Influencing policy-making with a majority government
An 80 seat majority means the government can do what it wants. How can charities influence that?
The majority of my working life has been as a teacher. In 2016 I went part time, splitting my working week between school and CFEY, an education and youth think tank. In 2018 I left schools completely. I’ve been interested in policy, how it affects us, how it can be used to increase equality and how it can be influenced for at least a decade, specifically in an educational context. For the past four years finding ways to influence policy via research and lobbying and shaping sector and public conversations has been part of my job in various ways.
For the past year I’ve been Head of Strategy at YHA, a large charity particularly interested in bringing the life changing benefits of the outdoors to all via its network of 150+ hostels across England and Wales. There is a particular focus on young people under 26 and we are passionate about proactively targeting those with the most challenging lives.
This role includes working with the Executive Director for Strategy and Engagement and, as required, with the CEO and other executive directors to understand, respond to and influence the policy context in with YHA operates. So it’s fair to say that I take an interest in policy making and how to affect it.
On a personal level, I’m a bit of a geek. I love learning. I also love podcasts. I can listen and learn while doing other things like driving or walking the dog or unloading the dishwasher, what’s not to like?
Recently I was listening to The King’s Fund podcast which talks about big ideas in health and social care with a variety of experts. The episode “What can the first 100 days tell us about the new government” was brilliant for people interested in influencing policy making.
Guest experts were Michelle Mitchell OBE, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, Alex Thomas, a programme director at the Institute for Government and Paul Corrigan CBE, former special advisor to two secretaries of state for health and former policy adviser to Tony Blair during his time as PM. The show was hosted by Helen McKenna, Senior Policy fellow at The King’s Fund.
The discussion focused on healthcare policy and the NHS but as I listened I realised it had resonance for a variety of sectors including those that I work across.
My notes and thoughts are below. The episode was recorded pre lockdown and this blog is really talking about political life pre and post COVID19.
How can organisations influence policy making in a government with a large majority?
The current Tory government was elected with an 80 seat majority. The last time a government was elected with a majority this large was under New Labour. It was noted in the discussion that “A large majority shapes the locus of the debate.”
With a minor majority, such as the Tory government had under Cameron and May, the focus of the debate centres a lot on parliament. A handful of MPs can be really influential and in some ways we saw the effect of this inward party focus on the Brexit debate. I’d argue that Cameron had the referendum to quieten influential, problematic Tory Backbenchers rather than to answer a real and urgent desire in the wider electorate. However once the matter was raised then a desire in the electorate was manufactured and well… David Cameron is no longer Prime Minister and Britain is no longer part of the European Union.
With a coalition government, the balance within government itself is important so anybody seeking to influence policy really needs to get in at the policy formation stage.
What about now?
Currently with such a huge majority, and by implication electoral mandate, the focus of the debate switches to being firmly within the Conservative party. Anybody seeking to influence policy needs to get consensus with factions or special interest groups. For example, persuading “40 or so back bench MPs.”
More generally, getting ideas in front of special advisers in individual departments, Number 10 or attached to ministers can be another way. For example, at the Centre for Education and Youth, I led on a project related to teacher recruitment and retention. For the launch of the research findings we wanted to get our recommendations in front of people who could implement them at scale. As part of this we hosted a breakfast round table which included a special advisor from Number 10. It’s especially helpful to hold these events in Victoria or Westminster as it’s walkable distance from parliament and civil servants or ministers are more likely to come as it won’t take a lot of time out of their day.
Is it harder to influence policy in current times?
Relationships are key to getting anything done in any sector and working environment. That seems to be even more the case now. Quotes from the panellists included
“It’s all about relationships.”
“It’s more closed”
“It’s more behind the scenes”
On reflecting on this I was reminded of the political drama “House of Cards.” In the American version, Frank Underwood calls in many favours from people of all political persuasions to get what he wants, and is able to because he was worked with people for such a long time.The government takes its large majority as a clear mandate. Instead influencing has to take place behind the scenes. Click To Tweet
Policy with a large majority is less likely to be influenced by public back and forth, it doesn’t need to be. The government takes its large majority as a clear mandate. Instead influencing has to take place behind the scenes.
Interestingly one of the panellists felt that that a large majority can sometimes make a government less flexible.
“Every U Turn is degrading of the government’s political capital.”
Some issues can become a test of machismo and I was immediately reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous speech during the 1980 Conservative Party Conference “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!”A large majority can sometimes make a government less flexible. Click To Tweet
How can charities affect change at government level?
Charities (or non-profits) can use an evidence base to tell a story of where we as a society currently are. We can link this to our areas of interest and what problems need to be solved. Finally we can come up with solutions that will makes things better, in the form of policy recommendation or actions that need grant funding. I did this at a think tank on projects related to youth homelessness, and teacher recruitment and retention. Numbers matter but stories are the what really connect on a human level and you have to be able to communicate effectively using both. In writing and also in person during official meetings and presentations as well as off the record coffee chats.
Once you have persuaded the relevant advisors and ministers a majority government makes legislation far easier.Numbers matter but stories are the what really connect on a human level and you have to be able to communicate effectively using both. Click To Tweet
Create a collective coalition voice
Another way for charities to influence policy is to join with other organisations with common interests to speak as one voice and lobby for key issues that matter to you all as a collective. One example in my current working life is Access Unlimited. This alliance, set up pre COVID, represents YHA and other not-for profit school residential and accommodation providers working with the National Parks.
