Influencing policy and practice: the long and complex road

13 February 2012

I think it is well known by all by now that influencing policy and practice cannot be assumed to be a linear and predictable affair. Initiatives that plan for influence within a few months or a year (or even longer) are, it has to be said, stretching the truth a bit too far.

Here is an interesting example of how change happens –but not necessarily in a way that can be planned, logframed, and measured.

Allison Aubrey and Eliza Barclay wrote a short article for NPR’s food blog on the history of changes public and private policies towards the use of trans fats in food (in the United States). They report on a study that shows that:

the amount of trans-fatty acids in some Americans decreased significantly — 58 percent among white adults between 2000 and 2009. Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association, say that is “substantial progress.”

The history of trans fats is interesting because it points at a number of elements of the evidence informed or based policy debate. First of all, trans fats were initially promoted as an evidence-based alternative to lard, in the 1980s. So we should be conscious of the fact that there are other views and these can also be backed up by evidence and science.

Science caught-up with the new invention and in the 1990s some health activists started to use new finding to denounce it. However, it took until 2006 for the government to demand manufacturers to change their behaviour but only in terms of labelling the use of trans fats –not prohibiting it. This came later. Change happens slowly in part because science is not one. When advocates refer to science they may try to convince us that all scientists agree but this is hardy ever the case. And people do not always keep up with all the latest developments in science. Does anyone remember if broccoli causes cancer -or is it in fact good for you?

Another important point to note is that the story is not over. There are policies and new practices on the issue that this has not eliminated trans fats. They are still used.

So three decades of campaigning, research, policy change and new practices have brought forth a number of changes. And a number of players have been involved: scientists (inventing, promoting, and rejecting trans fats), advocates, policymakers, corporations, restaurants, super markets, nutritionists and other opinion makers and educators, the general public, etc.