This is the text of an editorial I published in The Examiner on 7 June 2013, with my Advocacy Initiative hat on.
ON the surface it may seem natural that any government would be hesitant to fund criticism of its own policies.
Is this not simply a case of an organisation in receipt of state funds biting the hand that feeds it? At first glance the argument against state funding of “political activity” such as social justice advocacy by civil society organisations seems pretty solid.
In the first instance, a government’s role is to use taxpayers’ money to fund public services. It is a waste of those resources to seek to buy its own judge and jury. Secondly, governments should create environments in which civil society organisations can thrive and contribute to democracy. Third, acceptance of state funding fatally wounds the independence that is fundamental to the mission of civil society organisations. NGOs are non-governmental and that includes funding. Many organisations, such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, operate from this principle.
This begs the question why the State funds advocacy at all. Why has it defined an ambition to support the policy-making contribution of civil society in 2000? Why has it invested in building organisations that represent the voice of the poor? Does this boil down to a sinister strategy to silence criticism or buy political support?
Last year former justice minister Michael McDowell described the tactic as institutionalised dissent, when he argued that “former taoiseach Bertie Ahern brought dissent into the semi-state world by subsidising interest groups to beat their own drums from public money”.
But life is a bit messier than that. The arguments for the State funding social justice advocacy by civil society organisations are a response to the complexities of a mature modern democracy.
First, by involving those affected, better decisions are made. In the case of excluded communities this inclusion needs to be funded and supported. Those operating at the coalface of our most difficult social problems know more about their causes and solutions than any other actors.
Second, democracy is not something that happens once every five years. All kinds of groups seek to influence democratic decision-making every day. Big business and other sectoral interests invest heavily in influencing government, however, state funding can balance that power.
Finally at the core of our democracy is a robust election system. But by definition democracy involves winners and losers. When those losers are dis-proportionately communities who are disenfranchised, disillusioned and excluded, that is a failure of democracy. Social cohesion is achieved by supporting the participation of all voices.
The experience here may not be a perfect one, but we face long-term consequences if we undermine one fundamental pillar of that cohesion — a government’s commitment (financial and otherwise) to ensuring inclusive democratic debate and process at all stages of decision-making.
While some organisations can and do sustain their advocacy work without using direct state funding, others do not have the capacity or popularity to run successful mini-marathons or attract corporate or philanthropic investment. A principled, but simplistic stand against providing state funding would serve to exclude these voices.
It is both inevitable and desirable that there should be productive tensions between the state and the community and voluntary sector, particularly where they seek to influence and criticise each other. However, as Housing Minister Jan O’Sullivan recently described it, “this may cause a degree of tribulation in a minister’s office [but] robust and evidence based criticism is something that I value and welcome”.
It is also proper the State should seek to regulate the behaviour of any organisation that attempts to exert influence on democratic decision-making processes, and the proposed regulation of lobbying is very welcome.
Money does have the potential to complicate any relationship and there are risks, but governments support advocacy because it makes for better democracy and more effective policy.
Government funding ensures that vulnerable communities and groups are at the policy-making table and not on the menu.