I started writing something shortly after the new Prime Minister has made his first speech on the steps of Downing Street. Another premiership set to be dominated by Brexit. It has paralysed national policy and politics for the last 3 years and it looks like this is set to continue for the foreseeable future...but the phrase which is ringing in my ears from the speech is “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters”. I suspect many politicians would put charities and campaigners in those categories.
I don’t think doubt is a bad thing. A bit of healthy scepticism is important - as is the willingness to ask questions and to answer them. Large institutions (in all sectors) are often in danger of falling into “groupthink” where ideas gain popularity and become fashionable because the story lands well within the organisation’s culture or values. Being the one who asks questions and expresses doubt can make you unpopular, seeming obstructive or unhelpful. But just as failure is a great teacher, questioning and positive scepticism are important ways to learn individually and collectively. I think it’s part of our sector’s role to do this: as I've said before I think it's our duty. This is a function we play in democracy and our public debate (and, I might add, a human element which balances out the sometimes misleading simplicity of numbers of votes or arcane parliamentary procedures). The system breaks if we start to ignore this.
That said, there are ways of having those difficult conversations: it’s generally not a practical solution to try to embarrass or harangue people into agreeing with you. They may back down but have you really helped them change the way they look at the world? Simply dismissing those who don’t agree with you is a mistake: it will just limit the potential of what you will be able to achieve. Charity leaders having conversations with decision makers are trying to influence and it’s often a long game of cultivating a relationship.
Generally, I do understand the tactic of many charity sector leaders saying to various new Government appointments, “welcome to your new role, we look forward to working with you”. It’s the first approach, a simple courtesy. But we must also be mindful of the messages we’re sending to a wider audience when we do so. We need to increase understanding that cultivating these relationships is important work. Sadly, it is too easily dismissed as 'cosying up' to potential funders - and we only have ourselves to blame for that idea taking root.
I think part of the answer to this is leaders in the charity world having our own debate about what messages we want others to take forward on our behalf. For example, one thing* I would want to say to the Prime Minister is that he needs to address the concerns that many people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have about some of the things he has reportedly said in the past. It may seem low on his list of priorities or look like giving into hostile media, but it really shouldn’t be. There’s a fundamental point here, an issue of basic values. He now has an opportunity to say that he understands why people might be concerned and then to be seen to act on it. On the back of the Windrush scandal, the “hostile environment” and the toxic depiction of immigration in the Referendum campaign, people are feeling unwelcome and unsafe. I know it would be a brave and bold move for a politician, though it shouldn’t be. I would ask him to just do it: just speak simply and directly on this matter, without any attempt to deflect or challenge the motives behind the question. It would be a positive step at a time of huge national division and uncertainty.
Every government has a standing offer from charities to find ways to do things better. And, yes, it is difficult and complex and we always want to go faster and further than perhaps political or economic realities (seem to) allow. This is why it often falls to us to say the things which people with power may not want to hear, to challenge those charged with responsibility and to push for progress.
Heroic, charismatic leadership has its place, but there is also a need for humility, fallibility and doubt in leadership. If the ambition is to bring us together as a country, as communities, we need leaders to show the way on this – including those in the charity sector who will be cultivating conversations and building relationships with members of the new government.
* for there are many