Holding governments to account

Holding government to account means calling out dysfunctional bureaucratic practices. We can make a difference if we work together. Right now the Charities Crisis Cabinet needs your input to push fundraising reform writes CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News, 25 March 2021.

Holding governments to account, Pro Bono News, 25 March 2021

There are a whole range of strategies governments employ to avoid taking action while retaining the support of concerned citizens. I doubt there is a single charity in Australia that has not had to deal with some of these avoidance strategies. 

It can be as simple as just not doing anything but continuing to make the right noises – we support your goal and are not opposed to what you are suggesting. A little like our prime minister talking about quotas for women in the Liberal Party, not doing anything at all, but sounding supportive.

Governments may appear more proactive by positioning their inaction as a period of consideration – we are having a really good look at this issue and considering the way forward.

One level above this response is the official inquiry or review – we consider this so serious that we are putting in place a review process to make recommendations about the way forward.

Once the review is completed and the recommendations have been effectively ignored, sometimes for a year or two, the next level of avoidance begins – we have endorsed the recommendations of the review in principle and are now working within government to see how they might be implemented.

Perhaps another year or so on, the government might engage in another round of “consultations” to identify “revenue neutral” options, ways of moving forward without the government having to find new funding.

The list of avoidance strategies could go on for a few hundred words and even then, there are more and more avoidance strategies being deployed by governments every day.

One of the final strategies is to allocate some government funding to addressing an issue and then claim because the government has allocated some funding, the problem has been addressed – the current government has spent more on aged care, disability, mental health, women’s refuges etc. than any previous government, even though the previous government was eight years ago and much of the increased expenditure is based on larger populations and increased costs rather than new or improved programs and services. The allocation of some government funding does not mean concerns about that issue are resolved and it can now be ticked off. Often such expenditure can be both inadequate and poorly targeted. 

Faced with this avoidance approach from so many areas of government, it is up to charities to not only call this behaviour out, but also to drive the change they want to see. Charities need to be at the forefront of holding governments to account if we are to improve government and strengthen the communities we serve. Charities also need to develop their own strategies to counter government avoidance.

In the case of fundraising regulation, the Charities Crisis Cabinet (CCC), the #FixFundraising coalition (including CCA) and others have decided to create their own accountability measures around fundraising reform. This new approach has come about largely because charities have been the subject of all the usual government avoidance strategies, and nothing much has changed in over a decade of campaigning.

While governments pay lip service to charities on issues like cutting red tape, reducing unnecessary duplication and compliance activity, harmonising legislation and encouraging more charitable fundraising, in reality the trend is towards more, not less, compliance requirements for charities. In fact, it seems governments have one approach to cutting red tape for business and a parallel approach to try and increase red tape for charities.

Charities that put a “donate here” button on their website are still having to navigate and complete the separate registration and reporting requirements imposed by the states and territories. This is despite a Senate Inquiry into Fundraising Regulations and a Bushfire Royal Commission recommendation to have one set of fundraising requirements that applies nationally.

Holding government to account means calling out these dysfunctional bureaucratic practices. 

Fundraising reform was one of the first issues that was raised with the CCC as Australian charities responded to COVID-19 and bushfire recovery. Charities told us Australia’s out of date and not fit for purpose system of fundraising regulation stymied and hindered them when they needed to be nimble, and when they most needed support.  

Both the Australian treasurer and the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements engaged with this issue and have sought to advance the harmonisation of fundraising regulation to establish a single national regulatory scheme. So far, states and territories have made little meaningful progress.

We want to be able to highlight which state and territory governments are making progress in reducing red tape and which are not. We can only really do this by telling your stories about what it takes to register your fundraising activity and meet ongoing reporting requirements. Governments can claim whatever, but the real test is how their regulations are or are not impacting on charities. We need you to take this survey: Help Reform Australia’s Outdated System of Fundraising Regulation.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this survey is that we will be widely promoting our findings in the media and repeating the survey in six months with further extensive media to show just how much progress every state and territory government is making in reducing red tape for charities. The survey will provide a national scoreboard of states and territories that support charities and those that do not.

Fundraising reform is not the only agenda that needs more government accountability, there are so many, but it is a good example of how we can make a difference if we are prepared to work together as a charity sector.

Governments will only be accountable if charities choose to document and share the impact of government policies. We need to reward good behaviour and seek to change behaviour that is harmful for charities and the communities we serve. 

Accepting government avoidance strategies is not an option if we want good government and stronger charities supporting flourishing communities.

NB. Please take the fundraising regulations survey and encourage other charities to participate.