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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Government Fakecharities = Sock Puppets - An Important Study

    On occasion I have written of how government uses organisations they fund, but calling themselves charities, to run PR campaigns (or as it is called in newspeak "raising awareness") for ever more government spending and regulation.

    Not all of these are official charities, for example Scottish Renewables is official an industry lobbying organisation but is in fact, to a very large extent, funded by the government it is supposed to be lobbying.

    They are also used to promote state policy overseas. Almost any time you see the BBC reporting that a "independent western Non-Governmental Organisation" is stirring up scare stories about some foreign  country you will find it is funded by western governments.

   I have also seen blanket censorship of this phenomenon, not just by the BBC, which being a government fakecharity itself might be expected to censor, but across the entire lamestream media which simply censors any mention of fakecharities. On the net however it is quite widely discussed.

   I think it is unarguable that any journalist, newspaper or broadcaster which reports anything from such organisations without mentioning that they are governmental is lacking not just in objectivity but also in any sort of journalistic ethics. This does not prevent virtually every part of the MSM displauing, on a daily basis, such lack of journalistic ethics. One might almost think that they are also government controlled.  And indeed most papers do get a large proportion of their advertising from government - advertising being a greater source of money than purchasers. In some cases, such as the Guardian, it is obvious from looking at the paper that they get relatively little from advertisers driven by commercial considerations.

    Christopher Snowden has just published this report on what he calls "Sock Puppet" organisations, a term I like. Were our MSM actually interested in real stories rather than just repeating whatever some branch of government is publishing/briefing/leaking on the day this would be extensively covered.

Some excerpts:

In the last fifteen years, state funding of charities in Britain has increased significantly while restrictions on political lobbying by charities have been relaxed. 27,000 charities are now dependent on the government for more than 75 per cent of their income and the ‘voluntary sector’ receives more money from the state than it receives in voluntary donations.

....government funds and/or creates pressure groups with the intention of creating a ‘sock puppet’ version of civil society which creates the illusion of grassroots support for new legislation. These state-funded activists engage in direct lobbying (of politicians) and indirect lobbying (of the public) using taxpayers’ money, thereby blurring the distinction between public and private action.

State-funded charities and NGOs usually campaign for causes which do not enjoy widespread support amongst the general public (e.g. foreign aid, temperance, identity politics). They typically lobby for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws. In many cases, they call for increased funding for themselves and their associated departments. In public choice terms, they are ‘concentrated interests’ compelling the taxpayer to meet the costs that come from their policies being implemented, as well as the costs of the lobbying itself.

......The EU’s ‘Green 10’ and the Department of Health’s anti-smoking groups offer two examples where the close relationship between pressure groups and the state has been well documented over a number of years.

... Government funding of politically active charities, NGOs and pressure groups is objectionable on three counts. Firstly, it subverts democracy and debases the concept of charity. Secondly, it is an unnecessary and wasteful use of taxpayers’ money. Thirdly, by funding like-minded organisations and ignoring others, genuine civil society is cold shouldered in the political process (p4)

     A businessman might be entirely motivated by avarice and self-promotion, but so long as the market is reasonably competitive, he can only pursue his goals by giving the public what it wants at the best price. He may have no interest whatsoever in the public good, but he has an incentive to advance it nonetheless. Put the same individual in charge of a government department, however,and he will find that his own interests can be served by expanding his bureaucracy and inflating his budget. Once the willing and relatively well-informed customer becomes the unwilling and relatively uninformed taxpayer, the bureaucrat’s desire to maximise his salary while minimising his workload can be achieved with scant regard for the common good. He can advance his career by increasing the size and prestige of his own department and forcing the taxpayer to foot the bill (p6)

‘Moral entrepreneurs’ who rely on alarming the public about threats to their health and safety have an incentive to exaggerate the peril in the short term and find new fears to exploit in long term. There is a tendency for pressure groups to become more dogmatic as they seek to justify their continued existence and a successful organisation will attract new recruits who are still more zealous. This leads to ‘mission creep’ (p8)

It explains why an organisation like the Food Standards Agency can go from having a tiny staff investigating restaurant poisonings to having a budget of £500 million and a mission that has expanded to campaigning against salt, fat and eating crisps during football matches.(p9)

Between 1997 and 2005, the combined income of Britain’s charities nearly doubled, from £19.8 billion to £37.9 billion, with the biggest growth coming in grants and contracts from government departments ...state
funding rose by 38 per cent in the first years of the twenty-first century while private donations rose by just seven per cent.

