One glance from your direction and the government will fall

We all preferred Heaven 17 at the time – because they were supposedly the credible band – but these days I’d far rather listen to ‘Dare’.*

This is a slightly roundabout (and needlessly esoteric) way of saying that our understanding of value shifts over time. We might think we have it nailed down, but it transmutes, constantly.

And this time-based dimension of ‘value’ plays out particularly strongly in the campaigning world, I think.

a)     ‘Bet Your Company’

It’s obviously possible to secure short-term wins through campaigning, but often campaigns are about taking on entrenched vested interests, structural barriers, the most powerful adversaries – and that takes time.

Essentially then campaigning can involve taking relatively high stakes decisions – committing resources over a long period – with the expectation of a long-term pay off, if you get it right, and if things go your way. Organisational theorists Deal and Kennedy describe this as mode of operating as a ‘bet your company’ type culture (high risk/slow feedback).

But NGOs tend to have systems that rely on quicker feedback, and more certain outcomes. And there is often a level of institutional discomfort within NGOs to the idea of accommodating this more speculative, long-term approach to value.

Attempts to shoehorn campaigning into existing ways of working – and ways of assessing success and deciding where best to put resources – doesn’t tend to work that well.

This is one way (of many) in which campaigning can prove programmatically and culturally disruptive, a cuckoo in the organisational nest.

b)     2 + 2 ≠ 4

Drawing on my own recent experience – this time of an advocacy programme funded by a Foundation – it’s clear that that two years twice isn’t the same as four years.

If a campaign is funded for two years, and results are expected in that time, then it makes sense to work with civil society organisations that already have access and ‘capacity’, the kinds of results expected in that timeframe most likely can’t be achieved by working with more marginalised groups and their representatives, who have been historically excluded from power.

If you have 4 years plus, you start to be able to direct efforts towards reconfiguring the ways that decision are made, and who takes part, rather than just trying to influence the results of existing decision making processes.

But with two years and then two more years, you never get to that point.

This being one example of how the focus on short-ish term results can totally skew the rules of the game.

c)     Campaigning forks perpetually towards innumerable futures

The compexities of campaigning are compounded by the fact that progress is not linear, and often occurs in unpredictable ways.

Even existing progress can be difficult to interpret “given that the next bit of information could falsify our previous view and completely change the essence of the message … the last card may change the whole point of the story” as Vlatko Vedral puts it in Decoding Reality.

I was recently part of a team reviewing a ten-year campaign. Based on achievements along the way, the campaign could easily have been pulled at some earlier point (and there were various organisational attempts to do so) on the basis that it wasn’t achieving too much. But these apparently fallow years actually sowed the seeds of later – and significant – change, in ways that were only really evident looking back.

The conclusion from this would be that assessments of campaigning value should not over-rely on judgements made by looking at the state of affairs at a particular moment.

It makes more sense to look for patterns, and signs of momentum, and evidence of any shifts going on in the sub-stratum.

d)     Campaigning is lived forwards but understood backwards

Time goes forward, so the natural tendency in tracking campaign progress is to start with the activities and then look for the results.

But obvsiously it’s an aggregation of activities, and a whole range of other factors, that have a bearing on outcomes. If you try to follow the thread by starting from specific activities, you get a distorted picture.

So if you want to understand outcomes, and your contribution to them, then you need to take the outcomes as your starting point, not the activities. Various approaches – such as outcome harvesting – work well in an advocacy context because they are based on that principle.

But that’s not typically how our brains work, and it does seem to require a lot of self discipline in thinking – and reporting – to move away from a focus on activities and instead focusing in on the desired changes and expanding the analysis out from there.


* Parts of it at least. Wikipedia explains the background in case anyone’s interested


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