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The danger of co-option

I had just started my presentation on coping when you make a breakthrough on a campaign, when I was asked a killer question from the back of the room. This session was part of INTRAC’s advocacy training course. As ever the course was attended by an impressive array of campaigners from NGOs across the globe. And the killer question? “Wasn’t I being co-opted by government?”

It was a fair point. I had been talking about the time that I had been campaigning against empty homes in England. We had been pushing for new powers for local authorities to tackle the problem of empty homes and we had managed to persuade the Government to amend their own housing Bill.

Once these powers had become law, there then started the long process of preparing for the implementation of these new powers. As a result my colleagues and I began to attend a series of meetings in Whitehall.

I remember walking to one such meeting and one of my colleagues asking me, “do you think that we are having any impact here?” I immediately launched into a defence of our action and cited all of the meetings that we had attended. “Yes, but have we made any impact?” was my colleague’s direct reply.

And he was right. We had partly been seduced by the fact that we had been invited to meetings to which we had never had access before. This was an achievement – certainly for an NGO with less than 10 members of staff. But this was not an end in itself and we had confused access for influence

When you make a breakthrough on a campaign, you need to decide whether you are going to get involved in the implementation of the issue or whether you do not want to be involved and then walk away. Either response has its merits – but you do need to decide. If you decide to engage with the government, or whoever your target is, you do need to keep that campaigning zeal.

I sometimes think that co-option is a deliberate policy of this government – and if it is deliberate, then it is a shrewd policy. Once you are on the inside you can think that you have achieved a result. The truth is that you have only just started to achieve a result. Just being at the table is not enough. You need to use this access to get the best result for your campaign.

So when you get an invitation to a meeting – ask yourself – are we being co-opted and neutralised or can I use this opportunity to drive the campaign onwards? This is a killer question for a campaigner, so make sure that you keep asking yourself this question.