This surge in government spending coincided with a politicisation of the third sector which was actively encouraged by the state apparatus from the Prime Minister down. Traditionally, lobbying activity could not be a charity’s ‘dominant’ activity, but could only be ‘incidental or ancillary’ to its charitable purpose. In 2002, however, a report from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit called for charities to increase their lobbying activity and for the Charity Commission guidelines to be made ‘less cautionary’(p12)

‘A charity that relies in the main part on taxes’, wrote the blogger Guido Fawkes, ‘is no more a charity than a prostitute is your girlfriend.’(13)
A survey in 2006 found that only 26 per cent of charities subcontracted to provide public services felt they were ‘free to make decisions without pressure to conform to the wishes of funders’(17)
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) was founded in 1965 by a group of social workers and sociologists who were disturbed that - as they declared in a letter to Harold Wilson – ‘at least half a
million children in this country are in homes where there is hardship due to poverty.’ A registered
charity since 1986, CPAG now uses a very different measure of deprivation to campaign on behalf
of the ‘3.8 million children living in poverty’32 - not so much a case of mission creeping as goalpost
shifting. (19)

it is a surprise to find that the EU is the War on Want’s single largest donor, closely followed by DfID (21)

For all their talk of engaging with civil society, it is most unlikely that politicians will fund groups with
whom they seriously disagree. Disgruntled motorists might be a large and under-represented group
in civil society, but the government is no more inclined to fund the Automobile Association than it is to give a grant to a pro-life or pro-smoking group. The EU will not give money to a eurosceptic or climate sceptic organisation even if, as is surely the case, their views are under-represented in Brussels (22)

Of the ‘Green 10’ - the ten largest environmental non-profits - only Greenpeace does not receive EU funding and only because it has refused the offer....they proudly explain that their role is to lobby for legislation.
‘We work with the EU law-making institutions - the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers - to ensure that the environment is placed at the heart of policymaking.

Originally, EU funding for these groups was limited to no more than 50 per cent of their annual income,
but when members of the Green 10 complained that they were unable to attract enough voluntary donations to match the EU’s grants, the limit was raised to 70 per cent. This is rent-seeking of the least ambiguous kind.(23)

The case of ASH is illuminating because it has existed long enough for archive documents to have emerged showing what the government expected of the group in terms of lobbying and policy formation. The charity is, as Berridge describes it, ‘the model of an outside campaigning group, but also linked inextricably to government, both financially and in strategic terms.’ From its inception is has been ‘an external pressure group, urging government to greater activity, but at the same time part of the policy network, working with the DHSS [Department of Health and Social Security] while it was agitating outside’. ASH’s model of ‘state-funded activism’ set the template for temperance groups such as Alcohol Concern (founded in 1984 with a £350,000 government grant as well as a more intensely funded wave of anti-smoking lobbyists created by the DH in the 2000s.....

The absence of a grassroots anti-smoking movement was a source of frustration for some in overnment. ....idea of the government manufacturing a more professional outfit lay dormant until the end of the 1960s when it was revived (27)

Once it became clear that ASH would never become the mass movement its founders envisaged, its staff focused on networking with the political and media elite of London....

Donations from the public remain negligible - representing less than two per cent of its income

ASH Scotland’s annual budget exceeded £1 million in 2008/09, of which 91 per cent came from the

Scottish government and NHS Scotland (29)

‘the Government announced he public consultation on the future of tobacco control....The resulting
 consultation attracted 96,000 responses.... at least 73 per cent of the total was solicited by organisations which were overwhelmingly funded by the Department of Health Consequently, the consultation found a uniformity of quasi-public opinion that strained all credibility. There was ‘over 99 per cent agreement’ that there should be further restrictions The gulf between public consultation and public opinion can be gauged by an ASH survey carried out in the same year which found that plain packaging was supported by just 43 per cent of the population(31)

