Influencing public policy change can be difficult and complex, particularly for those with limited power and resources. One of the key difficulties is that the development of public policy is rarely a linear process. It is constructed through complex interactions and negotiations amongst a range of stakeholders, including politicians, interest groups, advisers, bureaucrats, and a range of other actors. Many factors impact on the likelihood of policy change occurring. Gaining the support of the public is one important factor in policy change, however, ensuring you have political will is essential. For those outside policymaking circles, particularly from resource-poor organisations, influencing the policy process can seem an impossible task. However, there are strategies that these individuals or organisations can adopt to increase their influence. Understanding and applying these strategies, but also understanding the factors that may detract from them, can change the power dynamic between policymakers and public policy advocates and increase the likelihood of influencing the policymaking process.

The process of undertaking active interventions with the explicit goal of influencing government policy is known as advocacy.

Contextual factors

Policy change can occur when a ‘policy window’ - or an opportunity for change - opens. This can be an infrequent occurrence and policy windows often open and close before anyone has the chance to exploit them. Advocates need to understand the context around these opportunities for change before undertaking advocacy, as the wider political environment should inform an advocate’s selection of influencing strategies. Advocates should understand that policymakers work in pressurised, risk-averse environs, and often lack the time to consider every advocate’s concern with equal attention. The environment requires advocates to adopt strategies that can resonate quickly with policymakers - although it can also mean that policy change may take a long time, possibly several years or more. Understanding the system of governance , particularly with respect to the formal and informal rules of policymaking and who has power over these rules is crucial to effective advocacy. This requires gathering intelligence about the system, its key influences, and spaces where power is concentrated in the policy network. There are a range of strategies available that can increase the influence of advocates in the policy process.

