Common sense prevails and the anti-advocacy clause is dead – but the debate will continue

6 December 2016

Academics, NGOs and civil society organisations welcomed the announcement last week by the Government of the new Government Grants Standards. They represent the abandonment of earlier somewhat clumsy attempts to restrict engagement with UK government policy by a range of government funding recipients – primarily campaigning NGOs. The 'anti-advocacy clause' announced last February was roundly criticised for potentially gagging both scientists and charities.

Scientific community mobilises against anti-advocacy

It was claimed by many in the scientific community that the proposed rules on lobbying would prevent them from ensuring the evidence they had been funded to produce on issues ranging from international development policy, climate change strategy and welfare services would inform policy making.

Despite some research organisations assuming the clause was not aimed at them and accepting the reassurances of their government departmental contacts, faculty were rapidly mobilised by a group led by LSE's Bob Ward who spoke out in the media and organised a petition that attracted 33,000 signatures. The Parliamentary Committee for Science and Technology also raised serious concerns about the plans.

By April the Cabinet Office had announced that HE institutions would be exempt from the clause but that still left those of us in independent academic research organisations deeply concerned. However, by Easter the clause was in tatters and the government announced it was putting it on hold.

Government needs to support evidence-based policy making

The new grants standards state clearly that the Government fully support the right of charities to campaign and that grants can be designed to explicitly allow research organisations to give evidence to parliamentary inquiries, engage with Ministers and advisors, hold research and policy events and provide policy recommendations.

Of course there is still a risk that interpretation of the standards by ministers concerned with policy recommendations and messaging deemed unhelpful or counter to government policies could still generate some tensions. My overriding concerns with the original clause were mainly based on scenarios where social scientists in particular might self-censor and withdraw into an academic dialogue space deemed safer, undermining their role as knowledge brokers who bring marginalised voices into policy processes.

We need to remain vigilant and constantly challenge ourselves and our donors around understandings of the legitimate policy influencing role of academics and their institutions – especially in the aftermath of the 'anti-experts' rhetoric we witnessed earlier this year.

All those with a hand in this change in direction should be applauded. Rob Wilson, Minister for Civil Society and the Cabinet Office team, clearly listened to the sectors' concerns and have acted sensibly. Plus the National Council for Voluntary Organisations who worked tirelessly in the background to represent its diverse membership, as well as research institutions, to influence the clause's successor. Here of course lies the tremendous irony in all this. It was advocacy what saved us. The robust and very public outcry from Universities, the skilfully implemented advocacy work of the charity sector, independent parliamentary bodies and our accessible governmental institutions, all combined to allow common sense to rule.

Of course this was not grant funded activity but the point is research knowledge and civil society have a crucial role to play in our political ecosystem in nudging our government and other key policy actors toward evidence-based, fair and effective policy and practice. The fierce debate around the distinctions between evidence-based policy engagement, research communications, knowledge exchange, policy advice, advocacy and activism will continue to rage long after this little episode is forgotten. However, for the time being at least we can still be proud to be in a country where evidence matters, and the independence of scientists and civil society is protected.

About the author

James Georgalakis is the Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute of Development Studies

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