The Inside Track or the Outside Track? The row that never dies.

Shortly before leaving his post as Director of the NCVO in 1984, Nicholas Hinton was booed, jeered and spat at. The reason was that his conversations with politicians and civil servants had convinced him that the Government of Mrs Thatcher was undoubtedly going to abolish the Greater London Council (GLC) and the best strategy for those concerned for voluntary action across London was to try to shape the post-GLC landscape in its favour.

  1. He shared this view with radical representatives of the grass-roots movements nurtured by the GLC, who wanted all-out resistance. To them, this was a betrayal, fracturing the solidarity of the resistance. The rationale of the informed insider confronted the raw emotions of representatives of marginalised groups demanding recognition and rights. It was a shocking moment in the history of insider/outsider tensions when the Director of NCVO left a meeting of voluntary organisations wiping spittle from his coat.
  2. Recognise anything at all familiar in this story? Yes, it’s an old, recurring row about whether voluntary organisations seeking change should pursue the inside or outside track (or both).

Criteria for the insider/outsider choice

  1. Most of us can agree that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for achieving change. The voluntary sector is an ecosystem whose different elements make different contributions, but in the end need each other. Without public and political pressure, the insiders may be ineffectual. Without the insiders’ knowledge and contacts, the outsiders may not get good intelligence about decision-making or know how best to exploit the pressure they have created.
  2. A charity seeking policy change must therefore analyse regularly whether energies should be invested more in cultivating the insider track with people nearer the levers of power, or by contrast in public challenge, protest, media pressure and the encouragement of people power. (I am focusing in this piece on charities trying to influence central government, but the principles apply equally to other civil society organisations and to other levels of Government.)
  3. Sometimes, the same organisation encompasses both insider and outsider tactics, hoping to achieve a symbiosis between campaigning and insider lobbying activities, so in those cases the calculation is about the balance between them at any one time.
  4. The outcomes of such an analysis, and resulting strategy choices, will rightly differ from one charity to the next. It will depend on three key variables, which we shall consider in turn:
  • The theory of change adopted by that charity (and periodic analysis of whether it remains valid)
  • The external circumstances, in particular the willingness and ability of your contacts on the insider track to engage seriously and, if so, make any significant difference
  • The culture, distinctive role and skills of the charity.

Theory of Change

  1. Put simply, the theory of change is your assessment of what sort of activity is most likely to bring about the change you want to see. Is the best pathway to change a rational discussion based on evidence with those close to power? If so, well-argued policy papers fertilised by political opportunism and media interest may be the most promising contribution my particular charity can make. If, however, you’re interested in change which in your charity’s opinion can only be effected by a shift in cultural and power relationships in society, well-argued papers submitted to civil servants will not do the job. And even if your hoped-for change is less transformational, the insider track will be ineffectual if the politicians and civil servants have decided that your cause is low priority. Your theory of change will need to adapt accordingly.
  2. By the same token, another charity may have adopted a settled model of protest and mobilisation, as of outsiders demanding admittance to a closed society, only to find that gaps are appearing and those in conventional institutions show a serious interest in policy change and collaboration. That can be a culture shock, even identity crisis, for voluntary organisations, as I think Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace found when Mrs Thatcher suddenly announced her epiphany on the subject of climate change. Theories of change may have to alter.

External Circumstances and Opportunities

  1. A similar major change can happen when a new Government of a different party wins an Election. Years in the wilderness can abruptly be replaced by an apparent welcome to the feast – or vice versa.
  2. A new Minister from the same governing party can also make all the difference: for environmentalists, Chris Patten instead of Nicholas Ridley as Secretary of State for the Environment, or for prison reformers, a Michael Howard instead of a Douglas Hurd as Home Secretary. The same civil servant would, following such a change, walk into the room with a completely different attitude and brief.
  3. Similarly, the umbrella bodies of the charity sector have known over many years the difference between a sympathetic and energetic Minister for Civil Society in a central Department and a less effective one in a more peripheral Department.
  4. The analysis and the calculations of insider/outsider tactics must therefore be open to change and debate as the balance of insider opportunity alters.

