A key factor for WBG in gaining access to government was through relationships with supportive civil servants. One civil servant in the Equality Unit (now Government Equalities Office) describes how she worked with WBG in an interview that highlights the multiple ways in which gender equality policy and gender budgeting has to be framed and the vulnerability to institutional and political contexts.
When I first came across the WBG I was leading on gender mainstreaming across the civil service. And government departments were resistant, the data wasn’t available, they thought that gender was nothing to do with them.
When I met WBG I was incredibly impressed because they were talking about money. The women’s sector often doesn’t talk about money. So, the idea that there was this resource of academic experts who could provide evidence about the economics of women’s rights was extraordinary to me. I thought I am sure I can get people in government interested in this. This is evidence that can be used to promote mainstreaming.
So, my role for a number of years in WBG was to be the helpful civil servant who could connect them up with people and processes. I would get them invited to things, consultations that were happening. I would help draft their responses, using language that would resonate with the people they were trying to persuade. I also helped WBG set up a programme of meetings with the Treasury, both ministers and officials.
What helped make this happen was that there were feminist ministers in the Treasury who wanted to develop policies for women’s equality, so WBG provided the evidence to support their work to push for this within the department and government more generally. Some of these women ministers had long standing relationships with women’s voluntary organisations from when they were in opposition. It also helped that the Labour government was very aware of the need to win the support of women voters. We were able to argue that doing this sort of gender analysis would improve policy-making – preventing unexpected consequences. This is an argument based on efficiency rather than morality, but it helps convince people who might not listen to other women’s organisations.
Things changed after 2010. The Women’s National Commission was closed so there was no official mechanism for the women’s voluntary sector to engage with government. The Coalition government didn’t continue the meetings with the Women’s Budget Group. I think this shows you have to be prepared to adopt different strategies depending on the context. If the national government isn’t interested you may have to focus on local government, or take a different approach, using public opinion and the media to put pressure on from the outside.