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The Policy Funnel – a way to sharpen up our advocacy?

August 3, 2011
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We had an interesting blue sky session last week on the nature of campaigning, and looked at the ‘Policy Funnel’, an idea developed by Nick Mabey and Anita Neville at E3G. The funnel tries to capture the dynamics of public  policy formulation, whereby a generalised public concern turns into a debate, then particular policy proposals and finally a specific text or other kind of agreement.

policy funnel

Outside players (NGOs, businesses, academics etc) can influence at any stage, but they need to adapt their tactics and communications according to whereabouts in the funnel a given issue has reached.

For NGOs like Oxfam, when a new idea is still in the general  public debate stage, we can use our presence in developing countries to bear witness to the human impact (of food prices, climate change, user fees or whatever) and our media skills to make sure that message reaches a lot of people. A typical example would be the ‘climate change is about people, not just polar bears’ approach in the early stages of the current climate talks (see pic).

Once things start to funnel down into particular decision processes, we shift gear into advocacy mode, building coalitions of allies, targeting blockers, winning over waverers. It’s also important to find ways to express our concerns in ways that fit with the particular process – e.g. the UNFCCC agenda on climate, the Doha round on trade, or the G8 or G20 on aid and development. ‘Stop the world and start again’ is unlikely to get much traction, whereas ‘change the agreement on agriculture by adding this paragraph to allow governments to protect small farmers’ is more likely to get a hearing.

Once the negotiations are well advanced, that moment for initial framing disappears, and it’s about pushing particular text (e.g. more money, or polar bears in Balia particular minor change of language). That means working closely with allies inside the room, but also using an outsider strategy with media and public to push good solutions and prevent backsliding.

I’d be interested in reactions to this model – I found it helpful but it doesn’t entirely describe how we work, in that we are often acting simultaneously at several points in the funnel – e.g. on climate change we are simultaneously bearing witness to human impact and arguing over details in the text. So maybe the funnel is conceptual rather than chronological.

It also doesn’t capture the importance of opportunism – spotting and reacting to windows of opportunity, eg picking up the Robin Hood Tax in response to the European and American fiscal crises.

Any thoughts?


  1. I like the idea of the funnel as it provides a useful visual reference for those of us trying to influence at different points of the policy process, however it does seem a bit linear in that one could assume that you move from one process to the next. Here in Australia, while we are definitely in the 3rd and 4th columns in terms of developing policy on climate change; we are still in a frantic and desperate struggle to keep the debate ‘up to date’ in the public sphere as vested interests constantly try to derail and weaken any progress made. So for me, it’s important that each of the columns don’t operate separately and that we never take for granted the need to constantly bring the debate back to the basics of why we need to act urgently on climate change. For long term issues like climate change, where positive action strikes at the heart of how we live our lives (and makes us question how we live- leading to a fair amount of cognitive dissonance along the way!)we constantly need to keep the debate heading in a direction that leads to positive action.

  2. I find it too linnear. While this is a logic way, in practice there are tipping points that could provide feedback loops and so on. We should elaborate real examples to see different cases. It would sounds like the issue of the Theory of change “model” evolved to various patterns (as the ones described by Patricia Rogers for example).
    But to be fair, as a model, it helps to think about the policy process.

  3. Campaigning and advocacy is about change. I suspect that this funnel is not intended to act as a hierarchy – but there does seem to be an inherent assumption that change happens at the narrow end of the funnel and the other parts of the process are about getting us to that end point of text based change. My view is that a lot of meangingful change (shifts in power, behaviour etc) has little to do with that text based process, happening instead through social movements, shifts in external circumstances (opportunism) etc. The process of writing policy text is more a refelection of change that has already happened. So success on the legistlation required for the Robin Hood Tax will be a reflection of change in public perception and expectations. As already mentioned, we won’t get meangingful text on climate change until real change has happened in people’s beliefs, values, behaviours. Interesting to compare the assumptions inherent in this model to the discussions in Oxfam, WWF etc on Values and Frames in campaigning.

  4. To some extent it seems pretty obvious and surely campaigners do this anyway. What it says to me, however, is that we need to challenge this way of doing things because it’s incredibly elitist – i.e. we use supporters to shape the agenda on the basis of vague notions of wrong and right and then we ‘experts’ sit around the table to shape what actually come out (with the baying mob standing outside with only an inkling of what’s going on). This is not democracy – and what we need is genuine democracy, empowerment, education if we’re to have any hope of REAL change, not just a few tweaks here and there. Do we not believe in people taking control of their soceities, economies and so on. This means moving beyond using people for our own lobbying advantage.

  5. Blue sky thinking out of the box, pushing the envelope in a radical direction. Only a people person could develop such a pro-active, interactive policy framework.

    Yes funnels are fun! Funnels for liquids, funnels for solids. Why not funnels for ideas? And I’m sure even Freud had some ideas for funnels!

    Duncan: yeah, OK Murdo, you got me – apologies for using nauseating vocab. I’ll windtunnel some alternatives for next time……

  6. Nick Mabey’s track record includes WWF, the London Business School and a commission that reports to the Conservative Party in the UK-plus a website full of ‘plastic words’ on how policy change happens. Maybe that helps to explain a model that basically summarizes the knowledge of policy analysis every undergrad student of that subject learns in the first two years. The linearity of the model, the underlying idea that every public opinion can make it into the funnel in the first place and the total transparency (what happened to the famous ‘black box’?!) are highly simplified for any complex system. In short, this is a simple, almost naive model and in many policy areas it simply doesn’t work this way (defence, social policy, energy,…). On top of it the model doesn’t take into consideration that there a few issues (especially in development) where selected experts talk amongst themselves; just because your, say, aid transparency (yes, yes, important issue…) NGO claims to represent ‘the taxpayer’, there are many reasons for lobbying outside a policy funnel or circle (own expertise, hot topic, funding,…) and top- or middle-down policy-making replaces the bottom-up funnel.

  7. Murdo, yes this is a cliched (and perhaps even unoriginal) concept, but no model of policy-making is going to be either perfect or unique. This one seems handy though because it can give organizations a useful guide on where allocate their resources to maximize the effectiveness of their input in the policy making process. I agree with arguments that its linear structure is not wholly accurate, but the chronology does appear to become more linear for policy that’s produced either with less openness, with less media interest, or with issues where the costs and benefits are both concentrated to a small set of the population.

    Some thought and careful analysis can help one identify the right time to implement the right strategies, and provide useful momentum to ensure the wholesale passage of preferred policy.

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