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Superb course well delivered. Would have liked one more day!

Participant, church group, Birmingham



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Understanding Policy
Policy making is: ‘the process by which governments translate their political vision into programmes and actions to deliver ‘outcomes’ - desired changes in the real world’. (Modernising Government White Paper, 1999)

Policy can be seen as

  • Stated Intention
  • Current or Past Action
  • Organisational Practice
  • An Indicator of Status of Past, Present or Proposed action

Attributes of Policy

  • Policy ‘belongs’ to someone, some group or organisation
  • It denotes a commitment to act in a certain way
  • It confers status on actions or statements of intent
  • Policies are intended to be specific responses to stated problems- politicians usually try to distinguish their policies on specific issues from other policies and those of other political parties

What is social policy?

There is a lot of confusion about what social policy is. We have adopted a broad and simple definition:

Social policy is: addressing bad rules.

In society, we make rules. Mostly these rules are designed to improve life. Traffic lights, for example, are a rule that we have come up with to stop cars crashing into each other at junctions. We observe the rule, and follow laws, because it‘s in our interest!

If, however, a policeman were to charge an ambulance driver for driving through a red light, this would be an example of the rule being applied in a way that was harmful.

Society is full of rules from the rules (laws) made by Government, to the ones made by Jobcentres, high street banks, shops and councils.

These rules can be fair or unfair, good or bad. Unfair rules that affect people in society need to be changed. This is social policy.

Government now recognises not only that the public dislikes being excluded from policy-making, but that things usually work better if people are involved in policy development. There is growing insistence that policy should be based where possible on evidence and not on assumption. A climate of rising expectations coupled with resource constraints has increased the need for effective and carefully targeted policies and has led local authorities and other public bodies to the gradual realisation that thorough research can assist with this.

Understanding the public

In this environment it is clearly increasingly crucial that public bodies should understand their public. That means understanding in depth not only people’s attitudes, beliefs and feelings, but also why they behave as they do. One point is becoming increasingly clear - policies do not work well if the public does not understand what is supposed to happen, and if the culture is pulling people in the opposite direction.

It is in the arena of public understanding that the impact of consultation on policy making is most keenly felt. As the policies of government departments and other public sector bodies often hinge on complex issues, the public often has a very incomplete understanding of what happens, and there are sometimes significant misconceptions - which may be important to clear up in sounding out opinion about future options. For example, a major policy initiative, such as the New Deal introduced in the late 1990s, raises issues about the values and behaviours that underpin the policy and about how such a major reform can be successfully implemented. The research programme involved an examination of the attitudes, knowledge and motivations of different types of jobseekers (bearing in mind that the situation of a 24-year-old lone parent woman is very different to that of a 40-year-old long-term unemployed man); and the barriers and triggers which determine whether and how someone will seek work.

Apart from the complexity of the issues, public bodies also have to grapple with the essential complexity of human beings, who have a great capacity for ambivalence and inconsistency. While there will be some topics on which members of the public have strong and considered views, there will be many more about which they need to reflect, learn about what options there might be, and feel their way to a conclusion. Qualitative research is good at dealing with such issues as it does not have to seek single answers to questions.

‘Knee-jerk solutions’

Moreover, it is unsatisfactory to base policy on ‘knee-jerk’ responses. People can express views on issues they do not know much about and have not thought through properly - but they would not necessarily like the outcome of policies based on such shallow foundations. The Modernising Government White Paper spoke about an ‘outcome-focused culture’ - only considered, informed and matured opinions are likely to provide a basis for the kind of long-term satisfaction this implies. Qualitative research facilitates high quality dialogue with the public, and can provide a sensitive tool for informing as well as collecting information. It can also give people space to deliberate on the issues under study, and to mature their opinions.

Influencing public policy

Ways of influencing public policy include lobbying, taking part in consultations, contributing to think tanks and contacting your MP. Many believe these are important ways to inform the government of the needs of the people. However, some people are concerned that special interest groups and well-financed business operations can influence policy too much.

Why influencing decision-makers is important

The real success of a campaign will depend on the capacity to influence people in government, public services, businesses or the voluntary sector.

Individuals and small groups can lobby influential figures as successfully as large organisations. If you can demonstrate that change is wanted, needed and supported by your community, influential figures will have to listen to your requests - even if they disagree with them.

Who should you get in touch with?

Find out who is responsible for the issues your campaign addresses, and prioritise your lobbying toward the most relevant decision-makers. It’s always a good idea to influence a wide variety of people and to lobby at all levels of decision-making.

Important decisions are made by both elected political representatives and unelected individuals.

Elected political representatives

Political representatives have a formal obligation to listen to your concerns, especially if you are part of the constituency which elected them.

There are a number of different political representatives whom you can lobby.

MPs: They tackle the problems that arise from the work of central government. They represent constituents’ concerns in parliament and act as a figurehead for the local area. See the Action Network guide Understanding what MPs do and how they can help you.

Councillors: They administer the work of local government. The main duty of a councillor is to represent the community’s needs.

