Updated: Jan 14, 2021
Engaging with public policy on behalf of members is a core function of representative groups. But how to do this effectively, when everything seems to be changing at once? Read on for PolicyDepartment’s top tips for membership associations…
Is the pace of public policymaking in the UK getting faster? And if so – what does this mean for public engagement with policy design?
I ask because these are questions I hear a lot in gatherings of policy professionals these days. There is a perception of high churn in the rules and regulations that govern us. The excellent Institute for Government keeps tabs on activity in the UK Parliament. This gives us some idea of how active government is. But this only covers policy developments with a UK legislative basis. What about party manifestos ahead of elections? Proposals from government departments in Green and White Papers? The many initiatives taking place across local government and the devolved nations?
In the last five years we’ve seen three UK general elections, votes for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Brexit has opened new fronts for policymaking, from international trade to immigration. Devolution and mayoral elections in England have done the same. The global shift in environmental policy too…I could go on.
So ours is a fast-changing policy landscape. And there is no doubt this challenges representative groups to stay on top of events.
Here are PolicyDepartment’s top tips for membership associations keen to stay on the front foot and get the best outcomes for those they represent ….
1. Develop your strategic vision, but update often...
The first step is to build a robust framework for assessing policy questions. This could be a manifesto, strategy or corporate plan. It could be a report with recommendations for an individual topic area. Whatever the form, it must be more than a wish list of policy priorities. These vital documents are the compasses that guide positioning when the unexpected occurs.
The priorities should flow from a vision statement. This will describe what the organisation wants - and what it doesn't. It will address the themes likely to drive government decision-making over the period. I would argue that in 2020 there are several big ones at the UK and devolved-nation levels. These include Brexit and the balance of power between central and local government. To that, add reducing regional inequalities and greenhouse gas emissions ('net-zero'). If you are targeting local decision makers, what do you know of their priorities?
Any framework for decision-making must be evidence-led. The most sophisticated will include economic modelling and impact assessments. The majority will be based on a data-driven analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
To have impact, strategic documents must engage members. Without this, a weak sense of shared ownership will undermine visibility and credibility. Both with members and policymakers. The best draw on the lived experience of members and engage those in power you want to influence. The process should incorporate both ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ elements. Convening members around themes and geographies is a good way to generate priorities. But some central direction is always needed to pull everything into a coherent whole.
Representative groups sometimes develop manifestos ahead of elections. They may publish strategies for thematic interests. Often they write corporate plans for financial planning cycles. But it’s important to keep these fresh and alive with a more regular schedule of updates. Because member attitudes, like those of the wider public, can shift with events. As I write this, the spread of the Coronavirus is forcing policy choices at speed. In play is the balance of responsibilities between individuals, organisations and the state. Can your strategic document guide you through this tension? If not, the risk is that events overtake your ability to engage with them.
2. Keep current and prioritise using the ‘air-traffic control’ approach
Representative groups want to know about the policy developments that affect their members. Taking a systematic approach is best. This minimises the risk that something slips through the cracks. PolicyDepartment advocates the ‘air-traffic control’ approach. Done right, this is an effective, complete and always-on system for monitoring and decision-making. It’s based on three core design features.
Create a ‘big funnel’ of information sources
News about policy developments breaks in countless ways. Of course it helps to cultivate the right contacts across government. Knowing a story will break will buy you precious time to consult members and respond. But remember, representative bodies are often better placed than government to judge what’s important. So there is the ever-present risk that an important development sneaks past. It could be in a proposed amendment to a Bill working its way through parliament. It might be one line in a White Paper or implied by a question in an official consultation.
The trick is to plug in as many sources of information as you can to a central system for evaluation and decision-making:
Invest in political monitoring if budget allows
Sign up to information alerts from government and Parliament
Set your Google Alerts for topics of interest
Maintain good relationships with lead officials and keep on top of job changes
Identify useful social media feeds
Have regular touch points with trusted subject-matter experts in your network
Encourage members to report developments that need a policy response
Triage, check, decide
The next phase is to bring the information together in one central place for your team to review and action. This is the policy version of the radar screen. There are lots of great online collaboration tools out there that can function as one. Choose the one that works best for you.
Rate the importance of policy events according to potential impact and your expertise. Interacting with policy design processes is labour-intensive. You can’t respond to everything and you shouldn’t try. Pick your battles to maximise impact.
The highest priority are those developments with high impact for your constituency and where you have the expertise to input. The lowest priority is the opposite. Sometimes the impact may be high, but your in-house expertise is low. In these cases, try working with other organisations that do have the knowledge. This can be true of the big cross-cutting policy developments. A past example is the introduction of enhanced data protection rules (GDPR).
Once decided, there are many ways to input to public policy processes. Ensure the resource commitment matches the importance of the development. This applies to media responses and more formal types of engagement, such as official consultations.
3. Build your knowledge base – and keep it handy…
The third pillar is subject-matter knowledge. You need this to judge what is important and how to respond to policy developments. This must be a shared, internal resource. A ‘corporate brain’ that grows over time into a central repository of expertise. It should cover the kinds of information that inform responses. Topic briefings; notes from meetings; published and unpublished analyses; proprietary data are important.
Your knowledge base must be available and easy to access while on the move. Think ‘mobile-first’ when you design yours. Cloud-based services like Evernote, DropBox and Office365 are ideal for this because you can access your content offline. This is a lifesaver when you need to respond and there’s no phone signal or WiFi.
4. Contact PolicyDepartment for advice!
Keeping on top of policy developments isn’t easy these days. But it is crucial. You need well-designed systems to capture and triage information. Decision-making frameworks developed in close partnership with those you represent.
PolicyDepartment employs nearly two decades of first-hand experience applying these principles in different contexts. We're here to help you build your systems and act as your strategic adviser. So do give us a call or email us!