Most campaigning or policy focused organisations face choices, tensions or dilemmas when it comes to prioritising their influencing work and a common question is: where should we focus our efforts to achieve the greatest impact?
For membership organisations this question can be especially complex. Member interests may help to determine priorities but can just as easily complicate matters especially as membership grows and becomes more diverse.
Organisations must often play more than one role and must strike a balance between short and long-range priorities, between being responsive and being agenda-setting.
Inevitably, a great deal of policy work takes place ‘downstream’. That is to say, policy debates and decisions are often shaped by Government priorities or agencies’ own views of their responsibilities, leaving interested parties to operate in ‘responsive mode’.
Organisations that only operate in reactive mode can ensure that their interests are well promoted and sometimes acknowledged, but they are unlikely to influence policy development in a significant way.
To wield real influence – to raise the level of debate, to set the agenda and not merely follow it – organisations must shift their focus ‘upstream’. In practice this means demonstrably serving members’ current needs while running just ahead of (most of) them to scan the horizons and attempting to set the terms of public and policy debate.
The following is a description of some key differences between downstream and upstream influencing and what it takes to be good at them.
Objective is usually to inform or influence current or imminent policy decisions.
Timeframes are clear, often fixed, sometimes short.
Primary stakeholders are usually known individuals.
Terms of debate or reference tend to be narrow, are often technical and are typically set by decision makers – casting those who seek to influence in a responsive or reactive position.
The design or review of specific policy instruments;
Public spending decisions (e.g. Spending Review).
What do you need?
Usually requires some demonstrable technical knowledge or expertise.
Familiarity with the political context that accompanies or drives the policy response (usually gained from close engagement with policy stakeholders).
An existing position or good consultation mechanisms so that you can develop one.
A governance and decision making system that allows you to move quickly when necessary.
Objectives could be to:
Identify or frame emergent or long-term policy and societal challenges;
Set the terms of the debate without being overly prescriptive about policy responses and decisions;
Identify or examine fundamental principles that might apply in good policy development.
Timeframes can be indeterminate. There is seldom a pressing policy question or decision.
Stakeholders are diverse and are not limited to known individuals.
Government is not always good at this kind of long-range thinking. Policymakers are often more concerned with short-term issues.
Setting a long-term vision for a health or education system;
Horizon scanning to identify new and emerging societal and policy challenges;
Articulating your own organisation’s values and long-term priorities.
What do you need?
A mix of technical specialists and others with broader perspectives and expertise.
Skill or techniques to distil the pivotal issues and challenges that are likely to shape public and political debate and, ultimately, policy responses.
Disciplined experts and project managers to strike a balance between being far-sighted and relevant.