MEPs: They represent their constituents in the European Parliament. The UK’s 87 MEPs do not have their own individual constituencies like MPs. Instead, there are several MEPs for each region, depending on the population size.

Members of the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly and London Assembly: They represent their constituents on devolved issues, which vary between each body.

Unelected decision-makers

Unelected decision-makers may have important responsibilities and significant power. However, unlike elected political representatives, they are unlikely to have a formal obligation to address your campaign’s concerns.

The kind of decision-makers you’ll need to lobby will include:

A council office-holder, e.g. a housing, benefits or planning officer

The managing director or senior manager of a company, e.g. a building developer or factory-owner

The director or manager of a charity or non-profit organisation

Managers or policy-makers in a public service, e.g. a head teacher, local education authority manager, hospital administrator, or civil servant in a government department

When should you get in touch with them?

Contact influential people in good time for them to respond to your request. Be aware of the timetable for particular decisions, for example the dates of meetings, AGMs or conferences.

This is also crucial if you want them to attend an event or to support a press release. You can check their availability by telephone with a secretary before you formally request their help.

If you are meeting the decision-maker, you may actually want to meet them only a few days before a decision is made. This way your campaign’s arguments or proposals will be fresh in their mind.

What can a decision-maker do for you?

If you lobby a decision-maker successfully they can assist with your campaigning activities as well as make decisions mindful of your campaign’s recommendations.

You could ask them to:

  • Make decisions in your campaign’s favour
  • Change working practices or policy in their organisation or service
  • Explain any opposition they have to your campaign and its aims
  • Use their influence with the local authority
  • Pass on your recommendations when they are consulted by others
  • Write a public statement supporting your campaign
  • Speak publicly at a meeting about your cause
  • You should always demonstrate that your requests are in the decision-maker’s interest. Many organisations already loosely commit themselves to working within the public’s or consumers’ interest. You can use these commitments to your campaign’s advantage.

For example, you can show that by supporting your campaign:

  • A business can better fulfil its corporate social responsibilities, including responsibilities to the local community or the environment. This could be important for its profile, and might bring it more business. See the Action Network guide How to get business support for your campaign
  • A charity can better focus its work towards those it is established to help. This might help it win donations or grants
  • A council can better meet the interests of local stakeholders, whom it exists to serve
  • A school or hospital can fulfil its obligation to the public more efficiently or ethically

You can strengthen your case when influencing unelected decision-makers if you know what you are entitled to by law. For example, if you are lobbying a hospital manager to change the hospital’s policy on medical records, the Action Network guide How to access your medical records would be helpful in showing you what you are - and aren’t - entitled to view by law.

How to contact a decision-maker

The best way to get in touch with a decision-maker is to put it in writing, even if you also want to arrange a meeting. A letter will give them time to brief themselves on the issue and on your organisation.

The letter

  • Use headed paper if you have it, and try to type the letter.
  • Never send a duplicate of a letter you have got from your campaign or from a national campaign. Borrow a format, but make sure each letter is individual. It’s always a good idea to open and sign off the letter by hand, in ink.
  • Begin your letter by saying who you are and what your concerns are. Explain why you are writing, preferably giving examples and facts.
  • You should connect your request to the decision-maker’s interests. For example, if it is the director of a company, explain why it is in that company’s interest, or the director’s interest, to support your campaign.
  • Try to link your letter with something which they or their organisation have said recently, and state this early in the letter.
  • Keep the letter as short as possible, and tackle just one subject per letter. Make sure you get the basic point over in the first paragraph. Limit yourself to one or at most two sides of A4 paper.
  • Send with your letter supporting information and evidence such as photos or videos (clearly labelled).
  • Always ask for a response.

Other ways of reaching a decision-maker include:

Email: Always ensure you send the email to a named recipient, and request confirmation of receipt.

Telephone: Make sure you already have the decision-maker’s name before you call an organisation, as you’ll have more chance of getting through to them.

Fax: If you do fax your letter, make sure that you also send a hard copy through the post, and make sure that it is clearly marked who the fax is for.

Meeting a decision-maker

Before the meeting make sure you’ve done your homework. Find out the basics about the person and their organisation. Have they been in the press recently - what for? What other campaigns have they been involved with?

Or find out if they’d welcome media coverage. The promise of media coverage may be the clinching factor in securing their support.

Meeting etiquette: Take along another campaign member and plan what you each intend to say. Organise a short brief to hand over at the beginning of the meeting, and make sure one of you take notes.

Fight your corner: Remember that not everyone is going to agree with you - think about the arguments against your case. Try to anticipate disagreements and prepare responses. Have these explanations prepared and written down in the brief you hand over.

After the meeting

You should write immediately after the meeting and thank the individual or organisation for seeing you. Note the action that they are considering or have agreed to take. Offer to help with any further information they may need.

Write a press release: If you have permission from the people you met, you could write a press release reporting the meeting and its outcomes. Be careful not to breach the confidence of the meeting. Send or fax the press release to them to check before you send it off to the media.

Keep in touch: Remember to keep your supporters informed about the progress of your campaign or any decisions or changes as they occur.