What kind of people should you be investing in to grow your organisation’s influence on decision makers?
High quality research, analysis and advice can influence decision makers, drive meaningful change and boost your organisation’s profile. But public policy can be a high stakes game. Get it right and you can enhance your reputation for setting the agenda. Get it wrong and you may lose more than a policy argument.
The entry cost to the public policy arena is relatively low and many not for profit organisations do a fair job of ensuring that their interests are promoted to decision makers. But relatively few exert genuine influence on the individuals or institutions that set the agenda in their field. To influence policy development in a significant way, organisations need to get on the front foot and invest in their policy knowhow, apparatus and people.
The recipe for high quality policy advice is complex. Organisations must be able to recognise or create an opportunity, they must have access to reliable evidence, they must be able to weigh up and manage risk and they require good governance and quality assurance processes – not to mention access to decision makers, political nous and razor sharp communications. But the ingredient that binds everything together is good people.
According to the maxim ‘people are an organisation’s greatest asset’. So what kind of people should you be investing in if you want to grow your organisation’s influence?
At the core of most policy teams are experts with ‘domain knowledge’, individuals with a natural ability to assimilate, assess and communicate technical knowledge. But although specialist knowledge may be an influential organisation’s raw material, its stock-in-trade is likely to be ideas. So, while knowledge is essential, more valuable still is the way that individuals and teams assemble, combine and present knowledge to help describe and solve problems.
The ability to master specialist knowledge is often sought by team builders, but ambitious organisations should place more emphasis on their people’s ability to turn insight into new, compelling, potentially game-changing ideas and then communicate them clearly and persuasively. In my experience, there are a handful of essential attributes that enable high performing individuals and teams to do just this.
For roles where the emphasis is on research (exploring and reporting what is known or, indeed, not known) inquisitiveness is key. Good policy researchers keep their ears and eyes open and follow their noses. If something looks interesting or questionable they investigate without prompting. They are attentive and recognise that watching and listening is at least as important as talking and, as a result, these instinctive investigators have a habit of discovering things before other people.
For analytical roles (where the focus is on identifying and explaining the significance of what is known or not known) a strong political instinct and good political acuity – the ability to see how things ‘really’ work – is vital. Good policy analysts can handle evidence and data but, more importantly, have a natural ability to read situations and people, to tell which way the wind is blowing and to know why. A healthy dose of scepticism – a reluctance to take an explanation at face value – is also a great plus.
And for advisory roles (where individuals must take into account what is known and not known, assess its significance and then offer decision makers options and recommendations about what to do) the ability to apply good judgement is, in my opinion, paramount. Good advisers are considered, they have an appreciation of certainty and uncertainty (which is essential in the proper treatment of evidence) and are adept at recognising and managing risk. The very best advisers have confidence in their advice but do not over claim. When they don’t know the answer they say so – they don’t bluff. They welcome scrutiny and are willing and able to explain the basis for their recommendations. And, importantly, they never promote their own agenda over the interests of those they serve.
It is not enough, however, to possess these abilities. They must be demonstrated and applied clearly and consistently. To be a trusted adviser – to enjoy the confidence of those they advise - the policy adviser must think, write and speak clearly and persuasively. They and their advice must be accessible, understandable, timely and reliable, especially when they and those they advise are under pressure.
So, if you want to boost your organisation’s powers of influence your policy team needs to include people with an appetite for knowledge, an instinctive ability to read complex situations, a flair for joining the dots in exciting but credible ways and the ability to present clear and compelling advice at the right time.
Finding and recruiting such a richly talented set of individuals might seem like a tall and expensive order but in the high stakes game of public policy, the price of expertise needs to be weighed against the cost of getting it wrong.