Policy Window approach to influence

19 January 2015

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Riona Judge McCormack and Wolfe Braude as part of an evaluation of the Global Economic Governance Africa programme led by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). The Evaluation is conducted by Southern Hemisphere in South Africa.]

Engaging with policy processes, which are by their nature run by governments, can be difficult for think tanks like the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

Think tanks cannot compete with governments or the media when it comes to setting the public agenda. Responding to their agendas however can cause a number of challenges for think tanks who may not have the resources to keep up with the ebb and flow of politics.

Somehow, they must find a way of focusing their limited resources on high-impact efforts. In other words, they have to find a way of setting their own agenda, but at the same time, depending on their mandate, creating opportunities for discussion of policy (domestic, regional, multilateral) and influencing such policy.

This case study shows how a new ‘policy window’ approach, developed during the mid-term review of the Global Economic Governance Africa (GEG Africa) programme, can help think tanks to contribute to policy development and shape public debate on key policy issues. A key outcome of the GEG mid-term review (2013) was therefore the adoption of ‘policy windows’ to holistically structure and coordinate the work of SAIIA’s Economic Diplomacy Programme. A policy window can be an event, process or topic (or even all three), which offers actors such as SAIIA an opportunity to focus the attention of stakeholders on policy choices and outcomes and the implications thereof, for a country, region or even globally.

By following this policy window approach to organising its research and communications, the GEG Project was able to:

  • Help ‘set the agenda’, by influencing public debate on the BRICS and G-20;
  • Feed into the actual BRICS and G-20 negotiations, by engaging with the leading government negotiators, and providing a platform for other stakeholders to do so;
  • Expand the think tank’s own networks, in civil society, business and government;
  • Establish GEG Africa as a central, authoritative source on the BRICS and G-20 (i.e. the media now contact us on these issues); and
  • Stimulate South African interest in global and continental issues relating to the BRICS and G-20.

The Policy Window Approach

The ‘policy window’ approach involves choosing the major external policy processes that are relevant to your programme’s work, and then planning research and communication activities around these processes. It is similar to the practise within media relations of identifying a current affairs ‘hook’ for your work (and in fact most policy processes will provide a mass media hook for opinion pieces and interviews relations to your work), but this is policy-making rather than news focused.

[Editor’s note: This refocusing also relates to the need to pay greater attention to policy rather than research questions.]

In the case of the GEG Africa programme, which looks at Africa’s voice and interests within global economic groupings, the policy windows chosen were the meetings of the BRICS and G-20 groupings. To a lesser extent, meetings of other economic fora such as the G-8, African Development Bank and the IMF/ World Bank, provided minor policy windows which we often took advantage of.

The advantage of this approach is that it provide focus for our planning, helping us to concentrate our efforts and coordinate our work (within the programme, across the organisation, and even with external partners) for maximum impact.

For maximum impact, multiple communication channels and tools must be used in conjunction. The concept of communications as an orchestra can be directly applied here.

For example, once the GEG Africa project had chosen its policy windows and identified different jump-off points for those windows (the annual BRICS and G-20 heads of state meetings/Summits, the BRICS Academic Forum, the G-20 finance ministers meetings) we were able plan effectively to have all materials ready in advance; launch these materials at exactly the appropriate moment; and lead the debate around these groupings; while positioning ourselves as the one-stop, go-to point in Africa on G-20 and BRICS for relevant stakeholders.

A range of different communication channels and tools were employed to launch our materials into the policy processes. In our case, the package of activities included:

  • Events (public and invite-only)
  • Study Groups (bringing together different stakeholders to feed into government policy)
  • Media briefings and media alerts
  • Opinion pieces
  • Publications
  • Social media
  • Presentation of experts (ready to speak to the media on certain issues)
  • Participation in external events (such as G-20 summit related activities, BRICS pre-meetings)
  • Online features drawing together a range of the above

The cases below illustrate how a policy window can help develop a communications and research plan.

