Public Affairs Forum: Tips for campaigning in the absence of the NI Assembly

On 4 December, NICVA held the first meeting of the revamped Public Affairs Forum. This Forum brings together people working in policy, public affairs and lobbying from the voluntary and community sector.

This most recent meeting gave the Forum an opportunity to discuss the changes, challenges and opportunities of continuing to lobby and campaign in the absence of the NI Assembly.

The Forum invited some people from the sector to talk about their experiences of campaigning in the current vacuum. Kellie Turtle from the Women's Resource & Development Agency (WRDA) outlined some of the ways that she has been engaging with decision makers and raising awareness on issues that the women’s sector have been focussing on, including the two child cap, the Childcare for All campaign and the issue of the split payment element of Universal Credit.

Daithí McKay from RSPB & Nature Matters NI spoke about some of the ways in which they have been raising the issue of the future of environmental protection post-Brexit, and Ruairi Rowan from the Family Planning Association (FPA) highlighted his advocacy work around reproductive rights for women and the creation of buffer zones and sex and relationship education.

This made for some really engaging discussion and a chance from us to learn from each other about how we can continue to get our issues heard, even when we have no government here.

Ten of the top tips were:

1. Continue to engage with local MLAs

MLAs still have a role to play even during the absence of devolved government. They play an important role in terms of providing the link to officials, civil servants and MPs, drawing attention to issues and giving their support to campaigns. It is good to have the backing of local representatives on issues for when the Assembly gets back up and running.

2. Inform and educate the public about your campaign and give them the capacity to influence

Having support on the ground is important. Undertake work to ensure that the public are aware and informed of your campaign asks, what you are doing, why you are doing it and how you are doing it. Ensure that you can build capacity amongst the public to challenge practice and decisions by ensuring people have the information and are familiar with the tools to campaign. This can be as simple as a hashtag on social media to organising a public rally.

3. Don’t feel bound by the system

It was highlighted that there are other mechanisms available to highlight your issues and to challenge decisions, such as human rights frameworks and equality legislation. When people are informed of what their rights are, they can be empowered to use the legal system and highlight existing legal commitments to challenge decisions. The work of PPR is a good example of the assertion of rights in relation to work and welfare.

4. Engage with non-MLA elected reps and other forms of governance too

A number of speakers highlighted that they had some success with other elected representatives including councillors and MPs. Asking councillors to debate an issue in council, even if it is outside the council’s remit to change, is a good way to build support in political parties. Educating MPs by providing them with briefing papers and hosting drop-in information sessions in Westminster, constituency or council buildings can be a good way to get your issue on their agenda. Don’t forget, there are NI Local Council elections coming up in May 2019 so think about getting your issue in party manifestos or maybe organise a hustings.

5. Build links with officials

Civil servants and senior government officials have the responsibility for implementing the policies and strategies that are decided upon by Ministers. Building relationships and links with these officials can give you the ability to influence and provide advice on ways to ensure that policies/strategies are implemented in the most appropriate way or highlight any potential unforeseen impacts. There is a potential to use this current situation to develop these relationships to make policy and strategies better.

6. Work in a coalition or with other allies

It was highlighted that working in coalition with other groups, organisations and sectors who have a shared interest or goal can add leverage to a campaign ask. This includes identifying potential allies who you may not have previously considered. Working in coalitions provides the opportunity to share resources, costs and the workload whilst also getting your message and issues across to a more diverse audience and potentially obtain new advocates. Finding common ground and speaking on an issue with one voice can add weight to a campaign.

7. Raise awareness through events, media and social media

During this current situation it can be hard to continue to energise campaigning around an issue and there is a need to find innovative ways to continue to highlight these issues. Using the media, social media and hosting events can be a good way to do this. Setting up a social media account around your campaign is a good way to keep people regularly updated on any new information, events or actions. Some organisations have continued to hold events to launch their campaign and invited elected representatives along to debate the issue and commit their support for a campaign. This can also garner media interest around your campaign.

8. Use this space to tease out issues and address concerns

It was highlighted that there may be some opportunity in the current political vacuum, away from the pressure of voting and debates to tease out some of the concerns or contentious areas around an issue and use this space to ensure better understanding of a campaign or issue an to gather support for the issue amongst elected representatives and decision makers.

9. Monitor developments

It is important to keep an eye on what is going on in the various political and policy arenas in such as the development of legislation and policy, committee inquiries, the opening of a consultation and so on, so as to identify potential areas to feed into and influence.Keeping an eye on these activities (in Westminster, local councils or NI government departments) can present opportunities for influence from putting forward amendments to legislation to seizing opportunities to submit consultation responses. We can use these processes to effect change, rather than just the people taking those decisions.

10. All Party Groups

Even in the absence of an Assembly, All Party Groups (APGs) continue to function. Some organisations have found that these groups are an effective mechanism for getting politicians from different political parties around the table to collectively support an issue or campaign. These APGs provide an opportunity to gather cross-party support and put weight behind a campaign. Having this cross-party support on a campaign may be particularly important to ensure that this issue can be taken forward when an Assembly is re-established.

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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