The aim is to ensure that there are opportunities for every child and young person to access high quality learning and residential experiences in our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOBs). This aim ties with themes from the completed Glover Landscape Review which was commissioned by the government. As Head of Strategy at YHA part of my role involves being part of similar types of discussions involving coalition partners to affect change at scale.
Government is more than parliament (arms length bodies)
When many people think of government they think, reasonably, of the houses of parliament and MPs. The machinery of government is much more than that. Those wishing to influence policy need to consider individual ministerial departments as well as arms length bodies that have decision-making and fund-granting power in their sector(s) of interest.
The podcast that inspired this blog was focussed on health and social care and specifically mentioned NHS England and NHS Improvement. In my role, YHA spans a number of sectors including hospitality, heritage, education and nature/outdoors. These sectors are covered by ministerial departments like Department of Education (DfE), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). In addition to these departments there are a number of other arms lengths bodies that have influence, power and/ or money to affect our areas of interest. We liaise with these with regularly such as Sport England and Natural England. I’m still learning about the scope of some of these so more blogs may follow as I try and process my learning.
Don’t forget regional government and departments
National policy influence is seen as the holy grail but lots of policy decisions are made at regional level and these can be easier to influence than national decisions. I’m reminded of a project I led once for a City Region in the North West of England, considering Maths and English skills. The recommendations we made had the ability to affect the education of all of the state educated young people within that region.
Would-be policy affecters should ways remember that regional interventions or policies that are implemented and seen to work at regional level may catch the eye of national policy makers and be given a wider outing if they solve a national problem. In my current role we are passionate about allowing a wide range of people to access life improving connections to nature and outdoors. Part of that involves widening access to the National Parks in England and Wales. Each park has its own authority, although consensus is of course a desirable thing. Individual National Park autonomy means that we could pilot ideas in partnership with individual authorities if needed.
All levels matter
Charities need to
- Identify and describe a societal problem using as wide a range of evidence as possible.
- Suggest tangible solutions
- Work at every level (national, regional, local and with peers)
The levers for change are more diffuse than we might think and don’t only centre on official national policy.The levers for change are more diffuse than we might think and don’t only centre on official national policy. Click To Tweet
Pragmatism beats idealism
The Tory party has not had a large majority in government in over 30 years. In normal non-pandemic times they would feel supported by the public to carry out what they promised in their manifesto. MPs generally take their mandate seriously and many want to deliver on what they feel were their promises to their constituents and the wider country. It feels unfeasible now but one day COVID19 will be more manageable and Brexit will have gotten done. At that point there will still be a country to run and issues such as employment, health, education and housing to address.One day COVID19 will be more manageable and Brexit will have gotten done. At that point there will still be a country to run and wider policy to affect. Click To Tweet
Here is where people who want to influence policy need to be pragmatic about policy idealism and political pragmatism.
A few years ago I interviewed Professor Geoff Whitey (former Director at Institute of Education, University of London) about the Realities of evidence-informed education policy. He explained that he believed that education policy was generally politically driven rather than evidence informed and that we discussed the academies program which was based upon US charter schools policy. This adoption was more because the US is culturally and ideological similar rather than having a state education system that is lauded as world-leading.
Solve politician’s problems
To get policy implemented at this time, would-be policy influencers need to approach government with an air of “This is how you can make the policy you want to implement most effective. How can we help you?” as opposed to “Our evidence suggests your policy is wrong. Do this instead.”
For heavily ideological issues. It’s unlikely that a minister in a government with a huge majority will see the need to change their mind. In their view, large chunks of the electorate have already rubber stamped manifesto policies and the general ideological approach. Now it’s time to deliver. Instead policy influencers can instead say “these are the issues that matter to the British People (again based in evidence). How do we help you address them?” This approach could be useful when discussing with special advisors. This approach creates unity between ministers, charities, the public, and external policy influencers.For heavily ideological issues. It’s unlikely that a minister in a government with a huge majority will see the need to change their mind Click To Tweet
Give us what works
On issues where the government isn’t ideologically driven it can be a lot easier to influence policy, as politicians are less hampered by fears of losing face. Just give them what works.On issues where the government isn’t ideologically driven it can be easier to influence policy, as politicians are less hampered by fears of losing face. Click To Tweet
A practical point – make policy suggestions easy to share and explain
This blog would be terrible if I were trying to get a policy adopted and implemented. It’s too long and I really ought to have a summary at the start of key ideas and action points.
Luckily that’s not its purpose. It’s primarily to outline my own thoughts and learning, check I’ve understood what I’ve learnt and share that learning with anybody else who is interested in influencing public policy making.
Long research reports generally have executive summaries. Why? Decision makers are pushed for time (and even if they aren’t some like to feel like they are) information needs to be clear and concise.
Charities need to be able to explain recommendations in a clear way outlining: the problem, the evidence and the proposed solution as concisely as possible. Bonus points for connecting it to something that will resonate with the reader and with people that you know the reader is accountable to.
Doing this makes the concept easily shareable. That civil servant needs to pass it to their boss, who may have to explain it to a permanent secretary who then has to explain it clearly to a minster. Make it easy for them.
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