Getting better at influencing policy is a social process: lessons from work with an international agency

18 September 2018
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

More and more organisations are putting an increasing emphasis on influencing policy (and not just delivering services). Staff working for these organisations are now expected to acquire new skills and abilities to make this a reality. At the same time policy influencing appears to have been turned into a science which can be learned through the acquisition of tools, frameworks and guidelines. Capacity development on policy influencing has subsequently become synonymous with learning to apply step by step guidelines like this, this and this. However, as I discussed earlier, following such guidelines will only take you so far in facilitating change.

Toolkits don’t tell you how to deal with the difficulties and contradictions of influencing work: including the clash of values and ideologies, navigating politics and challenging power, making sense of informal conversations and gossip, dealing with feelings provoked by processes of exclusion and the lengths one has to go to, to motivate powerful people to take an interest and act. So, if toolkits aren’t the (whole) answer, how do people learn to influence policy and what can international organisations do to help their staff get better at it? Recent work with an international organisation to support their policy officers improve their influencing skills has proved illuminating.

Mastering the art of policy influence

Through research of how (mainly European) policy officers went about their work in various countries (in South Asia and Central America), I learnt how they were heavily reliant on good relationships with local counterparts, who in most cases, lived and breathed the local context and spoke the local language. Through observation of, and conversation with counterparts, and as bonds of trust grew between them, officers came to understand, for instance how they might best engage with government officials and what they could do to motivate them to act. And when it came to selecting and working with partners (in and out of government), national counterparts often suggested who best to work with.

Some officers upon arriving in country got their hands on a good book about the local history and political context. They also reached out to well informed people such as experienced expatriates, academics or well-connected journalists. Listening to such people went a long way.

Officers’ own lived experience was priceless. For instance, at one moment during a food price crisis in Bangladesh, a group of officers were: providing advice to the government (often informally), helping to draft a food policy through formal processes, managing in-depth research and coordinating with other actors across government, civil society and academia – all at the same time. Information was flowing continuously in multiple directions through what one officer suggested was an “osmotic” process. After such intense experiences, learning would take place, but informally as officers reflected on what happened – both on their own and with close colleagues.

On other occasions, when officers were tasked with pursuing certain outcomes, they weren’t always clear what sorts of interventions would work best from the outset. So, taking a ‘try and see’ approach, they had regular discussions with a variety of people (both inside and outside the international organisation) about what actions to take and what effects they were having. This in turn was informed by people’s own values about what was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

In sum, officers often muddled through: acting forwards, moment by moment into a continuously emerging and unknowable future but doing this with a strong sense of purpose. They often did not know what good practice was until they practised it themselves or saw someone else practising it. And they learnt about what was likely to work, through social processes such as conversations with others.

What international organisations can do

Whilst there are no ‘recipes’ to improve policy officers’ skills and abilities, our learning suggests that achieving competence has an important social dimension in addition to individual technical expertise. As a result, I suggest international organisations take the following actions:

  • Develop lists of well-informed people and reading materials that policy officers can draw on whilst in country (assuming the organisation is well-established there).
  • Produce and share cases which illustrate how policy officers have addressed the challenge of policy engagement – depicting both successes and ‘disappointments’. In this instance, these cases highlighted exactly how officers were able to take advantage of serendipitous moments as well as how important it was to understand and navigate the political economy of the international organisation, as well as the political economy of, for instance, the host government.
  • Establish a community of practice to facilitate the sharing of stories and approaches, as well as a number of small groups, supervised by more experienced officers, to foster more in-depth discussions, using both offline and online approaches. Supervised small group learning in particular has proven to be very effective. For experiences to be internalised, it helps for them to be critiqued. So other people are indispensable. Without them experiences are arguably incomplete.
  • Run interactive workshops for policy officers to discuss their policy engagement practice drawing on a range of less conventional techniques such as story-telling, the exploration of real live scenarios and the discussion of the merits and limitations (but not teaching) of existing policy engagement tools and techniques. For instance, in a workshop in early 2017, officers from one organisation discussed what they would do if they were asked to: provide technical assistance/support policy dialogue, provide capacity development support and undertake a review of the national policy framework amongst others.

Ultimately, policy engagement practice needs to be placed ‘centre stage’. International organisations need to focus, not on training their officers to use tools and frameworks, but on improving their practical judgement and their ability to be adaptive, improvisational and creative.