  1. The gathering and presentation of scientific evidence is often prioritised by advocates in an effort to influence policy change but this strategy alone has limited influence on policymaking.
  2. Investing in relationships strategically, underpins the process for influencing policy change. By prioritising ‘investing in relationships’, advocates are able to: develop trust and increase credibility with stakeholders which may lead to coalitions or alliances; identify prospective policy champions; gather intelligence on policy opportunities and risks plus the values and beliefs of decision-makers and key influencers; and gain an understanding of the arguments of opponents. To increase their influence professionals must invest in a diverse range of relationships with policy actors across the policy spectrum. Importantly, relationships cannot be developed with everyone, hence the requirement to be strategic and target those individuals with the greatest potential for quality intelligence and influence. This is turn links back to gathering intelligence to determine who those individuals are.
  3. A deep understanding of the policymaking environment is essential for formulating an advocacy strategy as it provides insight into policy opportunities and barriers as well who is influential in the policymaking process. Understanding these factors allows a more nuanced and effective advocacy strategy to be developed. This knowledge can be gained by reading literature on the topic, experience in the policy sector, or through developing relationships and gathering intelligence with those involved in the policymaking process. However, building these relationships and gaining knowledge requires time and continual investment in the relationships.
  4. The formation of coalitions or alliances can also result from investing in relationships. Forming coalitions or alliances is a particularly useful strategy for poorly-resourced organisations. When a variety of organisations are in agreement on an issue this signals to decision-makers that the issue has considerable support and increases your voice on the issue. Forming an alliance or coalition allows poorly–resourced organisations to pool resources and coordinate advocacy action. For better outcomes, a strategic approach should be taken to ensure alliances or coalitions cover a wide range of interests, skills and personal contacts.
  5. Gathering intelligence provides advocates with a deeper understanding of competing points of view, enabling the development of strong counter arguments. Notably, relationships with opponents need to be carefully navigated by advocates to ensure their credibility, as seen by policymakers and the general public, remains intact.
  6. Gaining the attention of policymakers is difficult with a complex issue due to the bounded rationality of policymakers. Bounded rationality encapsulates the idea that humans have limited resources to process stimuli, consequently decision-making often occurs using cognitive shortcuts rather than comprehensive analysis. To overcome this naturally occurring process, the problem and solution being offered to policymakers requires simplification. This can be challenging as most issues are inherently complex and often there is a limited agreement on what should take priority. When an issue is presented as complex and requiring complex solutions, policy change is unlikely to occur as it is considered too hard. This may mean that small incremental policy actions are favoured, as opposed to policies that propose radical changes to existing systems. Consequently, advocates need to recognise that achieving policy action may take considerable time and/or carefully crafted implementation plans for each phase of change.
  7. The requirement for clear, unified solutions raises the wider issue of competing agendas. Fragmented advocacy can deter policy change and result in ‘attention fatigue’ in policymakers. Similarly, when policymakers see the demands of individual interest groups not supported by others, they will avoid advocating for the issue. This places greater emphasis on the need for strategic alliances and networks of stakeholders to coordinate similar policy agendas into a coherent message for decision makers to interpret.
  8. Organisations who invest in developing ‘entrepreneurial’ skills of a dedicated staff member, or who employ a ‘policy entrepreneur’, can gain considerable influence in the policymaking process. Policy entrepreneurs are individuals who “wait in and around government with their solutions at hand, waiting for problems to float by to which they can attach their solutions, waiting for a development in the political stream they can use to their advantage. Frequently the terms ‘policy entrepreneur’ and ‘policy champion’ are used interchangeably with no clear distinction between the two. But the roles are distinct in one particular way; the power and status they hold. Policy entrepreneur best describes the role of a successful advocate – they could be a bureaucrat or a politician operating as an ‘insider’, or they might be an ‘outsider’ from a non-government organisation, academia or even a motivated member of the public. While policy entrepreneurs have varying levels of power and status, the very skilled policy entrepreneurs rely heavily on the ‘art’ of advocacy and are defined by their opportunistic, flexible, persistent, and credible nature and the priority they give to investing in relationships. Some entrepreneurial skills are inherent; however some can be learnt. In particular, investing in relationships and gathering intelligence which allows policy entrepreneurs to identify policy opportunities and leverage points for decision-makers as well as understand the strategies of their opposition.
  9. In contrast to policy entrepreneurs, policy champions may not have or need the characteristics of successful policy entrepreneurs; instead their influence results from the high status and power they possess. Often they will be an ‘insider’ in a position of formal authority, for example a very senior bureaucrat or a powerful politician. Accordingly, a Cabinet minister who takes on the role of a policy champion is perfectly positioned to take an issue into the Cabinet room and advocate for it. Alternatively, if a Cabinet minister cannot be secured as a policy champion, other Members of Parliament or Senators are also in a powerful position as they can directly advocate to their colleagues in Cabinet through their professional and personal relationships. There are policy champions who are not ‘insiders’. Usually these powerful individuals are from large industry organisations who are able to command or demand an audience with decision-makers. Securing a policy champion whether they are an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ results in increased political will for an issue. While this knowledge is valuable it also presents challenges as securing a policy champion is difficult for most advocates. The most efficient way an advocate can secure a policy champion is to interrogate their networks for possible personal connections. This strategy can be broadened by mobilising alliance members and/or members of professional associations to specifically target their local Member of Parliament (MP) to become a champion, or to seek their recommendation for alternative MP’s who may be interested in the issue.
  10. In order for evidence around an issue -related problems and solutions to be considered by policymakers, the issue must be framed to appeal to them and if possible the general public. Frames are cognitive shortcuts that everyone uses to understand complex information more efficiently. This occurs by selecting and emphasising attributes that communicate why an issue might be a problem, who is responsible for it, and what should be done about it . The most effective frames appeal to shared societal values that resonate with individuals and in turn can motivate them to act.  Determining the most effective frame to use requires gathering intelligence on the values of the target audience. Once these values are known, the problem and solution can be framed effectively to ensure it resonates with the target audience: Successful frames used previously have included: protecting the health of children; truth and honesty; fairness and social justice; and highlighting potential economic and social losses related to policy inaction. Frames highlighting ‘local’ issues have also been shown to increase an audience’s connection and solidarity with an issue. To stand out above the ‘noise’ surrounding policymakers and the general public, advocates need to amplify their frame. Amplification is intended to ensure the issue at hand and/or the advocate is clearly heard and becomes top-of-mind for policymakers and the general public. However, this step can be challenging as there are many vested interests continually attempting to influence policy. To overcome this competition and effectively amplify the frame, a number of practical strategies that can be undertaken. The most common strategy is to use the media, although engaging the media and then ensuring they report on the issue using the new frame is often difficult. Another strategy to amplify the frame is to identify individuals who are strategically placed within the policy network to advocate for the issue. The policy champion will often be best placed to undertake this process internally. However, it is crucial that amplification efforts do not rely solely on one well-connected individual as this limits the effectiveness of amplification and can make the advocacy network vulnerable.To increase the chance of success, it is best to identify as many individuals as possible who can uniformly advocate and amplify the frame in a more coordinated way. Ideally this would result in simultaneous frame amplification targeting all Members of Parliament and influential bureaucrats. Large membership associations are at an advantage with this strategy as they are able to mobilise substantial numbers en masse. Alternatively, utilising members of coalitions or alliances increases the range and depth of options for frame amplification. A final strategy to further amplify the frame involves advocates partnering with a citizen personally affected by the issue at hand to present their story to decision-makers and/or the general public. Personal stories can have a powerful effect on politicians. This occurs because humans are able to cognitively process narratives or stories more efficiently than hard data or statistics. These narratives will usually evoke emotion, making the information more memorable and more dominant in cognitive processing. Once this emotional connection has been made, scientific evidence regarding the problem and solution can then be presented.
  11. Gaining the support of the public for the issue at hand and demonstrating this level of support to policymakers is crucial for influencing policy change. Decision-makers respond favourably to issues that have the support of their electorates, public officials and interest groups. Conversely, failing to demonstrate public support for a policy issue is a key factor for a lack of policymakers’ support. Methods for building public include several of the steps already discussed: using an effective frame, amplifying it, and investing in personal relationships particularly with community groups. Furthermore the advocate or advocacy organisation must be perceived to have credibility and is trusted. If an individual or organisation is believed to be trustworthy, it is more likely that the public will consider information from that individual or organisation to be truthful.

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