This is Part 6 in a series of 7. Part One is here.

Policy and policy makers respond to evidence of changing needs

  • Where did the policies (and funding) you are working to today come from?
  • What do you do with the privileged access to information that you have?
  • Do you focus on equipping the voice to speak – or helping the ears to hear?

Be proactive

There are lots of ways to be proactive about policy, even if you are not directly involved with it – or funded to do it. You might start by scanning the policy environment to identify developments in your field: what strategies exist and what is being talked about as the next big idea? What priorities are emerging, locally or nationally? This doesn’t have to be a formal activity; it might just be informal (but proactive) networking and intelligence gathering.

You can also be proactive in developing policy, not waiting for others to take the lead. This could take different forms, including devising your own organisational strategies and policies in response to (or anticipation of) changes in the environment. Each organisation will have its own approach to this, but if you wait for other people to develop their strategies before devising your own, you are probably selling your independence and autonomy too cheaply. (I once resigned from the board of a local charity because it wouldn’t create its strategic plan until it had seen the local authority’s own plans, ‘to find out what they need from us.’) You can also gather evidence and develop your own policy ‘asks’, for example in readiness to inform political manifestos, government consultations, calls for evidence etc.

Doing these things will ensure you are knowledgeable about the sector and are well connected within it. Being a source of knowledge, which others draw upon, is a good way to build your own organisation’s sustainability. They won’t always credit you, but that’s okay because, like the first Domain says, you’re valuable not precious, right?!

Understand what you are trying to achieve

When we look up and out of our organisations towards the wider policy environment, it’s easy to lose focus. It’s really common to see organisations that think that if they could only influence local or national policy, the world would be a better place. It helps to break this theory of change down into more manageable steps (the ones below are adapted from some insightful work done by Carnegie UK Trust a number of years ago). This will make your policy engagement more focused but also more measurable. Start by identifying whether you need to focus on advocacy, policy change, or social change?

  • Advocacy change is about increasing awareness, understanding and support of an issue. Indicators could include things like the number and range of politicians attending your events; the number of times your evidence and asks are raised in committees; the extent to which manifestos reflect your messages.
  • Policy change focuses on influencing local or national policies, in the hope that this will create the conditions for wider change. Indicators could include contributing evidence to formal consultations; sitting on policy working groups and having your messages, evidence and asks included in policies.
  • Social change might rely on advocacy or policy change, but it’s certainly not automatic, as many a frustrated policy maker will tell you! As a long-term, high-level goal, it’s unlikely that you’ll be unable to achieve social change on your own – or measure your contribution to it in any meaningful way.

It’s easy to confuse or conflate these three stages. It’s likely that social change will be the end goal, but you might be more effective if you channel your limited energies into one of the other two changes first.

Use credible evidence based on real experience

Whatever your organisation’s role, you have privileged access to information that no one else has. This can provide valuable evidence for informing policy and ensuring a lasting legacy from your work. For example, you might have access to the views and experiences of people who themselves may be unable to change the system, but who you can work with to change things. Or you might work with policy- and decision-makers (civil servants, politicians, funders) who need help accessing and interpreting good quality information. Either way, it’s much more common to find charities that work on equipping the voice to speak than it is on helping the ears to hear. To make a lasting impact, both are needed.

This is where it is vital to value your consultations and evaluations and use the evidence you gather to influence national and local policies and practices. Many organisations treat evidence gathering as a necessary evil. They do it because funders require them to, even though they think it’s a burden on them or the people they work with. Others see involvement and evaluation as a way to empower people, giving a voice to their experience and using it to influence things for the better.

Think about it, where did the policies (and funding) you are working to today come from?

Using evidence in this way creates positive engagement from both the people giving and those receiving your evidence. Politicians and civil servants tend to know the familiar problems – they hear about those from every other charity. What they get much less of, and therefore need from you, are answers, ideas, models, evidence, examples and proof: compelling reasons to shift from the comfortably familiar status quo. Doors open when you have positive contributions. For example, the Carers’ Collaborative produced evidence-based reports and practical recommendations in the early days of health and social care integration. This led to a parliamentary committee seeing their report and taking evidence on it. Senior civil servants and ministers not only came to the carers’ meetings when asked, but started asking for the opportunity.

Develop good links with policy, directly or indirectly

You might not have direct links to policy (and this is much harder in some parts of the UK than others). But you can take part in relevant local and national fora to learn about and influence policy. You can receive policy updates from membership or intermediary organisations and work with or through them to exert an influence you might not be able to have on your own. You can raise your profile so the voices you represent get heard, or because your capacity and resources are limited, work with partners to raise the profile of to your shared issues/topics/interests.

Even if you are already successful in this area you might need to raise awareness across different areas of policy, as successful implementation will probably rely on it. For example, environmental policy needs transport, housing and economic development agendas to be aligned; social care needs education, housing and health. What can you do to ensure your messages and asks are recognised across all relevant areas of policy?

Show your contribution

Identify which national and local strategies you contribute to. Refer to these in your own strategies. Where you can’t align because policies don’t match your views, work to change them. For example, I worked in a community development mental health organisation at the same time as national policy became recovery focused. At first, I couldn’t understand why my organisation didn’t align itself to this (e.g. using the language and concepts in its fundraising and communications). But recovery wasn’t on our service users’ agenda and our job was to make sure policy makers were informed about the things that were.

Still, it is likely that you are contributing to commissioners’ and policy makers’ agendas, and it is vital that they know that! Find out what they are and show how you are contributing. It’s common, for example, for voluntary sector organisations to be well-respected by the public sector counterparts who refer people to them. But if that referrer’s boss’s boss doesn’t know you exist, neither you nor your impact will be sustainable. Would they notice if you weren’t there? What costs do you save them? What could they not achieve without you? Make sure they know.