17 Principles for Policy Change Effectiveness
Updated: Jan 17
Affecting policy in ecological conservation is sometimes more art than science. Here are some of the principles that - in my experience - underlie success.
There are lots of definitions for ‘policy’, but for charitable organizations engaged in policy work, it generally means not just trying to affect a given decision, but affecting how the decisions are made, now and in the future. That generally means engaging with government decision makers at various levels.
But how, exactly?
Having a lovely, firm, six-letter word for it makes ‘policy’ seem very tangible and definitive. It is, in fact, more art than science, more jello than concrete. So the recipe for success involves few specific ingredients, but is more like my grandmother’s baking directions that said add something ‘until firm but not too firm.’
It boils down to principles more than prescriptions, and so below are collected 17 of the principles that seem to underlie most of the successful policy-influence efforts I’ve been involved with.
One of the hardest parts is simply being there. I say ‘hard’ because it is difficult to manage activities, identify opportunities, and fundraise for just being there. In some cases, this can mean being at the events and ‘stalking the Minister’, but mostly it means being present to the issue, constantly aware of the opportunities that are arising.
That is a lot of ‘nothing.’ It involves reading media releases, orders-in-council, news articles, analyses, party platforms, backgrounds on politicians, etc. It involves ‘nothing’ phone calls to public servants just to check in.
We often joke that a $5000 grant application is 30 pages long, and $500,000 grant application is one page long. But usually, that $5K application is the sum total of the case being made. The $500K application is simply the final step in a process that may have taken years. And a huge part of that is ‘credibility.’ That is a constant process. This is showing you are capable and knowledgeable in everything that you do.
This means sending out snippets on the little things that you have been doing, and not just the ‘wins.’ It means constantly letting decision makers know what you do, and - more importantly - how you do it. When an opportunity arises, you will have little time at that point to make the case that you are a credible entity to shoulder the next steps.
And remember that credibility is fragile – while it can take years to build, a single, poorly-considered interaction can collapse it, and take years to recover from.
The little things
The big things are for media releases. The other 99.9% of the work is the little things. Newsletter articles, quick phone calls, attending a partner organization’s events, chatting at the conference break, writing someone else a letter of support. The two items above (‘being there’ and ‘credibility’) are all about the little things.
‘Major policy wins’, where you share the stage with the premier, can just be a lot of ‘announcable’ window dressing, and may be no more important than a background tweak to a regulation in the long run. Both are important, for different reasons, but we can get starry-eyed about the picture on the news site or twitter feed, and lose track of assessing its real impact.
Their needs as well as yours
It’s tempting to identify what needs to happen, and then just press for that to occur. But we have to remember that that is simply ‘our’ need, even if we see it as a public interest imperative. We can get balled up in absolutes and frustration when these ‘obvious’ things are not readily accepted.
Movement on policy generally happens as a result of the mythological ‘win-win.’ But this is not the dew-eyed Kumbaya we often associate with that phrase. It is a Venn diagram concept where the whole realm of your interests is laid out beside theirs, and you see where there is overlap.
Everyone has an agenda. Pretending that you do not, or that yours is simply a mirror of the party with whom you are engaging in a policy dialogue, is not only disingenuous, it can work against you in the long run. At some point you will arrive at that place where you step outside of your common interests, and if that line is not clear it can appear that you have some nefarious deception at play.
Know your interests, articulate your interests, and be honest about your interests. Be clear that these are your interests, and clear that you don’t need to have perfect alignment in every other area for there to be a cooperative opportunity.
How they feel
I was once told that, in policy dialogues, it is more important how you make people feel than what you say to them. This is so true. This is particularly true of elected officials. Politicians of all stripes are the same in their desire to be liked — almost by definition, as they gain their role through a popularity contest.
When you focus on the negatives and the problems, the message you are sending is that this person is wrong and responsible for having created the issues. Whether they are is immaterial. Look instead for the intangible ways you are on the same team (do you have relatives from the same area, do you like camping, do you both think the law needs changing albeit in different ways). This idle chit-chat is often viewed as useless and distracting, but your only hope for forward movement is if you make a connection of some sort, with someone who feels you respect them.
When talking to someone who is your ideological twin, ideological purity is easy. But you are engaging in a policy dialogue expressly because you see the world from a different angle to that of the other person/entity. Concessions are sometimes viewed in the extreme as ‘selling out’, but even in your own mind, you can wonder if you have eroded some long-term value of yours.
A concession is not an adoption of someone else’s ideology, or even of their point of view. If everyone is unable to make concessions, there will be no progress. Believing you can browbeat another person until they accept your point of view is a Quixotic fantasy.
The key here is to clearly identify – to your dialogue partner as well as to yourself – that this is a concession, an unwanted deviation from your ideal. You are neither adopting their point of view, nor agreeing that this will never be on the table again. You are accepting it is a lower priority, in favour of achieving a higher priority.
The long game
This is the easiest thing to say, and the hardest thing to do: keep the long game in mind at all times. Your objectives can be dramatically amended, your goals can be refined, but your vision stays solid. Any course of action has to be tested against the vision, not simply the accomplishment of short-term objectives.
In policy efforts, this is the litmus test for many of the points above: When have you compromised the vision? When is an objective a ‘necessity’ only for the chosen course vs the vision? When are parts of the non-common ground unduly affected by support of the common ground?
Sometimes ‘Political’, but always ‘political’
Policy is always small-p political, but not always capital-p Political. The prevailing ethos of the party in power does not dictate whether you have a policy opportunity or not. You often hear, “well, after that election your organization must be in a [worse][better] position.” We sometimes forget that public-interest issues are, by definition, non-partisan. Different parties make take up the flag for one issue or another, but if they are truly public interest issues, that’s an opportunity.
