Purdah doesn’t mean you need to stay quiet…

By May 5, 2017Food for thought

In the short few weeks of the UK election campaign our latest blog looks at the issues of purdah and why many organisations miss a huge opportunity to get their message across…

Working in public affairs I’m always struck by how many charities and third sector organisations shut down their campaigning work in the run-up to an election.

For the uninitiated, government institutes a protocol known as ‘purdah’ which prevents central and local government from making announcements about any new or controversial initiatives which could be seen to be advantageous to a candidate or party in a forthcoming election.  An entirely sensible approach in my book.

However, some charities and third sector organisations could benefit from a re-think when it comes to implementing their own form of purdah, thereby shutting themselves off from all worthwhile political engagement in the run-up to the ballot.

The whole essence of effective political engagement is the ability to identify the right opportunities to advocate your cause with political stakeholders at a time when they are most likely to be receptive to the message you are trying to deliver.  As with everything in life, it’s all about the timing and careful execution.

If you’re looking for government funding, then naturally you seek to engage with those who hold the purse strings, preferably before budgets have been set.  If you’re looking to obtain a political commitment then surely the right time to engage is the same time when political promises are thrown around like confetti.  Manifestos, TV debates, political hustings are all opportunities for engagement with our policymakers and the run up to the election is not the time to be taking a back seat in the debate.  If you want your voice heard then elections are your opportunity to shine.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are pitfalls to avoid when campaigning during an election.  Chief among them is the need to be perceived as politically neutral.  It’s vital for any third sector organisation to protect their impartiality and to rise above the cut and thrust of party politics – lose this and you could be looking at a long spell on the side-lines if your favoured party doesn’t do well, as well as the intervention of the charity regulator if you have made the mistake of campaigning beyond your organisation’s core remit.

There are also unique challenges for third sector organisations who receive funding from government and don’t want to jeopardise that. Many perhaps rightly see the risks coming unstuck during purdah as too serious to ignore.

However, these issues can be navigated with a well thought out and executed public affairs strategy – one that deliberately controls engagement activity so that the charity doesn’t get dragged into dangerous territory. It’s all about careful judgement, but the benefits of getting it right can be huge.

Issue-based campaigning during an election is important in order to plant the seeds of policy ideas with existing and aspiring politicians at a time when they are in full ‘listening mode’ and eager to convince their future constituents that they can react to the issues being raised.  If your campaign can elicit the support of the public to put pressure on candidates then you’ve won the golden ticket.

And whilst campaigning during elections is important, there are also important considerations to be made about the period beyond Election Day.

A well-crafted campaign will sit in the consciousness of a new minister on their first day in the job and the hope is that your well-constructed and well delivered campaign will be at the forefront of thinking, as the new government develops its legislative agenda for its term in office.

Experience also tells me that during an election period, civil servants don’t experience the same pressures being exerted on them by their political masters.  Their minds may be less cluttered, more open to new ideas and they can be keen to explore those ideas in an effort to impress their new ministerial boss when they are appointed.  The hope remains that your campaign is the one which civil servants decide to pursue.

It’s clear that if we store up all our political advocacy until after the election then organisations lose the momentum and the opportunity to make a lasting impression – an opportunity which they may not get again for another five years.

Campaigning during an election doesn’t guarantee you immediate success but it does increase your odds of a successful outcome.  The argument is made that elections are the only time when politicians really listen. That’s not quite true, but they’re undoubtedly in listening mode, so why waste that opportunity?

Colin McFarlane is a Senior Account Manager at Indigo.