Case Study 1: BRICS Summit 2013

The 5th Annual BRICS Summit was held in South Africa in 2013 and provided a major policy window for GEG Africa and SAIIA. In advance of the Summit, a series of activities were planned to maximise the impact of the project’s work. This included the following:

  • Media training was held for African Journalists in December 2012 on the BRICS and G-20. This was intended to enable them to report on these complex issues from a national or regional perspective. In March 2013, four of the best participants on the course were selected to attend the BRICS Summit in Durban, South Africa, on the basis of a written submission detailing both their work published since attending the course and their concrete ideas for stories on the Summit. They conducted interviews and filed stories on the issues surrounding the summit for their editors in the region.


  • To complement the intensive training provided to economics journalists in the rest of Africa, the project also hosted two special media briefings on the BRICS for South African journalists. The first briefing, in February, was aimed at providing a foundation for editors and journalists as they prepare to cover the summit. A range of leading experts on BRICS from within SAIIA and from external organisations provided insights to twenty journalists attended the briefing, mostly from local media outlets. The main aim was to position SAIIA and the GEG Africa project as the go-to point for issues on the BRICS and to build capacity in local and international media on these issues.

That this succeeded was evident in the very high volume of media requests SAIIA received during the BRICS summit, from local and international media. Opinion pieces were also published in the run-up to the Summit.

  • The second media briefing was held just before the Summit, in Durban, also ensured a range of high-quality interviews and citations in the international and local media.



Case Study 2: the 2014 G-20 Summit

The 2014 G20 Summit policy window was another focus of a series of activities.

Firstly, a G20 Study Group was held on 20 October 2014, a pre-G20 summit media briefing on 12 November, then a media tour to the Summit in Australia (14-16 November) and lastly a third African G20 Conference on 2 December 2014. For reference, the conference was to occur pre-Summit but had to be held post-Summit for logistical reasons. This was however also useful, in that it allowed the conference to be billed as the ‘first post-2014 Summit African G20 Conference’.

The activities were designed to:

  • create platforms for discussion so as to influence policy and allow government to communicate its policy motivations and intentions to stakeholders;
  • disseminate information and raise awareness with regard to the G20 and the 2014 Summit both in SA and in Africa; and
  • in addition consistently focus attention on SAIIA as the ‘go-to’ point for all matters G20 related.

The involvement of government, academia, civil society and business stakeholders was significant over the policy window period, both in terms of seniority and attendance. The Study Group in October 2014 attracted 86 attendees, the media conference involved senior stakeholders for the panel and attracted media participation and reporting, and the G20 conference attracted close to 110 attendees. This involvement was nurtured from the Study Group to the media briefing to the G20 conference. Examples of this include: the SA G20 Sous Sherpa attending the Study Group and then being involved in the Study Group; DIRCO sending a team to the Study Group and Treasury sending a large team to the conference; and senior private sector players attending the Study Group in force, a first for a GEG event.

In addition, a specific focal area drawn from the G20 agenda, namely taxation reform, was strategically used for the Study Group to secure stakeholder attention, and then included as a topic in the media briefing. A number of very positive comments by stakeholders were received and were forwarded to internal SAIIA stakeholders. Further detail on the three events is provided below:

  • The Economic Diplomacy Programme at SAIIA, in collaboration with the Mandela Institute (MI), School of Law at the University of Witwatersrand held a public G20 Study Group on 20 October 2014. The event focused on ensuring South Africa and other developing nations benefit from the G20’s work on tax. The Keynote address was delivered by the well known Judge Dennis Davis, Chair of the Davis Tax Committee (set up by the SA Minister of Finance) followed by a panel discussion comprising national and international high-level experts from the public and private sectors. The choice of host partner was informed by the work of the MI on financial law and previous successful collaboration in 2014 between SAIIA and the MI. This was also used to build relationships within the university with academia and widen the reach of the events. The choice of topic arose from the significant progress being made by the G20 on tax, particularly in the areas of Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) and the automatic exchange of tax information and further an expectation that the November 2014 G20 Summit would outline further steps towards implementation of such reform (which indeed occurred).