Whether the government uses taxpayers’ money to amplify the voices of sympathetic charities or
creates pressure groups from whole cloth, the result is the same. Unpopular causes are made to look like mass movements and minority views are put centre-stage in a distorted re-imagining of civil society. It is telling that so many state-funded charities campaign for causes which are viewed with ambivalence, if not hostility, by the electorate. Foreign aid, climate change, sin taxes, temperance, anti-smoking, ‘sustainable development’, radical feminism and support for the EU are causes which the political elite believe are under-represented in civil society, but they do not draw from this the obvious conclusion that an absence of voluntary activism is indicative of public indifference....

National governments and the EU give substantial grants to climate change activists, but less than 5 per cent of charitable giving in the UK goes to environmental groups ....Despite climate change being the green lobby’s greatest concern, around a third of the British population considers the threat to be greatly exaggerated, and the rest are by no means universally supportive of Friends of the Earth’s policies. Only one in four of us supports green taxes, for example...

a World Health Organisation conference concluded in 2004 (WHO, 2005, p. 18). This conference, splendidly entitled ‘The Seventh Futures Forum on Unpopular Decisions in Public Health’, highlighted why
governments increasingly rely on state-funded activism to achieve their goals. It was openly admitted that policies favoured by bureaucrats and single-issue campaigners have little support amongst the electorate, but the notion that a democratic society might therefore abandon them seems not to have entered delegates’ minds. Instead they offered advice on how to manipulate the media and lead the public in the desired direction. ‘Making and launching unpopular decisions is everyday business for top-level policy-makers." (34)

The following passage suggests, there is an irreconcilable division between ‘the authorities’ and the electorate.
"mass media will never be totally fair and loyal partners to the authorities; they will most likely primarily be on the side of the general public"                     one can hope - ed
This is not civil society; it is the muzzling of civil society. ....There is no good reason to expect such faultlessness from bureaucrats, nor from their pet pressure groups.... they have the same incentives to seek rent, build empires and magnify threats as corporations and individuals.....It should be no surprise that this subverts democracy, for that is exactly what it was designed to do.(35)

Those who benefit from political patronage are highly vulnerable to changes of government. It is an onerous task for a government to replace one set of sock puppets with another, but the politician may consider the risks of inaction to be too great. As we have seen, governments tend to fund groups which share the same political outlook. If there is a divergence of views, it is only because the group is more extreme than the official party line, but that has the benefit of making the government appear moderate. ...

Consequently, the benefits of creating sock puppet organisations extend beyond the short-term utility of assisting the politician’s legislative agenda whilst in power. Once the party loses power, these groups become a ‘shadow state’ using public money to promote the political causes of its original funders (36)

1. The government should cease giving unrestricted grants to charities. ...The state should be capable of carrying out public information projects without recourse to third parties. If it wishes to pump out propaganda, the public should be informed that it is coming directly from government.

2. Political advertising by government departments should be prohibited....

3. A new category of non-profit organisation should be created for organisations which receive substantial funds from statutory sources. There is no doubt that the word ‘charity’ carries a halo.....

There is undoubtedly greater PR value in a charity calling for restrictions on liberty than would be the case if the message came directly from a bureaucrat or politician. . This, of course, is precisely why governments prefer to speak through sock puppets and why the concept of charity must be reclaimed for civil society.
 most charities receive no funding from the state. People who voluntarily give up their time to help the needy deserve to be distinguished from professional ...

4. Charity Commission regulations for political campaigning should be clarified, with guidelines set out according to existing case law. .... The Charity Commission should revert to previous guidelines which forbade ...charities from making political campaigning their dominant activity.....

HT Bishop Hill

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Sock charity. I like the term!
It doesn't look like Christopher Snowden checked his report for accuracy...

"It explains why an organisation like the Food Standards Agency can
go from having a tiny staff investigating restaurant poisonings to having a budget of £500 million"

The 'Food Standards Agency' doesn't have a budget of £500m. That's the other FSA.
He's right. It's an error that should have been picked up. The Food Standards Agency has a budget of around £160 million. I'll get the web paper changed in the near future.

Thanks for letting me know,


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