Every political party has a supportive stake somewhere in the environment, health, poverty, housing, etc. files. A change in party usually just means a shift in your short-term tactics to focus on a different part of your broad, long-term mandate.
‘Waiting for opportunities’ does not mean doing nothing. Everything on this list requires homework: ‘being there’, finding solutions, understanding the perspective of the party you are engaging, even informing your idle chit-chat means doing homework.
Homework is phone calls, chats with colleagues, reading stuff by people you agree with, reading stuff by people you disagree with (and doing so with an open mind), learning how policy is made in your area of interest, remaining the topic expert in your field, etc.
Homework is also maintaining a plan, even if it sits on the hard drive for a really long time. What if you got what you wanted? What would you do if the opportunity arose suddenly? Are you ready with a plan to move forward and take advantage?
Collaborations / alliances
A single voice is easy to ignore in policy discussions. When multiple interests speak together — especially interests assumed to have different goals or even at odds (environment and agriculture, for-profit and non-profit, health and poverty, urban and rural) — they carry greater weight. This is the case even within the same sector (e.g., water interests, biodiversity interests, pollution-abatement interests).
This is not necessarily organized letter campaigns and such (though those can play a role), but rather each entity playing a particular role, emphasizing a particular part of their mandate, but all supporting a common and achievable goal.
But be prepared: collaborations are more effective, but they are NOT more efficient. It takes much longer to create something collaboratively, it is much more expensive, and all because it is way messier.
Solutions, not problems
We’re in this because we’ve identified problems that need to be fixed. But the policy discussion loses momentum quickly if we stay there, focused on and limited to our articulations of the problem. Especially at the political level, there needs to be a clear articulation of a solution, not just a complaint about the problem.
The challenge here is to articulate an achievable solution, meaning one that will be palatable — ideally desirable — to the party you are engaging. Many proposed ‘solutions’ require the minister, the MP, the mayor, the councilor, the ADM, etc. to just ‘change something’ (preferably now), or at least spend money on it.
The trick is to identify a solution to one of their problems, not just yours. It has to address a plank in their platform, stop an impending political mess, give them an ‘announcable’ opportunity, support another program priority, save them money, etc.
Investments, not donations
We need money. We all need money. We need money to address the issues we have identified. It is very tempting to approach a policy discussion — and especially political figures — with a request for money. First, even if that is an ultimate need, don’t start there — it is a good way to get a polite thank you and shown the door. When money is a critical part of the solution, frame the discussion as an investment, not a donation (even if it is a grant). Investments mean there is a tangible return for them (see Solutions).
Second, it is important to remember that governments are not as poor as they claim to be, but much poorer than we realize. If the case is not well made, the simple response is ‘there’s no money’; if the case is well made, pots of carefully-guarded funds may become available.
The Minister’s assistant
There’s a policy concept that says you should focus on the ‘Least Important Person’ to find the unapparent leverage points. There is some truth in that concept, but the problem is illustrated by the demeaning nature of the description. In a government, policy development is a system, with many parts (i.e., many people playing many roles). Importance is a relative thing, and requires assessment.
For example, a minister may be a micro-managing dictator requiring every decision through their office, or they may be a figure-head handled by the chief of staff appointed by the premier. A Director may have been vested with the authority to make certain policy decisions. The scheduling secretary may be the difference between a meeting next week or a meeting next year.
All of that to say, it is probably better to say, ‘do not assume you know who are the important people.’ Each circumstance is unique. Do your homework.
The people ‘on the inside’ think the people ‘on the outside’ have power, and vice versa. They are both right. The people on the outside are much more likely to get a meeting with the minister or the councilor; the people on the inside are much more likely to have their brief read. We need each other.
While it is critically important to understand the internal policy process and who makes the decisions at various stages, it is also important to find who within the government is willing to take on a file, shepherd an idea, or even just identify the pathway with the most likelihood of success. Don’t have a meeting with the minister, deputy, ADM, etc. without first talking to your internal champion. Ask them what to say, what not to say, tell them what you are going to say. Make sure your briefings do not contradict each other.
Patience in silence
A colleague once described the process of sending a brief into the government policy process like high school dating: “Did they get my message? Do they like me? Do they think I’m an idiot? Why haven’t they called?” Sometimes silence is bad, but most often it is a sign of deliberation.
Remember that the government policy process is multi-layered and massively political. If things are going well, your brief is being sent up the chain, back down, being analyzed, being summarized, being shared with cross-ministry reps, being integrated with other policy briefs .... and you will hear nothing formal during that time. This is a time when internal connections are invaluable, because you can check if it crossed their desk at some point, and if so how many other initials were on it.
Knowing social media for what it is
The common expression ‘Twitter is not the real world’ speaks to how social media allows us to tune out voices with which we do not agree, an echo chamber for listening to like-minded people. Or perhaps more importantly, we can come to think that issues of importance to us have a wider appeal than they really do. Your own social media feed is an inadequate tool for assessing all dimensions of a policy issue.
However, many of the people framing a given policy discussion (politicians, advisors, advocates) do believe their feeds to be real and representative. More likes than dislikes is presumed to be a statistically valid survey, and policy direction can be influenced by that. The important information is therefore between the lines: How are they framing the issues and the solutions? What biases and assumptions are apparent? What opportunities could address the issues as presented? When you know this, you don’t know ‘reality’, but you know their reality.
If you incorporate all of these principles ... you might still be unsuccessful!
Policy success is frustratingly opportunistic, tied to specific personalities, or sometimes just possible because of an odd synchronicity of circumstances. However, following these principles can put you in a much better position to take advantage of the opportunities when they come around.