play too.

I was very struck by the recent suggestion by the UK Government that something needs to be done about third sector organisations using public funds to campaign against them. It is a suggestion I am not entirely persuaded by, partly because my experience here in Wales is of the direct opposite. In many instances those receiving public money do very little to speak out against the Welsh Government.

This is a theme that concerns others too. Let me give one example. I was very struck by evidence presented to the enquiry into poverty undertaken by the Communities Committee of the Assembly last year. During evidence sessions some organisations were very reticent to criticise any aspect of Welsh Government work on poverty reduction. I think Jocelyn Davies, the excellent Plaid Cymru member for South Wales East hit the nail on the head when she got Chwarae Teg, for example, to admit on the record they were directly funded by Welsh Government.

Dr Rebecca Rumbul expressed the same dichotomy in an article which appeared on this site last week:

“There is no question about whether government should provide at least some funding to civil society groups – it absolutely should, in particular to those that provide vital services. However, the distance between donor and recipient has been shown to be concerningly close in Wales, in particular with regard to those organisations that receive the bulk of their funding from the Welsh Government. Quite naturally, organisations do not wish to bite the hand that feeds. To criticise one’s benefactor is risky in the most benign of situations, let alone when you and your staff are vulnerable to an annual review of your organisation’s funding.”

She makes a salient point and one which begs consideration by civil society. There is a relationship of co-dependency between many parts of the third sector and the Welsh Government. It sometimes feels that whole swathes of the sector have been almost nationalised and therefore, in effect, muzzled.

Surely in such circumstances there is an obligation for the financial relationship to be disclosed. In the interests of transparency I think that in the next Assembly every organisation giving evidence to an Assembly Committee, be it written or oral, should disclose the proportion of its income it receives from Welsh Government, either directly or indirectly.

In my view this step would help place the evidence received in a more transparent context. If Assembly Members have to disclose their interests in meetings – and I welcome that step as one of the very few that have been taken toward increasing transparency in the National Assembly in recent years – then so should those providing evidence to them.

But there is more that needs to be considered too. As Dr Rumbul also said last week:

“Without plurality in our civil society sector, and with perpetual organisational fear of funding withdrawal, civil society groups will continue to sanitise their views and limit their contributions to wider debate. The inevitable result of this course of action is that policy development will be stunted. Most concerningly, it will likely travel in the direction of the ideological preferences of Labour Ministers, rather than towards innovative real-world solutions that take advantage of Wales’ agility and showcase the best of its civil society talent.”

This point about ideology is also hugely important and needs addressing. Along with financial disclosure, I would suggest that disclosure of political affiliation should be clearly made. Thus if the person giving evidence is a member of a political party then that should be placed on the record too. If that makes some people feel uncomfortable, then it is a price worth paying.

Bluntly, the case for transparency and the onus for providing ideas for change is not just on politicians. Public Affairs Cymru which I helped found a decade ago as an umbrella body for public affairs professionals once played a key representative role for the industry. We spoke up for publishing a record of meetings between Welsh Government ministers, officials and external organisations. We even said Assembly Members should keep the same sort of record of when they are lobbied. But these days PAC does none of that. It said nothing when I and other members spoke out in favour of steps for transparency. It has become more interested in the quality of the buffet than the quality of our democracy.

If it falls to me once again to be the prick in the Bubble, then so be it. I’ve been called worse. And if it results in a few cold shoulders, I’m used to that too. In defence of Welsh Government, however, at no point in the last few months has any minister, special adviser or official phoned me to criticise the stance I took on Ministerial Decision Reports; and I don’t expect this article to result in any thinly veiled threats either. However, I am aware of plenty of other examples over the years where such warning approaches had taken place. It would not be fair of me to name names, but I am sure this statement will strike a chord with many.

The fourth Assembly has been the most closed and the least-transparent one that I’ve seen.  By beginning a debate now, as that Assembly draws to a close, maybe we can see major steps forward in transparency and disclosure for the next five years.

Daran Hill is MD of Positif.

