Advocacy organisations need to spell out what they want,
not just complain

The usefulness of stating organisational aims is hardly a recent discovery. Everyone wades through a sea of organisation mottos, by-lines, aims and targets throughout their educational and professional careers. Some are meaningless, but many more are useful. For advocacy groups especially, clear targets and stated objectives are a necessity. They provide direction and transparency when that organisation engages with governments, and they also form the basis of member’s evaluation of the performance of their organisation.

Operating under advocacy targets is common although not ubiquitous. As part of ongoing research, the Australian Farm Institute is examining overseas agricultural advocacy groups and domestic non-agricultural sector bodies, in order to better understand the performance of successful advocacy organisations. It is apparent that an absence of clear goals can be problematic for such organisations. Differing expectations of members and stakeholders can cause internal friction, and regular reappraisal of the rationale behind advocacy targets can be helpful in avoiding this.

The National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales (NFU) is a highly effective and influential lobby group both at the national and European level. To a degree, it’s a victim of its own success. The farm subsidies that are available to United Kingdom (UK) farmers and farmer-friendly environmental legislation they operate under are testament to the efficacy of its lobbying. Expectations of NFU members are understandably high, given its past successes. Professor Wyn Grant, the current professor of politics at the University of Warwick has written extensively on pressure groups including the NFU. In his commentary of agricultural policy, he describes a protectionist paradigm that has pervaded UK agriculture. Farmers feel entitled to generous subsidies and minimal green tape. There is an open- ended expectation that the NFU shapes legislation as much and often as it can. The question of what constitutes a fair level of farm subsidisation and the environmental obligations that farmers should be required to meet remains a difficult subject to broach within the NFU.

Grant notes the occasional expressions of unease by individual farmers regarding the high farm subsidies they receive, and the extent to which these expressions conflict with the ongoing lobbying of the NFU. The development of an agreed subsidy target by the NFU would not necessarily eradicate the underlying conflict, but could help to frame the debate, focus demands and manage expectations of stakeholders.

From the NFU’s perspective, ministerial sentiment over farm subsidies has at times been opaque. The president of the Scottish NFU recently expressed a desire for greater clarity about the government’s future vision for agriculture. Whether or not the government is targeting less protectionism and fewer farmers is useful information. It enables negotiation and transitional measures to commence.

While the need for targets is apparent it must be recognised that not all goals or directions can be specific. The political, economic and social environment is fluid, and in response organisations need to retain the capacity to react as situations emerge. Nevertheless a push for greater clarity of the specific targets sought by the NFU on behalf of its members seems long overdue.

Closer to home, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has recognised the need for clearer advocacy targets. The NFF’s Blueprint for Australian Agriculture makes a genuine attempt to outline specific future targets. The Blueprint breaks its vision down into seven themes under which it lists ‘issues’, ‘goals’, ‘headline strategies’, and importantly ‘What would success look like’. For example Theme 6 of the Blueprint relates to the use of labour. First on the list of issues is the shortage of labour. One of the corresponding goals is to attract and retain labour. The headline strategy to ‘expand the overseas worker program and identify and foster Australian labour streams’ provides a transparent pathway to solve the issue. The vision of success is reasonably open-ended, however, it stipulates that farmers are best practice employers and that agriculture careers are viewed positively. The economic push for flexible and productive labour is tempered through the promotion of employee interests.

The Blueprint also provides a timeframe over which it is hoped the aims will be achieved. This provides transparency in respect of progress on the desired outcomes, and provides members with additional information to assess organisational performance.

One may not agree with what is outlined within the NFF Blueprint, but it provides a useful mechanism to help ensure that the expectations of members and stakeholders are brought into line. Specific goals and strategies can be debated and amended as needed. Whether or not the NFF’s advocacy succeeds remains to seen, but the structure under which its operations are conducted is commendable. The usefulness of stating aims may seem obvious after the fact, but an absence of clear targets still hinders the work of many organisations operating today.

Image:  AWB