Women having a discussion

Empty commitments: is the UK government engaging with civil society?

The quality of engagement between civil society organisations (CSO) working in international development and government is deteriorating.

To highlight this problem and improve cooperation, we have launched a new report, Ensuring civil society is heard: Principles and practices to improve government engagement with civil society.

The report outlines fundamental problems in the way that government talks to its citizens, which is a warning that our democratic processes are being eroded. We explain the potential dangers of government bypassing civil society, and the value of CSOs’ meaningful participation to formulating better public policy. We also outline principles and practical steps for CSOs and government to improve this relationship.

We use a series of case studies to highlight the ways in which the Department for International Development (DFID) and the wider government fall short of their own standards, as well as civil society’s expectations of meaningful engagement.

Is the UK government walking the talk?

In 2016, DFID said it would make engagement with civil society more “meaningful, strategic and efficient” and committed “to involve a broader range of organisations.” The department also pledged to engage in regular and structured policy dialogue with civil society in specific areas.

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More recently, in the UK government’s Civil Society Strategy, ministers made clear commitments to embed open policy-making across departments, give civil society significant opportunities to achieve policy change and “convene a cross-government group to work with civil society to establish the principles of effective engagement in the policy-making process”. However, little progress has been made since the strategy was released last year.

Our report looks at examples where engagement with civil society has been limited, such as consultation around the UK’s voluntary national reviews which measure the UK’s progress towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as engagement around Brexit. We also draw on positive examples of engagement, including working with civil society to adopt an inclusive approach to disability DFID’s new Disability Strategy, and the department’s collaborative work in 2015 to shape the post-Millennium Development Goal framework.

Lose-lose consequences

At best, government’s failure to adequately engage with CSOs has cost them the benefits of policies and programmes that “are better designed, more efficiently and effectively implemented, and enjoy greater public support” (according to the Open Government Partnership). At worst, policies and programmes have unintended, harmful consequences that are met with strong resistance, which results in them being modified or abandoned at a later date.

A recent example is the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act (2019), where the Home Office introduced a new measure to the bill as it passed through parliament without appropriate consultation. The Designated Area Offence, which makes it a criminal offence for UK residents and nationals to travel to certain conflict zones and would have had a significant impact on aid workers and journalists, was widely criticised by INGOs and was significantly amended in the House of Lords.

There are several reasons for the squeezing out of CSOs in policy-making consultation, with the main ones being:

  1. Government departments increasingly prefer to treat CSOs as suppliers rather than stakeholders, resulting in a transactional relationship rather than a meaningful one.
  2. Most government departments, including DFID, suffer capacity constraints that hinder good quality engagement. Decisions on department head count are political decisions, and civil society engagement on the policy-making process should be factored into decisions on capacity.
  3. Any political oxygen around global and domestic challenges is being consumed by Brexit, which is making the decline in civil society engagement around government policy-making even more severe. Brexit also gives the government the opportunity to create hasty policies that respond to short-term, self-interested decisions in response to crisis situations, which can result in poor and regressive policy.

It’s time to collaborate

Now is not the time to be shutting civil society out. Now is the time for meaningful, inclusive and deliberative engagement. Civil society ensures a healthy democracy, better policy-making, and bolsters public debate, helping to ensure that all voices are heard.

Our report calls for effective engagement between government and civil society which is meaningful, inclusive and deliberative. Government needs to ensure organisations have enough time to take part in consultations. They must invest the necessary time and resource required for meaningful engagement. And we must all call for greater consistency, transparency and accountability on the government’s part.

Read the report, which includes our map of engagement mechanisms and a checklist for effective engagement.