Particularly for complex problems, policy engagement must be a collaborative approach.
You may need to draw on people with a long list of different competencies throughout the engagement process, such as good political enablers (understanding the politics and identifying key players); good storytellers (able to synthesise simple compelling stories from the results of the research); good networkers (working effectively with all the other stakeholders); and good engineers (building a programme that pulls all of this together).
Language skills, local knowledge, the ability to cultivate relationships and technical expertise are all key, as is skilful, structured, sensitive and independent facilitation of engagement processes.
The stronger the standing, presence and legitimacy of your organisation or coalition in the eyes of your target stakeholder group(s), the more likely you are to be taken seriously. An established track record, visibility and a solid reputation will help you be taken more seriously and open doors to policy processes and spaces.
There are three different things to consider as you identify the resources and capacity you will need for policy engagement: the management structures you put in place, how you collaborate and how you go about building capacity.
Management does not simply happen: it is worth spending time considering which management structures within your project or organisation are likely to be most appropriate for the problem you face (for more on this see ‘A Guide to Management in the Face of Complexity’, Hummelbrunner and Jones, 2013).
Where there are distributed capacities, loosely structured governance arrangements tend to be more effective, though they rely on emergent and voluntary coordination, collaboration and partnerships. Decision-making should be decentralised where possible.
Planning tasks and key management responsibilities should be decentralised, particularly where knowledge is localised. In these situations, it is difficult to ensure full compliance of actors through formal means such as contracting, or performance management systems.
Instead, your influencing intervention should try to work with existing networks or institutions, seeing them as resources for change for helping understand and solve problems. It will be important to ensure power relationships are not overly skewed between partners, and management systems allow sufficient space for different members of the network to exercise any necessary discretion in how they work.
Where there are uncertain change pathways, management arrangements should prioritise flexibility. Any policy-influencing interventions must adapt to the findings from M&E – whether that means altering your influencing goals, scaling up or down or changing the way you allocate budgets.
Building in flexibility helps avoid a culture of risk aversion and promotes an authorising environment that encourages learning and builds trust between your partners.
Following on from teamwork, collaboration between stakeholders is also worth exploring. This may be around a specific predetermined issue. In these situations, the decision-maker tends to frame the process, giving collaboration a contractual nature.
Relationships are time-limited and will end when the project or pilot ends. This may be appropriate when there is a need to build a variety of relationships around a predetermined and longer-term issue such as a large-scale project or a policy pilot.
Alternatively, you may want to collaborate through a longer process of interaction between actors to respond more effectively to emergent issues. This allows all sides to frame the questions jointly, and more formalised relationships help ensure continuity. Collaboration is the key to amplifying different voices around an issue and to building and maintaining a broader base from which to discuss and define lessons that could inform a particular decision.
Where interests among key actors are entrenched, building coalitions may be particularly useful. Determining how to do this means developing a clear understanding of how the values held by decision-makers affect their calculations of political costs, and of how to construct broad, durable coalitions (as indicated in Diagnose the problem). Engaging with informal networks of leaders and researchers in policy networks will also be key.
Understanding the credibility of different actors can create space for other less dominant actors to join policy deliberations. How are different actors perceived by those in positions of influence? Who should they ally themselves with to boost credibility? How might this be achieved?
Finally, it is important not to neglect internal teamwork. Policy engagement has to be a team effort, given all the different competencies that are needed.
Below is some advice on conducting collaborative processes with multiple stakeholders.
Facilitating collaborative processes
Intentions of collaborative work: normative motivations suggest collaboration is ‘the right thing to do’; instrumental motivations imply it is a better way to achieve particular ends; and substantive motivations argue it leads to better ends. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Approach used to collaborate with stakeholders: this varies according to the intention, the issue, the context and the stage of the policy process. It can shape what is considered evidence and whose voice is heard. Those being engaged with must feel comfortable with the methods employed. Imported strategies developed elsewhere can have different and unintended outcomes. A mixed methodological approach can help capture a range of perspectives from different stakeholders.
Representation and consultation: some argue that stakeholder engagement needs to go beyond convening small groups of people and engage with thousands. However, smaller, more interactive processes give a depth of discussion often lost in large-scale engagement. Processes to promote broad-based ownership need to reach stakeholder groups that face a number of barriers to participating.
Supporting stakeholder collaboration: stakeholders often need support to improve the effectiveness of their engagement. This might include giving participants more control over the process, providing information and training, logistical support, financial incentives and effective communication.
Working with public institutions: developing links with more formal arenas, such as bureaucratic processes of policy-making, is crucial if engagement is to be effective. This raises the question of how you engage with public institutions as well as how public institutions engage with the wider environment.
Promoting wider engagement: more emphasis on distributing the learning from often small-scale deliberative processes would contribute to wider dialogue among a wider range of stakeholders. This could be done through the direct involvement of more people in stakeholder engagement activities and/or communicating the outcomes and findings of such processes to more people.
Building capacity can take place at the level of the individual, the organisation or the systems or enabling environment.
For the individual, capacity-building activities can focus on enhancing people’s skills and competencies through activities such as the provision of formal training initiatives or ‘learn-by-doing’ approaches, through grant support from donors, non-government organisations or think-tanks. Examples include training in recognised disciplines; in the business of government; in information and communication technology (ICT), information storage and management; or in communicating and relationship-building.
At the institutional level, enhancing capacities could focus on particular strategic planning functions, such as the ability to create a communications or influencing programme.
At the systems or enabling environment level, building capacity for knowledge translation, supply and demand means focusing on the core processes of policy-making. This is to ensure goal-setting, programming, budgeting, business planning, forecasting, consultation and other ‘boundary processes’ are structured and used in ways that create and maintain effective demand for all types of knowledge.