Feb 09th, 2011

Empowering Citizens: Putting users at the heart of Third Sector organisations – New research from the One World Trust and Goldsmiths University

It is a sad truth that many charities work tirelessly to improve the lives of the people they serve, and yet rarely stop to consider whether the work they do is needed or appropriate to their target communities. Could the services be better tailored to their users needs? Do the users have any suggestions or objections to the work being done? Most importantly, how can the users themselves contribute their time and skills to the work of the charity? Taking these issues into consideration will not only ensure that the services provided best meet their users needs, but also has the potential to empower the user community to actively engage in the processes that affect their lives.

A new publication from the One World Trust and Goldsmiths University  explores the role of self-regulatory initiatives in empowering NGO users. “Empowering Citizens: Realising service user involvement in the UK Third Sector organisations through accountability principles in self-regulation initiatives” is the product of a research collaboration between the One World Trust and Goldsmiths University, which aimed to explore how self-regulatory initiatives (SRI) can encourage UK NGOs to actively involve their users  in their work. 

The researchers reviewed 31 self-regulatory initiatives used by NGOs in the UK, and conducted semi-structured interviews with representatives of several UK SRIs such as Charities Evaluation Services, NCVO and the Community Foundation Network. The report analyses the structure and content of these SRIs, especially as regards the provision for user involvement.

The report highlights that whilst many self-regulatory initiatives in the UK have user involvement as a key principle, they mainly focus on how organisations should improve communications channels with their users. SRIs rarely require a commitment to actively involve users in important processes such as planning and project design or organisational management and recruitment. This is disappointing, as it is in these areas that there is the greatest potential for user control and accountability. However the report does highlight several examples of good practice amongst SRIs, such as Y-Gen’s Youth Mark, which offers certification to youth organisations in London, and actively involves young people in the assessment process.

Meaningful user involvement is a highly important, if challenging, aspect of effective service delivery, and should be a priority of Third Sector organisations. Whilst some SRIs are working to help their members achieve this, there is a danger that the recent focus on NGO effectiveness in the UK may distract attention from this crucial issue. It is to be hoped that research such as this will increase awareness of good practice, and keep user involvement on the agenda for Third Sector organisations, and the initiatives that regulate them.

The One World Trust SRI Database is a catalogue of  civil society self-regulatory initiatives around the world, and features articles and research on issues of self-regulation by the OWT and other organisations.

Posted by Christina Laybourn
Sep 30th, 2010

Do no harm: is it helpful (or even possible) to rank the worthiness of charitable causes?

Over the past years in particular charities and non-governmental organisations that claim to be of benefit to society have come increasingly under scrutiny by many organisations including New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) and the One World Trust for their claims, and been challenged to effectively back them up with evidence about their impact, and demonstrate accountability to their various stakeholders. Last but not least this set of stakeholders includes those, that the charity claims to help and affect (positively, one hopes) most.

In a recent lecture at the RSA, the Director of NPC Martin Brookes has now begun to look more at the other side of the equation: asking difficult questions about the nature and motivations of personal giving. In his argument he starts at the top level of private donorship: the vastly rich individuals such as Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffet, who with the extraordinary amounts they are giving to charity have a major impact on services and policies in the area in which they choose to invest.

Going beyond this class of donors Brooke however says, it should not only be those whose financial giving clout can ensure large impact that should be concerned about giving to the right causes, and there to the organisations that pursue their aims in the most effective way. Every donor should make the choice about their giving on the basis of an evaluation of what are the most deserving or, as Brookes’ puts it, most moral causes, defined by him as those that can demonstrate the greatest social benefit.

Martin Brookes’ intervention has many merits, chief among which I would rank the need to increase focus on donors, private just as much, I would hold, institutions, for how they make their decisions, in particular, the greater their impact on people through influencing policy, livelihood support, or services. Both grant receiving organisations and donors have yet to come clean on how money speaks in relation to the agendas and programmes of charities, and how the priorities for using resources are being set in a way that is accountable to those that are affected (and claimed as beneficiaries), rather than the donors. Too often this issue is left out of accountability reporting and other relevant communications.

In many ways I also like the challenge put to all of us by Martin Brookes on defining what a worthwhile cause is, but it is an issue full of pitfalls. Leaving aside any critique of the impact of institutions that seek to define morality in society and its norms, the big issue for me is the risk to institutional group think and a depletion of some of the essential features of the charitable / not for profit / non governmental sector: its diversity, its role as a conduit and reflection of citizens interests and needs, and its power to change society in incremental, innovative and inchoate ways which are not driven by an overarching policy set, let us say, by government or a common agenda of high value donors .

Problematically, a ranking which would see for instance the relief of poverty as more important than the protection of the environment, whether the latter is happening through a local charitable rare breeds farm, or a major Amazon rainforest protection project, or make it appear more socially desirable than a neighbourhood sports-grounds project, risks suggesting that there is an objective way of identifying how society should best evolve, what its greatest current challenges are (cutting problematically across all scale levels from local to global concerns), and define this not from a perspective and in the interests of those that are the driving force of cause based organisations, which are for most ordinary people, but of those interested in giving, starting with those that have a lot of money.