Domestically, the issues are of great interest as the Davis Tax Committee will release a report in early 2015, and South Africa, like many G20 members, is actively seeking to increase government revenue without endangering growth. The event occurred a few days prior to the Finance Minister’s Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, and targeted the financial sector, relevant NGO’s and the diplomatic corps. It attracted around 86 attendees, including government, senior banking and accounting firm representatives and civil society (including Oxfam, Corruption Watch, and the Bench Marks Foundation). It generated media coverage by the Mail and Guardian, Engineering News, Business Day and SABC TV news. The event fulfilled its objectives in facilitating in-depth discussions on policy issues relating to the G20, in advance of the annual G20 meetings and Summit.


  • Pre-G20 Summit Media Briefing was held pre-Summit on 12 November 2014. Representatives from print, terrestrial and satellite television media organisations attended, and the event triggered a range of interviews with the panellists and SAIIA staffers, both on the day and after the briefing. A notable example of further dissemination triggered by the briefing was the initiative by SABC media to recreate the concept of the panel live on radio, with assistance from SAIIA. Once again, the panel was composed of national and international experts. It be noted that the media briefing was held with support from Oxfam, and that a panellist from the Study Group, from the Economic Justice Network (EJN), was flown up to attend the briefing. The EJN was chosen because it tries to link community level issues to global economic governance debates.


  • Through funding the involvement of non-SA African journalists in both the G20 Summit and the SAIIA G20 conference, SAIIA were able to trigger the writing and dissemination of a number of articles in domestic media in the relevant African countries and regions. SAIIA’s Communications Manager, Mr Hopewell Radebe, oversaw and participated in a successful trip to Brisbane, Australia for the G20 Summit (14-16 November), accompanied by two non-SA African journalists, from Kenya and Ghana. Whilst in Australia they were all interviewed repeatedly by Australian media. Thirteen articles were published by the journalists either over the period of the trip or shortly after. SAIIA information and contacts were distributed by Mr Radebe on numerous occasions during the trip. The trip revealed a hunger by local and international press in attendance at the Summit for direct African perspectives of the G20 and its agenda.
  • The theme for the third annual G20 conference was ‘Growth and Resilience, The G-20 and Africa’, drawn directly form the two key themes of Australia as G20 Chair. Dr Bheki Mfeka, Special Economic Advisor to the President, gave the Keynote Address and panels were held on ‘The G-20, Tapering, Currencies and Continued African Growth’ and ‘The G-20 and Africa’s Practical Development Challenges’. The conference provided a platform for discussion of the G20 growth and development agenda and recent November 2014 G20 summit by government, business, civil society, analysts and other stakeholders. African stakeholders attending included think tank leaders drawn from the African Global Economic Governance Network, of which SAIIA is a member.

The conference has traditionally been used to highlight the Network’s partners and partners have participated in the panels at every conference. The annual advisory group meeting of the Network is held just before or after the conference and informed by the conference themes. Partner involvement in the 2014 G20 Conference was very good. Nine partners out of the 11 other partners (SAIIA is the 12th) were involved. Out of these nine, seven were heads of their respective organisations, an advance over the 2012 and 2013 conferences. This was deliberate; to build on the work of the previous years by targeting the leaders. In addition, an invitation was extended to the partners to stay on and attend a SAIIA BRICS workshop a few days after the conference. A number of them stayed on for BRICS event. This was offered as part of the logistical package. Furthermore, times were arranged on the overall itinerary to facilitate networking between the partners. Further linkage creation and capacity building were attempted by firstly sponsoring four alumni (both local and from outside of SA) from the GEG Project’s Summer School to attend both events (the Nigerian Summer School Alumni also participated on a conference panel). Secondly, similar to the Summit media tour, two non-SA African journalists were sponsored to attend the conference and a number of articles were written on G20 issues post the conference as a result.