11 thoughts on “Lobbyists need to be transparent too

  1. As Daran points out this is a worrying situation. I fully support his concerns about the lack of transparency. If funded bodies are not carrying out the role that they were created for, surely this is a waste of public money. Maybe a Value for Money process would not go amiss

  2. Darren and Rebecca have both put their finger on a real and growing problem and their not alone in noticing it. Wales lacks a plurality of informed public discussion and public challenge. The client status of much of the third sector is only part of the problem. Combine that with a very small legislature and an unchanging executive and a history of bringing inhouse all arms length bodies. I wonder where this leads us?
    In my recent past employment I needed to study the implementation of some EU legislation in the Irish Republic. I was astonished to discover how corrupted that country has become.

  3. This is a rather mixed bag of bones. The idea that the author tries to build a platform on his Cabinet Decision Reports ‘victory’ betrays him as someone seeking publicity over real change. Yes something of the same name came back. But what it was in practice was very different and contained significantly less information than what was there before. If the author actually engaged with the process he would know that, and the campaign would not have ended where it did. Given that it did I can only assume the author wasn’t really interested in transparency.

    While declaring public funds seems reasonable, it’s disappointing the desire exists to go further and force people to disclose their political affiliations (if any). Personally I’m amazed that someone who claims to be a champion of Welsh democracy would suggest such a thing. Why not make Committee Witnesses wear their party’s rosettes on their clothes when they give evidence? It amounts to the same thing after all.

    Finally I can’t help but find it ironic that the author targets PAC considering either he or a member of his staff have been part of that in each of the 10 years since establishment. PAC is where it is only because people like the author has let it get there.

  4. The fact that we are where we are acts to highlight how ineffective people like Mr. Hill must be.

  5. It seems to me that since the majority of these ‘buffet browsing, er..bubble blowing’ groups seem already to be funded by or owe their existence to the Welsh government or a political party then the ‘a priori’ assumption must always be made that they have been ‘compromised’ in their ‘transparency’ and ideological leaning. Therefore, there is no need to have ‘formal disclosure’ as everyone knows that they are not, ever, going to bite the hand or teat that feeds them. So, although Mr.Hill has raised an interesting technical issue, in his quest to become a political martyr, or, in his own words, a prick in the bubble, it is not going to change the situation. Most people understand that lobbyists too (even Positif) have their own agendas and affiliations that’s what they are lobbying for! Just because these might be declared somewhere on a piece of paper or website footnote won’t change things. Are you saying that every time someone in the third sector stands up to say something they must state the obvious that ‘we’re funded by the WG and EU’? They all do this anyway. They’re proud of it! Considering how much exhausting opaque paperwork and lobbying has to be gone through to attain this status it’s hardly surprising. I would too – and keep my trap firmly shut!

  6. An excellent and thought provoking article which raise important points about lobbying and continues the debate about the relationship between the third sector and the state; the latter debate was started by Daran and Victoria Winkler on the Bevan Foundation site about four years ago and although the points made here by Daran and Rebecca Rumbul are well founded, they are not for the most part new.

    I think Daran’s recommendations on transparency are sensible and hopefully the new Assembly Committees will pick up on them; the likely absence of a majority party should make that more likely.
    There are signs that many third sector organisations do recognise the unhealthy nature of their relationships with government at both local and national level. In this sense we have benefited in Wales from the presence of a number of UK wide organisations whose modus operandi is rooted in a more open and robust Westminster culture and have been willing to engage on their own terms not the more cosy Welsh ones.

    The other longer term process caused by funding cuts has been a reduction in dependence on grants; of course some organisations have folded but those who have survived have increasingly done so on more diverse funding streams – aided by a deliberate effort to get UK non-state funders more engaged in Wales.

    The final chink of light was epitomised by Llamau’s use of change.org mass petitioning which exposed the Welsh Government to a 21st century version of people power (the issue was the treatment of homeless young people). This tool, obviously used at Westmont for a while now, does take lobbying beyond closed door meetings and makes civil society demands completely open and potentially allows genuine popular support – rather than intra party networks – to play a stronger role.

  7. Some sour and unconstructive comments here. The issue is important. Play the ball not the man.

  8. The inherent irony here, “Rhodri”, is hiding behind a veil of anonymity when making personal attacks – while we discuss issues of transparency! The best way, I believe, to address these issues is to encourage a culture where people can make those brave comments that start the real and much needed discussions, not by anonymously taking cheap pot shots from the sidelines.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy