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Inside out and outside in

At a recent PhD roundtable discussion (29.09.2014) we discussed a couple of readings about the ethics of research.  Can outsiders research vulnerable groups ethically? Where do we stand on our own positionality?  I was struck by the complexity of the question and indeed identity.  You are never fully an insider or an outsider, are you? Or at least I don't think I have ever fully felt like an insider, but maybe that is more personality than reality?  I have written here before about feeling like an outsider in different spaces, or on the edge, and perhaps that is inevitable most of the time.

Am I an insider in my research? Well yes to the extent that I have worked for one of the organisations I am studying.  That identity does come with advantages in terms of access.  Am I an insider when it comes to poverty and exclusion, mostly not, certainly not now, but that does not mean I have not had those experiences.  But I would not claim that growing up as a non-catholic with a funny name in a single parent household in rural Ireland gives me any particular claim to understanding poverty or exclusion.

I did like this quote from Decolonizing Methodologies: "Writing can be dangerous because sometimes we reveal ourselves in ways which get misappropriated" (p 36).  I am very conscious of this when describing the work of the NAPNs and in particular when critiquing it or drawing conclusions.

I worry about being too cautious, but on the other hand as an 'insider' I also wonder if I am more critical than an external observer, more likely to judge harshly my own work or the work of peers, or indeed competitors?

Time for a new social contract? Reflections from The Advocacy Initiative

This week I was delighted to be invited to give a short input at a seminar launching Joe Larragy's new book on the community and voluntary pillar, Asymmetric Engagement.  One of a number of contributors we were asked to consider the question 'Time for a new Social Contract?'.  My presentation drew on the findings of The Advocacy Initiative.

The question of whether we need a new social contract sent me back nearly 20 years to my first year philosophy lectures with Pascal O’Gorman in NUIG, and their explorations of the idea that all of us submit to the authority of the state in order to protect other freedoms and rights. The question of a new social contract is of course a much broader one than the institutionalization of the relationship between civil society and the state.  The role of civil society is a both component of any social contract and I think a key function of civil society is to challenge the dominant contract to ask if it’s the best we can do?

As Joe highlights in his book the social partnership sceptics on the left argue that the Irish model of social partnership undermined civil society capacity to challenge the dominant social contract or indeed design a new one. Joe points out that much of this analysis is based on limited empirical analysis and that’s where, usefully, his book comes in.

I have just spent the last three years running a project called The Advocacy Initiative; this was a broad community and voluntary sector project aimed at examining and better understanding the advocacy of C&V organizations.  Some of those involved had direct experience of social partnership some did not.  The Initiative emerged in 2008, so its history parallels the turmoil of the last six years or so.  It was an attempt to respond to that changing context, but it was also a response to pre-existing dynamics.

In 2008, there was a real sense that advocacy was under threat from the state. The experience of many advocates and their organizations was that the state was actively working to silence advocates through a mixture of control over funding and aggressive behaviour. However there were no or few spaces where there could be reflection and dialogue about social justice advocacy: the threats it faced, its purpose, methodologies, effectiveness, assumptions, and legitimacy. Where spaces did exist there were low levels of trust, we often did not share perspectives and there was not always room for dissent from dominant narratives.

There was something unique in how The Initiative did its work.  The Initiative is an example of a new and reimagined way of working together.  It was a deep collaboration between organizations and individuals that do not naturally orbit the same values or frameworks.  The Initiative invested in projects, space and opportunities, it avoided setting up an institutional structure.  The Initiative aimed to generate approaches that energized participants and asked them to think differently. We experienced very broad good will from a broad range of stakeholders.  There were different expectations and objectives, but a shared sense that despite the challenges social justice advocates remain seriously ambitious for their work.  So there was a very positive internal environment, but it did not necessarily start off that way.

But what the experience of advocacy demonstrates over the last six years is that just because the particular form of social dialogue breaks down does not mean that the advocacy relationship is gone.  It may be difficult to claim advocacy victories in the current context, but that does not mean there has not been very effective civil society engagement with the state over the past six years. Taking a whole variety of forms – both insider and outsider to use that dichotomy.

Our influence is not dependent on an institutionalised relationship nor should it be.  What the Initiative showed is that when the ways of working are strategic and skilful, they are effective, despite the very genuine hostility from some quarters.  The democratic function of these organizations maybe contested but fundamentally it is not challenged.

There is perhaps a danger in becoming too caught up in one way of working that we lose sight of the broader impact and power of civil society.

The overall synthesis analysis of The Advocacy Initiative drew out six core lessons for the community and voluntary sector – these are very relevant to any discussion of a new social contract, whether or not the relationship between civil society organisations and the state includes a form of ‘social partnership’ or  to use Pat Carey’s short-lived concept ‘social dialogue’. 

1. Awareness and understanding: Outside the community and voluntary sector, social justice advocacy is not well understood. While our polling data showed that there is generally supportive public, very little is known about this work either by the public, or indeed by many policy stakeholders we spoke to. We have a challenge in communicating our role and the purpose of this work, and in demonstrating our legitimacy.

2. Credibility and legitimacy: Policy-makers and influencers are worried about where we get our mandate. How grounded are we, how rooted in experiences of poverty and exclusion. Some worried that the professionalization of the sector had distanced it, and that sometimes we have become more focused on sustaining our organizations than sustaining our memberships. There is a challenge for us in rigorously focusing on our mandate and communicating it, but equally policy makers need to better recognize the challenges of doing this work, particular with very vulnerable and excluded communities.

3. Respect, relationship building and trust: Respect was a consistent theme. Neither policy-makers nor us felt that our role was respected and valued in what can sometimes be a difficult relationship. We were surprised that respect was such a strong two-way theme and perhaps this speaks to the need to make space for relationship building within our sector and with policy-makers. This theme also raises the question of expectations, what we expect from policy-makers and what they expect from us. These expectations do not always match up.

4. Capacities: We did identify skills and knowledge deficits. Policy-makers worried about the depth of our understanding of the nature of the policy making process, while we were concerned to explore new methods and tools. The Advocacy Initiative leaves behind it many resources that should support this, including our capacity assessment tool, but there is no silver bullet. Capacity development – on both sides – is an on-going project, which needs time, space and energy. 

5. Strategies: We tried to develop indicators for effective advocacy.  It turns out there is not one simple definition of what is effective, but we do need to plan and strategies, we do need to take a longer term vision.  More collaboration and co-ordination, more innovation and creativity are important and need to be encouraged and supported by policy makers as well as driven from within.

6. Independence and resources:  The sector has experienced challenges of independence and resources. As I have said policy-makers asked us questions about balancing our service roles (often on behalf of the state) with critical advocacy along with the challenge of being both an insider and an outsider. We explored the particular question of state funding; the answers were messy and complicated. There is no black and white analysis, we know that the state does support advocacy, but there are also moments when state funding compromises independence in very significant ways.  Perhaps we can all be more honest about this dynamic and more forthright in protecting the independent role of advocacy.

Perhaps the most important legacy of The Advocacy is that as a sector we now share a deeper understanding of these challenges, that we have some common identity from which we can talk about question like this one: Do we need a new social contract?

I certainly agree we need a new social contract, in the sense of a new relationship between citizens and the state, one where our society is a more equal and more just place.  Maybe the question for today is whether a new form of social partnership would help to get us there?

It’s SSNOing!

Reflections on the grant allocation for the Scheme to Support National Organisations 2014-2016

Earlier this year the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government announced the third round of this scheme.  There were substantial changes to the parameters of the scheme, the application process for which was now to be managed by Pobail.

This new scheme had a number of clear distinguishing characteristics.  It was for national organisations that focus on disadvantaged target groups (either directly providing services or indirectly by supporting those that do deliver services).  The scheme was for core rather than project funding and emphasis was placed on supporting those organisations with no other source of core funding.

The background documentation identified three strategic priorities: (1) frontline service delivery; (2) organisational development; and  (3) policy development.  The documentation also made it clear that an organisation could focus on one or all of these priorities.  The scheme was advertised as covering 2.5 years, though there is some confusion as the numbers released by the department this week suggest that the allocation is for 2 years (which would imply a bigger annual budget for each organisation).

From an advocacy perspective the inclusion of the last priority was very significant, as this explicit focus had been missing from earlier schemes.  Indeed advocacy was clearly named as an activity that could be funded under this priority.

Speaking to a range of people who prepared applications the process was by all accounts rigorous, complicated, and not well suited to those inexperienced in form filling.

So what happened?

Well two information session organised by the department and Pobail were extremely well attended.  By all accounts they received a phenomenal number of applications.  The general funding environment, the demise of philanthropic and other sources of core funding would have all contributed to this. Inevitably there was very stiff competition between organisations.

55 organisations received funding this time (down from 64 in 2011 and 64 in 2008).  Since 2008 107 organisations have benefitted form the scheme at some stage but only 24 have been funded under all three programmes.  39 of the organisations funded in 2011 do not appear on the 2014 list.  24 are new to the scheme in 2014, while 5 who had lost funding in 2011 rejoined the scheme in 2014.  Assuming the announced allocation is for 2.5 years compared to the 2011 allocations (bearing in mind these were subsequently cut) 17 organisations received less funding this time, while the allocation for eight organisations is up.

The grants this time range from an annual allocation of just under 17,000 to the maximum of 73,000 (on the basis of a two year grant this range is from 21,000 to 91,000). Last time the range was wider with a minimum grant of 20,000 and a maximum of 100,000.  The average grant was slightly higher in the 2011 allocation at just over 60,000, while this time the average is about 58,000.

So what are the emerging trends?  Well first it is remarkable that so many health focused groups which made it into the scheme in 2008 and 2011 appear to have lost out this time.  What are the alternative sources of core funding for these groups? 

