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Ranil Dissanayake is a policy fellow at Center for Global Development. Dissanayake is an economist with more than 15 years’ experience in international development policy making. He has been a senior adviser to the Governments of Malawi and Tanzania and was a Senior Economic Adviser to successive Chief Economists in the UK’s Department for International Development between 2016 and 2020. He currently splits his time between CGD and completing his doctoral research into organisational decision-making at the Blavatnik School of Government (University of Oxford). His work focuses on the future of development cooperation, economic development in poor countries, and bridging the gap between research and policymaking.
Recently, I took part in a UNDRR panel discussion about risk communication. We discussed how to engage different audiences, including policymakers. It was rather striking how all panelists and many in the audience were struggling with some basic form of the question: “how do we get people to listen to us?” In my career as a policymaker and a researcher, I’ve been on both sides of this question: I’ve been the person people are trying to persuade and the person trying to do the persuasion.
Changing an influential policymaker’s mind can be difficult. This is a feature, not a bug: most senior policymakers have been doing their work for a long time. They have accumulated knowledge and experience. It’s a good thing that new information and lobbying doesn’t always change their mind. Otherwise this would lead to constant policy changes.
However, when change is really needed because the balance of evidence has shifted, or a long-held misconception is now being challenged, the shift may be happening too slowly. These four principles will help you get your message across.
The first step in the process – so obvious it’s easy to forget – is making sure that the change you are advocating for is right and worthwhile. This is the first responsibility of the researcher and the advocate: invest in good (and transparent) evidence. Be open to challenge, and make sure that the policy change you advocate for is backed by evidence. Some of the literature distinguishes advocates from ‘honest brokers’. But unless you’re seeking a private rather than a social gain, I believe the two categories are one and the same: no-one should advocate for something if they don’t know it works.
Behavioural economics suggest that relatively small changes in the framing, packaging or ordering of information can substantially improve engagement with your audience and outcomes. But nudges won’t work against if they are strong incentives pulling the other way. Like any other agent in the system, policymakers respond to certain incentives. These can be helpful or detrimental to your attempt to influence policy. To engage policymakers, you first need to understand their incentives so you can tailor your approach.
If a policymaker is rewarded for achievement in a specific policy domain – say economic growth, or learning outcomes – then your path to influence should include a way of demonstrating that the change you advocate for will accelerate these. On the other hand, policymakers often control resources which they are incentivized to spend and put to use. In such a context advocating for the cessation of a policy on the grounds that it doesn’t work is unlikely to be successful unless you also improve performance or provide an alternative use of resources.
Most policymakers want to do the right thing. In the language of economics, this is what we call ‘intrinsic motivation’. This incentive rewards people for good performance because they believe in the work they do. My own research (in progress) has found that this is true even in the face of incentives to ignore the most effective option and do the wrong thing instead. Recognizing the role of intrinsic motivation is important even as you seek to work with the policymakers’ professional and institutional incentives. Indeed intrinsic motivation and career incentives can reinforce each other. Consequently, a particularly effective influence strategy will account for policymakers’ incentives, while also appealing to their intrinsic motivation to do the right thing.
Policymakers, like everyone else, make mistakes and are subject to behavioural biases. They suffer from confirmation bias (so they tend to interpret new information to support the view they already hold); sunk cost bias (so they persist with bad ideas too long). They change their opinions according to how choices are framed. In addition, the process to update their beliefs also tends to be imperfect. Influencing policy and building the case for change requires persistence; a willingness to challenge; and a clear, compelling message.
Changing beliefs takes time: people need to convince themselves that they have something wrong, that there is a better way, and that it’s worth changing tack. They will not typically hear, process and act on new information instantly.
Challenge your audience and be ready to be challenged in turn. This is a necessary process to unearth and question decisions and evidential links that weren’t quite right and would benefit from updating.
To get your message across, charts and statistics won’t be enough. You need a compelling story. People understand the world through narratives more than data. Using stories to influence how they see the world is a potent approach to policy change.
Ultimately, there is no silver bullet for policy influence, and this is a good thing. But if you follow these four principles, your calls for change will resonate louder and longer. Hopefully they will translate in new polices and real change for the millions of people affected by disasters every year.
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