You want to influence the policy-making process, but where to start? For small voluntary organisations and their service users, getting your issues known in the political corridors of power can seem like a tall order, but there are ways into the policymaking process for very small organisations.
Policymakers want the best of both worlds: they want to hear the individual experiences of ordinary people, but they also want to know that the issues presented to them are widely representative and the solutions well-tested. This presents a challenge for national organisations, who rely on local members or branches for their case studies, and for local organisations who may not have the resources for the academic research and rigorous evaluations needed to demonstrate that their message is of national relevance.
Sadly, professionals and organisations closest to the work do not always make the most of opportunities to influence. After years of feeling like you are banging your head against a brick wall, it can be difficult to set aside cynicism and frustration and put in the time and imagination required to influence change. For most issues, there is a network or national body willing to help, but they can struggle to gather enough sound evidence. Case-making requires organisations to be willing to question their own practice, to network with potential rivals and to be honest about the evidence for their assumptions.
Civil servants are sometimes on the look out for innovative solutions to big problems, but it is difficult for small organisations to get their thoughts to the senior officials who can make a difference. Politicians, however, will often talk about being swayed by the testimony of an individual and can be keen to show their real-world credentials by citing the inspirational work of a little known local charity. Every issue has its junior minister with some power to change policy, if you can get past their gatekeeper officials and make your contact count.
It is difficult for local organisations to make an impact on policymakers at the point of a policy being launched – this will be when you wish you had responded to that consultation document. National organisations will hopefully have spotted the signs of an approaching policy and will have worked with local organisations to prepare a rapid media response, including preparing service users to give interviews and MPs to ask parliamentary questions on the changes.
Whatever your views on a policy change, there will be a brief media spotlight on your issue, so this is a good time to launch any story you want to publicise. If you want a media response you will need to be prepared to issue a press release on the same day as an announcement, before the media moves on. You could even contact journalists ahead of an expected announcement to suggest that they contact you for a response and interviewees. And invite your local MP to get involved – influencing the development of a new policy as it is being fleshed out is an attractive, achievable option for a backbench MP.
More realistic than achieving an embarrassing u-turn on an unwanted policy, developing detailed guidance to accompany a major policy change is an opportunity to enhance or mitigate its effects. Guidance is often consulted on publicly with much of the work being done by officials, who may be looking for service user or practitioner representatives to join steering groups guiding the work. Departments prefer you to respond to a given address, but if you are confident that you can effectively communicate an important point, there is nothing to stop you from finding the relevant official and emailing them directly (government e-mail addresses follow a set pattern in each department, usually firstname.lastname@example.org). Of course, this risks simply annoying the official in question (although perhaps not as much as I will have done by suggesting people do this) so you need to be brief, relevant and helpful.
If new guidance is being developed by one of the government’s arms-length bodies such as the Social Care Institute for Excellence they are often keen to understand the views of service users. If the implications of a policy for your service users are not sufficiently developed in government guidance, you may wish to work with users to write your own best practice guidance, using case studies to illustrate what does and doesn’t work for your clients. If your stance does not contradict government policy, you may even be able to interest them in supporting or disseminating it. The websites of bodies such as the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass), Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) will tell you which of their staff, committees or representatives would have an interest in the area you wish to raise.
To have an impact on a developing policy through pilot projects, it is vital that sufficient academic evaluation, ideally including a cost-benefit figure and dissemination of a report or a seminar, is included in your budget. Finding out that a pilot made things better is not enough.
You need to show how much better it made things than other approaches, for which particular client groups and why.
A small research report does not have to cost anything – you may have a local college or university with research students looking for projects. Even a typed report with case studies and the results of a local survey is better than nothing and can attract trade press interest.
Not many policies arrive out of thin air. They emerge from the work described above. They are based on the voices of those groups of service users, representatives and other interest groups that were the most co-ordinated, the most persistent, that offered workable solutions and that were luckiest in hitting the right person at the right time. These groups will also be those who were able to identify common ground with other interests and who were interested in how their concerns fitted into the bigger picture. A new policy is often a compromise between a politician’s Big Idea and the reality checks it receives from officials, stakeholder groups and the Treasury. The next new policy is not being drawn up from the experiences of service users whose representatives did not have time to do policy work.
The political cycle
There are wider policy cycles which can accelerate, brake or even derail your issue’s cycle. The most obvious is the political cycle. A newly elected government is on the look out for headline-grabbing new policies, preferably delivering on manifesto commitments. Policy ideas too closely associated with a previous regime might be dropped. Manifestos are written during the year or so before an election, so it is worth finding out who chairs the relevant manifesto committee of the main political parties and writing to them.
Central government spending is administered in three-year periods following a comprehensive spending review whereby the Treasury agrees the headline budgets and spending priorities of every department. The CSR is translated into local authority and NHS budget settlements and the primary care trusts’ and councils’ annual financial cycles can present both dangers and opportunities as some budgets are reduced and others have unexpected surpluses.
There is no doubt that policymaking is a complex process and attempting to influence it is daunting. But the arcane nature of government should not put even the smallest organisations off from aiming for change for those they support. If you don’t, who will?
Ways in to ministers
Alex Fox is assistant director (policy and service development), The Princess Royal Trust for Carers
This article appeared in the 7 February issue under the headline “Make your case”