With a workforce just shy of half a million spread across 17 separate departments, the UK civil service is integral to the way the country is run and change is made. The tentacles of this sprawling network stretch into every part of national government, from analysis to procurement, and priority setting to policy delivery. It is therefore vital that civil society and its advocates engage effectively with this large body of public policymakers.

Pro Bono Economics is dedicated to helping the social sector build a UK with higher wellbeing for all and, through the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, has been speaking with and surveying policymakers on their perceptions of the charity sector. This research is designed to help charities ensure they get the most out of their interactions with civil servants today and into the future. Here are the six key points for charities to consider:

1. Civil servants say the most effective means of providing them with information is through written reports

Charities should avoid sending blanket impersonal emails to civil servants where possible, as many civil servants find this off-putting. But targeted approaches are appreciated, particularly where charities can provide written reports focussed on issues which matter to civil servants. Just over six in 10 (61%) civil servants surveyed for the Commission research said written reports were their preferred means of communication from charities. Where these are full of case studies, policy ideas and evidence, civil servants greatly value the ability to be able to pull information for briefings and internal reports. The survey also found 58% value looking at a charity’s website and 55% like one-to-one meetings.

2. Civil servants value the genuine expertise that charities can offer

As specialists in their fields of focus, charities have so much expertise to offer civil servants in a multitude of policy areas. Civil servants welcome this expertise. For instance, when interviewed for the Commission report, one Department for Health and Social Care official commented on the usefulness of a health charity’s communications about the issues faced by cancer patients, which might otherwise not have been understood. To find the right civil servant to talk to in the UK government, a good place for charities to start is the organogram of senior staff available on departmental websites. This is an invaluable tool for charities looking to understand which teams they can most closely work with.

3. Charities should make sure their communications are supported by rigorous evidence wherever possible

Civil servants respond favourably to policy arguments supported by evidence. As part of the Commission research, one civil servant said: “Some lobbying put forward by charities is too focused on their own perspectives – it’s essentially ‘policy-based evidence making’ [rather than evidence-based policy making]. Frequently evidence is not rigorous, or it is ‘topped and tailed’ with direct criticism of the government.” Charities looking to make their work as robust as possible should look to voluntarily apply the UK Statistics Authority’s code of practice, which is full of good advice to help make evidence more rigorous.

4. Civil servants value strong, long-term working relationships with charities, grounded in trust

The Commission research found that working groups and repeated meetings with charity representatives are seen by civil servants as more impactful forums for engagement than ad hoc roundtables. Of course, this preference isn’t true for all civil servants – but they overwhelmingly put great importance on trusting charities they engage with and they are reluctant to give organisations that they feel have undermined that trust a second chance. The best way to develop that trust is through repeated interactions, maintained over time.

5. Understanding the difference between what a Minister can do and what civil servants can is crucial

Civil servants appreciate that charities are understaffed and stretched but they also believe that many can be amateurish or unprofessional. In particular, they get frustrated with the lack of understanding of processes and how government works. One civil servant told the Commission: “In general, policy people in charities haven't worked in government. They tend to see having their CEO meeting with the Minister as the main goal, and don’t understand that more influence can be achieved through good strong working relationships with [Grade]6s and 7s [civil servants] responsible for policy areas.” If charities aren’t certain about who the best person is to speak to, the DCMS Civil Society and Youth team can play a key role in helping them navigate Whitehall.

6. Many civil servants are keen to gain volunteering experience that fits around their work commitments

For civil servants looking to progress, volunteering can be a great opportunity to develop skills in collaboration and improve their understanding of life outside Whitehall – which is a particularly vital part of levelling up and the civil service reform agenda. Meanwhile, charities have much to benefit from civil servants’ valuable skills and insights. Both sectors share a keen thread of dedication to public service.  Organisations like the Whitehall and Industry Group play an important brokerage role between the civil service and the sector.

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