Policy and campaigning at NSUN: learn more and request our support

At NSUN, a key strand of our work falls under the banner of policy and campaigning. 

While we are proud of this work, we have been reflecting on the power that we hold in getting to decide which issues we take on and who we choose to support. We also acknowledge that historically, people have felt unclear about what policy and campaigning work is, how to ask for our support, and exactly what it is we can offer. 

The aim of this article is to explain the above, with the goal of helping our members to better understand the work that we do, and to know how you can approach us for grassroots policy and campaigning support.

What is policy and campaigning? 

Policy and campaigning refers to a broad set of activities, often focussed on changing “the system”. For us, this can include exposing problems within current mental health provision, campaigning for change, and supporting solutions. This work stands alongside our other activities which are more focussed on building alternatives “outside” of “the system”; including our funding programmes, supporting member organisations, and commissioning/publishing writing about new forms of care and approaches to mental ill-health, distress, and trauma.

Policy and campaigning can involve lots of things, from creating an open letter, lobbying parliament and speaking at events, to engaging with the media, creating coalitions with other organisations, and conducting/publishing research on the harms of current systems. Often, our work on a particular issue will involve a mixture of these things, some in public and others behind the scenes. 

What we decide to do on a particular issue is based on our capacity and expertise, and strategic decision making around what we think might best achieve our goals. If we are supporting a member with their campaign, we are also guided by their expertise and how they feel we might be best placed to support.

The tensions of doing policy and campaigning work

Over the past few years we have been having lots of conversations about what it means to do policy and campaigning work, and the tensions involved in doing it. In particular, doing work directed at changing “the system” can be complex, for many reasons. This is something we have written about in the past

At NSUN, we recognise that dominant systems of power and mental healthcare often cause harm, and for the most part require dismantling and reimagining entirely. It can be conflicting to advocate for “change” in systems that we do not believe should exist in the first place. This work can also be hostile, demanding, and involve a lot of work for little reward, change, or progress, and our participation can be read as us inadvertently validating harmful work

Nonetheless, we still see value in dedicating a portion of our work to trying to change the current system: because it is the one we are currently living in, because we can make a tangible difference, and because it matters to many of our membership. There is an inherent tension here, between recognising the limits of this work while still believing it is worth doing. We have no solutions, but a commitment to continuing to ask questions, be honest about our work, and be willing to learn. 

The power we do and do not hold 

A large part of our conversations around policy and campaigning work has involved thinking about the power we hold. While this is often implicit in our publications, it feels important to acknowledge them explicitly. 

Firstly, while we have always rejected the idea that we “represent” the service user “voice”, others (particularly those in “power” such as funders, NHS foundations, and policy makers) often interpret our work as doing exactly that. As a medium-sized organisation, we are often invited to be involved in initiatives in a representative role. We can see how our participation can be and has been tokenised and used for tick-box initiatives that are not interested in the same things as us. At the same time, while we do not seek to “represent” our members, we also feel that we have a responsibility to use these opportunities that smaller organisations or individual members do not get. We are aware that our refusal to engage in something may mean that there are no lived experience voices “at the table”. Again, this is a tension that we have not and likely cannot resolve, instead we must continue to ask the questions that matter to us: is it ethical? Can we make a difference? Does it align with our priorities? 

Secondly, we also acknowledge the power we hold in having generated expertise and insider knowledge on particular institutional processes. We understand the politics of how certain organisations work together, what campaigning tactics are likely to “work” in particular instances, and have built a network of contacts across “the system”. We feel a responsibility to share this knowledge, while also recognising the limits to our understanding.

While it is true that we’ve built organisational knowledge and expertise, it is also important to acknowledge the limits we operate within. We do not have legal, research, public relations, or advocacy teams. We are not experts on the law, nor do we have the capacity or resource to have built strategic relationships with policy makers and/or politicians in the way that many large mental health charities can or have done. While we are the only national user-led mental health charity, many policy makers are not aware of us, or choose to only approach much larger and better-resourced mental health charities in major consultation work. As a team with lived experience, we have also experienced harm in mainstream policy and/or “co-production” spaces, where our critical perspectives are met with hostility and our recommendations ignored.

We do, however, have the privilege of infrastructure that many brilliant campaigners do not, such as funding, permanent staff, insurance, a bank account, as well as the legal protections that come with being a registered organisation and having trustees. It is important to recognise this power and where possible, use it to support others that do not have this infrastructure in place. We already regularly “lend” our infrastructure to grassroots groups (e.g. through our hosted projects, publishing, supporting campaigns by platforming them, advising on strategy and communications, and by offering financial support where we can) but we are keen to do more. 

Finally, we also hold the power to decide what issues we take on and how we decide to go about it. Sometimes we generate campaigns internally from discussions in the team, and other times members approach us and ask for our support. When we decide to take on issues we must think about the work in question is within our capacity, expertise, and policy priorities. We also think about who else is working on this issue and whether we feel we could make a meaningful contribution. 

Because many of these conversations involve sensitive and complex negotiations, it is often appropriate for us to conduct them behind closed doors. However, this can make it difficult for people to understand why we decide to take on certain issues over others, to know that we can and do offer campaigning support, and make it difficult for others to hold us to account. We commit to making this work as transparent as possible, while still being unclear exactly how best we might go about this.  

What we have done: how you can request our support

As a result of these conversations, we have set some things in motion.  

We have re-written our policy priorities. The purpose of this was to increase transparency about the issues that we are choosing to focus on, as well as articulate to others the kinds of issues that we are interested in working on. Our focus is on areas we feel are not necessarily priorities for other mental health organisations.

We are trialling new ways that members can ask for our support. The aim of this is to let members know that they can ask for our support, and invite a wider range of people to do so, without needing to already have connections with NSUN. As part of this, we have created a new area on our website with two new structures: 

  1. A process through which people can alert us to a policy issue. This form allows members to let us know about an issue that they are not currently working on but think we should be aware of. This could include an upcoming piece of legislation, a consultation we might contribute to, a new technology being used in mental health settings, or a campaign people think NSUN might like to be involved in. The aim of this is to try to better ensure that our campaigning work reflects the priorities of our members.
  2. A process through which members can request our support with policy and campaigning. This form allows members (individuals with lived experience and grassroots, user-led groups) to let us know about a campaign they are working on and ask for our specific support. The aim of this is to let people know the kinds of support we can offer and hopefully invite more people to ask for our help.

As part of this, we have clearly articulated the support we can and cannot offer on the page linked via the button above. The aim of this is to help people get clear on how we may or may not be able to help them with their campaigns. For example, we might be able to talk through an issue with you, put you in touch with our contacts, or publish about it on our blog, but we cannot offer detailed legal advice or take on campaigns that do not align with our priorities or values. 

What next?

This reflective period has also helped us to recognise the limits in our current policy and campaigning work. Overall, our commitments are to increasing transparency and redistributing power and resources when it comes to “in system” work. This process is ongoing, and will be something that we aim to continually rework over the coming years. With this in mind, we are currently working toward:

  • Gaining expertise in “in system” organising so we can do so more effectively. This includes greater understanding of the legislative process and parliamentary lobbying, as well as developing more specific legal expertise.
  • Seeking funding so we can offer financial support to members doing their own policy and campaigning work.
  • Refining our internal decision-making processes around taking on policy and campaigning work, and making this publicly accessible.
  • Running regular events for members, including free training, around policy and campaigning.

We hope that this article itself contributes towards our goals, by helping members feel clearer on the work that we do and how we are trying to improve it. We hope, too, that people make use of our new channels for requesting our support with policy and campaigning work.