 Brookes’ suggestion that the list of charitable causes contained in the 2006 Charities Act could be seen as ordered by priority of worthiness and intentionally result in a tiered access to funding, would, I believe be roundly challenged by many of those working in the charitable sector. In many ways regulation and self-regulation civil society, which hosts most charitable activities, needs to protect its freedoms as much as generate transparency about its doings, effectiveness and impact. Suggesting what it should be doing, and which of its activities are worth supporting are issues that are deeply political in its best sense of citizens actively seeking to shape and improve their polity. It is, I would argue, not the task of regulation or self-regulation to limit or express preferences on this, except for the setting of (equally contentious) boundaries to prevent intransparent influencing of the process which society currently uses to define public policy priorities and legislation: which is formal democracy and the political parties that play a role in it.

Jun 02nd, 2010

Aid Pledge at the UK’s State Opening of Parliament

The new coalition government has sent out a positive, if a little ambiguous, message concerning the UK’s future international aid budget.  Last week’s coalition plan for government encouragingly declared that a commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI (Gross National Income) on overseas aid is to be enshrined into law.  At the 2010 State Opening of Parliament this week – a time where the new administration announced its plans for the next 18 months – the government reiterated its verbal pledge but stopped short of proposing legislation.

The target of 0.7 per cent of GNI for Official Development Assistance was first proposed around 40 years ago in a World Bank report and later adopted by the UN General Assembly.  Since then, despite substantial advancements in Northern living standards this target figure has remained constant.  At the 2005 Gleneagles Summit G8 countries reiterated an obligation to this figure in a measure designed to secure financial commitment to the Millennium Development Goals.  Sadly, the 2005 Summit also reveals the extent to which Northern countries have consistently avoided being held to account to international agreements on aid levels.  With the exception of a handful of European countries, the most recent figures show that even wealthy economies such as the USA and Japan still fall woefully short of the mark. In recent years, Italy has even drastically reduced aid spending.

In general, the last decade has seen an increase in aid commitments.  The UK, along with numerous others such as France and Canada, has been proactive in steadily edging closer to the magic figure of 0.7%.  But the ease at which countries are able to avoid committing aid without reprimand demonstrates that aid continues to be supplied de facto on philanthropic terms rather than as a legal accountability requirement.  Enshrining the commitment into UK national law will provide a means of holding its government to account at the national level.  Although this week’s commitment is to be welcomed by the development community it is still somewhat left wondering when words will be translated into actions.

Apr 08th, 2010

Addressing capacity bottlenecks in aid accountability: the case of the UK DfID

By the end of this year the OECD facilitated Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, signed in 2005 by more than 100 ministers and heads of agencies, will reach its term. Looking forward, it is important not only to build on the Accra Plan of Action of 2008, but also to evaluate the performance of major aid providers against the effectiveness agenda set out in Paris. In its recent report of 2 March 2010 the UK International Development Committee has done just that, scrutinising the performance of the UK Department for International Development (DfID) over the 2008-2009 period. It also evaluates the 2009 White Paper and the Department’s support for addressing impact of climate change, topics that need to be written about separately.

On the aid effectiveness agenda the overall judgment of the Committee is favourable and recognises the lead role that DfID has played over the years in advancing the aid effectiveness agenda. That said the report also comes to the conclusion that the Department itself faces a significant number of capacity and methodological problems that may prove to be important stumbling blocks to realising its own ambitions.

First the Committee emphasises that the Department must do better at providing measurable information. In particular it calls on DfID to provide “… suitable quantitative data to ensure that the Department is able to monitor and report on its own progress …” (p. 7).

Secondly the Committee, while welcoming the commitment of 5% of the DfID budget to the strengthening of accountability mechanisms, stresses that this may not commensurate to the task. In particular parliaments, civil society and the media are cited as important institutions for holding government to account and more needs to be done to support them to fulfil this role in a good way (p.8).

In many ways these two points encapsulate also the further concerns the Committee has about the ability of DfID to live up to its ambitions due to its internal lack of capacity in terms of staff, systems and measurable objectives in the domain of assessing programme effectiveness fraud prevention including in the domain of aid funded procurement (p.10-16).

The report is an important reminder that many aid organisations, governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental alike, face when seeking to address effectiveness issues: without measurable data they cannot assess their own progress, and without investment into accountability mechanisms operated and used by 3rd parties, including ordinary citizens, ensuring the accountability of organisations, including governments, will be just an empty phrase.

DfID and other bi- and multilateral donors have a big advantage over most NGOs involved in development work: their resource base is much more stable and generally quite extensive. If a parliamentary scrutiny committee raises concerns about the ability of the government department that arguably has done most to advance the aid effectiveness and accountability debate amongst its peers, to hold itself to account, or even properly assess its own progress, then this surely gives serious cause for concern.

Together with the Committee we therefore look forward to the effectiveness report of DfID, which is due shortly, and hope that the Department takes a constructive lead on what most organisations find to be a challenge: establish policies and systems of accountability that indeed enable others to hold it to account, but importantly also allow the organisation itself to learn on the basis of empirical and comparable data.

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