Workshop 5: Government: Dialogue and Lobbying

Presented by Oliver Haslam and Deanna Douglas (UK)

Report by Philip Symons (Canada)

Ten participants

Oliver Haslam reviewed methods of lobbying the British government, and Deanna Douglas followed this with a discussion of how to engage parliamentarians and civil servants in dialogue, and importantly, how to coordinate other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in this dialogue.

Oliver noted that the methods of lobbying the British government were somewhat archaic and not particularly effective, although the methods did raise awareness of issues among NGO members and sometimes the public. He described three methods for submitting issues to government plus a Ten-minute Rule BillPetitions are read in parliament and formally recognized, then are put in a box and forgotten! Early day motions are another kind of petition. They are tabled by a parliamentarian, and may be signed by others, which attracts civilian interest, but they are never openly discussed. Finally, a Government Minister may request an Adjournment Debate. Requests for such debates are drawn at random, and if it is drawn the requesting Minister speaks on it for five minutes after which both sides of the house may speak. There is no vote. The Ten-minute Rule Bill is a bill that is formally presented and noted, but it requires second and third readings in order to pass, and there is never time for these. The Bill may be useful in getting parliamentarians to think about the issue.

Letter-writing is an important part of lobbying. People who refuse to pay the military portion of their taxes write letters to the Treasury and Inland Revenue, and this has resulted in changes to the form-letter reply. Letters may also be sent to civil servants who have persuasive though no direct power. Letters are most effective when the sender is a constituent of the Member of Parliament addressed. To reach a large number of Parliamentarians effectively, therefore, NGOs need to mobilize members from many constituencies. Oliver has built a network of ‘Quick Action Lobbyists’ from a wide range of constituencies who will respond rapidly to requests to write letters.

Dialoguing with government is distinct from lobbying in that dialoguing is a search for the best way forward rather than an attempt to change the minds of parliamentarians, which is the objective of lobbying. Dialoguing with government can gain credibility when a number of NGOs work together. Conscience (UK) therefore has been working with eleven other organizations: BASICCAAT, Conciliation Resources, International Alert, Medact, ORG, Peace Direct, Peaceworkers UK, Quaker Peace and Social Witness, Saferworld, and UN Association. (full names for acronyms were not given).

Working with other organizations requires careful planning and preparation. Those NGO representatives engaging in the dialogue must be extremely well prepared--Deanna likened this to a Ph.D. candidate being prepared to defend her thesis.

The various cooperating NGOs need to put their own immediate goals aside and agree to one over-arching theme or objective. For the purposes of working with other organizations, therefore, Conscience (UK) set aside its goal of promoting a peace tax fund in favour of a common agreed upon topic for dialogue: New models of Security.

Dialoguing is usually conducted with civil servants, although members of parliament may occasionally be involved. Civil servants sometimes include military personnel, and finding a way to engage than can be a challenge! Being able to provide information of which the military people are unaware will get their attention. Sometimes NGOs through their international links will be aware of military manoeuvres and objectives in other countries that have not come to the attention of local military personnel. This again emphasizes the need for thorough preparation.

Dialoguing with parliamentarians, military personnel and civil servants can be facilitated by attention to protocol. Civil servants appreciate a one-page briefing paper; parliamentarians require none. Use of ‘Chatham House Rules’ where what is said is recorded, but not who said it, helps to build trust. Notes need to be restricted to those present at the meeting and government officials, and not be broadcast in NGO newsletters. NGO personnel must constantly look and act professionally! Notes and memoranda must be double-checked for accuracy, and for correct grammar and spelling. Always leave something at the end of a meeting that will entice those in the dialogue to request another meeting.

In sum, lobbying may often be more useful in raising awareness about an issue among NGO members and the public than it is in changing the minds of parliamentarians, although with luck that may also occur. Dialoguing is useful for finding a way forward; credibility is gained when several NGOs participate together, but this requires careful coordination, planning and preparation.