Second there is a striking move towards national organisations that have an advocacy focus; this seems to have translated from the criteria into funding commitments.  Does this mark a shift away from the perceived reluctance of the state to fund advocacy?

Finally there remains the reality that while this week’s news would have been very welcome for many organisations, the numbers are well below what they were back in 2008 (and indeed for the predecessor schemes including the National Anti Poverty Networks Scheme). The average grant in 2008 was over 90,000, the maximum grant was 239,000.  Is it really possible to core fund a national organisation for 60,000 a year?

Let me know if you would like a copy of my calculations.  For the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government release see here. Ivan Cooper at The Wheel has been reflecting on how the new criteria and application process here.

My PhD research is concerned with the funding experience of the National Anti-Poverty Networks from 2003 to 2010, this includes the last NAPN programme and the first SSNO programme.

I don't really understand the point of your argument...

Oh... but you don't say that in the paper.

Didn't I?

I had an interesting experience in my annual PhD roundtable presentation this evening.  It felt in some ways more like an attack than a discussion, and I am left trying to think that I learned from the experience.

I presented my first case study, or at least the write up of my first case study on EAPN Ireland.  Its much too long and two immediate things are clear:  (1) there is noway I am going to be doing anywhere near ten case studies; and (2) it does not look like I will be writing up each case study separately. I think the way to go is write them all up and then carve them up by theme.  That should be doable and should make for a more interesting read.  Though I wonder if it then becomes more of a comparison of the organisations rather than an overall assessment of the programme.  I need to think about that.

Back to the roundtable: I tried to circulate something more tangible than a theory chapter in the hope of eliciting more comments, I also flagged a number of questions that I would like to discuss. Neither approach seems to have been especially effective.  That said there were a good few people who did not make it this evening, which is a shame.

What is interesting is in some ways you get the regular questions, and these will remain the first questions asked, so it is useful to polish the answers.  That said I don't have a sense that very many people read the paper, or even parts of it.

What questions did I get:

  1. Taking a documentary approach like this does not really address the experience of participatory democracy that people have - what it meant for the people involved (this is an interesting one).
  2. What is the theoretical framework (given last year I presented the first of two theoretical chapters, I did think this one was clear, obviously not clear enough).
  3. Should you compare these organisations to one that has not received state funding (this one has come up before).
  4. Give less information and more tables summarising the findings (I did try to do this, but perhaps not enough?).
Something else struck me, there seemed to be an underlying negative view of organisations like EAPN Ireland - an assumption that they are not working in the best interest of those they are representing.  This is a bit surprising, but not the first time I have faced it... 

For the times that are in it...

"The damage done by fifteen years of being kicked in the teeth cannot be overcome by a kick in the arse" - Mike Allen (1998) The Bitter Word, p. 302 

My first... conference paper!

Annual PSAI conference in Dublin on 20 October... well, it was not a big crowd, which maybe was just as well as I was a bit nervous going into it.

The paper was on the democratic case for CSO advocacy, and went something like this: lots of problems with democracy, one of the answers is more participation, but different ideas of what participation is, CSOs have important role in participation in general (picture),  but also specifically in contributing to decision making through their advocacy work (direct). Hence (participatory) democracy needs CSO advocacy.  I ended up by talking about criticisms of CSO advocacy and (hopefully) presenting the case for why they are wrong with reference to the '7 is too young' campaign. Here's the slides.

What was I nervous about? Two things I guess: (1) that my argument about why participatory democracy is 'better' than deliberative democracy, may not wash with the deliberative democracy people; and (2) that maybe I was just stating the obvious, and that this line of argument is all a bit unnecessary.

An interesting moment happend when another speaker got a question about whether the NGOs she was talking about (in rural India) did not in fact come with their own 'agendas'. After she answered the question (yes, sometimes they do but that not a universal problem), I came back with "actually I think this language of 'agendas' can be pretty unhelpful".  Yes, of course, there is a problem when people in NGOs are more concerned about their own power, the survival of the organisation or the maintenance of salary levels, than the issue that they are there to address, but that in fact often NGO 'agendas' are a good thing.  They are a good thing if they respond to need, are based on a core set of values, and are developed with communities. But sometimes they may well be imposing something from the outside, and while that needs to be done very carefully, it is not necessarily a bad thing for an organisation to bring agendas like environmentalism, equality, rights etc.  I referred to the example of the antislavery movement being in some cases 'outsider' driven... enlightened outsiders imposing agendas on an unsuspecting community.

Well, that was contested.  The response was that 'interests' coming in and imposing their agendas distorts participatory democracy, so I guess that takes care of point (2), or at least suggests a discussion worth exploring.

On the first point, my argument about the difference between participatory democracy and deliberative democracy was not picked up in the discussion, will have to find another place to see how that one goes down.

So despite the relatively small group I would say that overall I am happy I did it.  Good disciple in whittling down the two chapters into one short paper, certainly helped focus my thinking, and met some interesting people... that, and oh, an opportunity to do a snazzy circle diagram!