The culture, distinctive role and skills of the charity

  1. Different charities properly have quite different cultures and roles. Among those seeking policy change, some wish primarily to give voice to oppressed people, reflect their anger and put them in the driving seat of change through popular mobilisation. Others are think tanks with no such ambitions but with a desire to make an informed contribution as part of the policy-making process. The Kings Fund is not equipped to mobilise and empower the oppressed. Citizens UK cannot do the job of The King’s Fund. War on Want is a very different organisation from Save the Children, and both are different from the Overseas Development Institute; they contribute to change in a different way, and yet each is part of the ecosystem of charitable intervention in overseas development.
  2. Each charity must therefore have a clear sense of what its distinctive contribution is – perhaps the most important issue to be discussed in any strategic review. It will have a sense of what its beneficiaries want and expect, what its core strengths are, what difference it can make better than any other organisation, and, in a world of scarce resources, what other aspects it is going to leave to other charities with different strengths.
  3. That is why the distinctive culture and strengths of a charity are a really important factor, along with its theory of change and its analysis of external opportunities and barriers, in deciding the right balance of insider and outsider strategies.

Getting personal

  1. Of course, in a world of strong passions for a cause, such conflicting analyses can get personal, as Nicholas Hinton discovered. So the insiders may consider the campaigning types, who are reflecting the anger of a cause losing out in the current system, to be “shouty” rather than serious interlocutors, over-emotional rather than rational, posturing for a constituency rather than trying to effect real change, and indulging in “pure” rhetoric in preference to the arduous compromises necessary in the real world. They may deplore the “naivete” of those who cannot see beyond the requirements of their particular cause to put themselves in the shoes of decision-makers.
  2. Those reactions can be reinforced by patriarchy if the people cast as “shouty”, “emotive” or “naïve” are women. For the nose-tapping, adrenalin-pumping world of the effective insider track influencing power has mainly been, traditionally, a (white) man’s world – and although this is thankfully changing, the change is incomplete.
  3. On the other hand, the outsiders may suspect the insiders of being flattered and seduced by the insider track, which they perceive as exclusive and un-transparent. They may see the insiders as colluding with an unfair power structure, compromising their principles, or choosing to tinker with unjust policies rather than challenge them. They see the insiders’ relationships of trust with Government as a drag on open democratic accountability within the sector and on the robust public expression of the demands of those they are serving. They may see the insiders as being gulled by clever civil servants into thinking they are being listened to when in fact they are being largely ignored.


To hope that voluntary organisations will stop having rows about the insider and outsider tracks is like hoping that families will stop having rows about how late teenagers should stay out on Saturday nights. But to stop things descending to the spitting stage, let’s remember:

If possible, it’s better to analyse and respect the key variables rather than get personal:

  • What’s the theory of change and does it need adapting?
  • How favourable or otherwise are external circumstances to the insider track?
  • What are the distinctive role, culture and skills of my charity? and

It’s an eco-system. In the end, insiders and outsiders need each other. One without the other is often less effective than both working in concert.



4 thoughts on “The Inside Track or the Outside Track? The row that never dies.

  1. A fascinating blog – as always – I am ashamed to say I don’t remember taking Nick’s coat to the cleaners but I suppose that I must have done so! Your view is, as always, perceptive, you are right about the balance that needs to be achieved, I think Nick largely got it right, partly because he never for one moment felt ‘flattered’ by the attentions of politicians and civil servants, or regarded them as anything other than deeply flawed human beings, he was a pragmatist, always looking for the best way to achieve the best result for the widest range of people and organisations, this was what made him such an effective ‘insider, Nick never allied himself passionately with any individual cause or campaign, He realised that you can only be a an effective ‘insider’ if you are completely objective, not afraid to compromise and not scared of being unpopular, with above all a strong moral compass..


    • Thank you Debra. Great comments. On the GLC, Nick was right in his analysis, of course, and those who didn’t want to believe him gradually had to as time passed and the legislation wound its way through Parliament. Yes, he certainly had to be courageous to tell them the truth when they were so passionate and dug in.


  2. Thanks, i thought this was very interesting and a helpful framework – point 13 is the key one for me, &, over-generalising perhaps, i’m not sure NGOs are that good at reviewing strategy deeply, in a timely way. One risk in relation to this is that the roles and skills dimension creates path dependence, making it harder to justify a shift in strategy given previous investment in the architecture supporting the existing one


    • Thank you Jim, I think you are right. I wish more charities would consciously maintain skills in both insider and outsider dimensions and be agile in combining them, or prioritising one over the other. Too many stand pat on the argument: we have always been THIS sort of organisation, rather than contemplate diversifying their approaches. I hope you are in good health and spirits. A.


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