In terms of the conference programme itself, a successful attempt was made to increase participation of the Network partners in terms of the panelists and moderators (see conference programme). The panels were issues based, rather than Summit outreach stakeholder (T20, C20, B20) based, to allow for more partner participation and attendee interest. To properly contextualise the discussions though, the first session had inputs from the South African, Australian (2014/15 G20 Chair) and Turkish (2015/16 G20 Chair) governments.


What factors contributed to this?

A number of factors made this approach possible:

  • Organisational capacity: SAIIA as an institute (and the University of Pretoria, our co-managing partner on the project) had the capacity in terms of researchers, media contacts, reputation, and relationships to attract public and policymaker attention, and to act as a neutral, independent platform for hosting briefings and study groups. Our institute-wide planning processes also supported this kind of approach.
  • Policy window clarity: Also, the policy processes chosen by the project provided very clear policy windows. Global governance processes are largely dependent on schedule of international events. These are easy to plan for since they are commonly defined well in advance.
  • Opportunities to learn: These events are also similar in nature thus providing the think tanks with an opportunity to learn from one event to the other. They can test new tactics, for instance, and compare their results to find the most effective ones. Each event also provides opportunities to learn from others faced with similar challenges.

However, a key challenge that think tanks will face in these situations relates to the capacity of the organisation to adapt to this model which demands that both research and communications pay much greater attention to these processes and events when planning.

Lessons learned

Implementing this approach for the GEG Africa project has allowed us to learn a few lessons for future efforts. These include:

  • Global issues must be located within the domestic policy context and policy calendar, but must retain a direct link to any relevant global institutional calendar and agenda. For example the choice of tax for the Study Group was informed by South Africa’s leading work on tax reform and the date informed by the government’s Medium Term Budget Policy Statement. Similarly, the Media Briefing focused on high profile items on the G20 agenda on which there was also expected to be progress made at the Summit, but which also linked back to the SA and African policy agendas. The date of the briefing was set a few days before the Summit and coincided with the release of Oxfam’s flagship 2014 inequality publication.
  • Substantive engagement with policy partners in government is absolutely essential, as is finding a champion in government. These are policy processes, so policymakers’ buy-in and collaboration is required.
  • The ideal timing for releasing alerts, hosting media briefings and dissemination materials before the event (generally two weeks before the major event, with follow-ups a day or two beforehand.
  • As these are external windows, sometimes factors outside of your control will interfere with your best planning (for example, other newsworthy items may clash with your activities and limit media coverage).
  • Effectively leveraging policy windows also means that you must plan backwards, initiating research and partnerships early enough to ensure that they are ready at the right time.
  • Dedicated programme counterparts are vital to ensure coordination between research, communication and management as well as between internal (think tank) and external stakeholders.


To adopt this approach across an organisation, it is necessary to incorporate the following recommendations:

  • Effectively integrate communications to the design of research projects to ensure that key processes and events (policy windows) are identified right at the start. These should guide both the research process as well as the production of communication outputs.
  • Conceive projects not simply as research exercises but as efforts or initiatives designed to bring about a change –in processes, discourses, capacities, attitudes or behaviours. Initiatives demand attention to research as well as communications and management capacities.
  • However, rather than attempting to dictate the ‘rate of change’, these initiatives must ‘work with the cycle’ of known processes and events and be ready for unexpected windows of opportunities.
  • Projects need to manage a portfolio of communication channels and tools. But each channel should be managed as well to ensure that the materials necessary for each policy window are ready in time. This demands an organisation-wide approach since the think tank ought to retain control over the style and format of it communications.
  • Doing this alone poses significant risks. Therefore, projects, supported by the organisation, must identify and allocate resources for a dedicated internal (or externally sourced) counterpart to identify and facilitate project linkages.