5 common gaps and 4 dilemmas when we design influencing campaigns

February 27, 2018 3 By Duncan Green

I’ve just read the initial proposals of 30+ LSE students taking my one-term Masters module on Advocacy, Campaigning and Grassroots Activism. Their two main assignments are to work as groups analysing past episodes of change (more on that later in the term) and individual projects where they design an influencing exercise based on their own experience and the content of the course (power analysis, stakeholder mapping, systems thinking etc) They’re great in their passion and range (everything from reforming USunity is strength healthcare to getting sexual harassment taken seriously in Delhi Government Schools). A lot of them showed a good ability to ‘dance with the system’ of the different tiers of the state (national, provincial, municipal), though they seemed less clear on the workings of the private sector or other key institutions. They also share some common gaps – that’s probably down to my faulty guidance on how to design the case studies (see below). Here are the main ones I identified:

Precedents and positive deviance: lots of great ideas, but if you can say ‘this has already happened in the country next door’ or ‘two cities are already putting this into practice’, you have far fewer arguments to overcome on feasibility.

Implementation Gaps: If a law or policy has been approved, and not implemented, then a campaign suddenly becomes much more straightforward – the government or company can’t deny its feasibility or desirability, after all. But most students seemed to prefer starting from scratch (i.e. the hard way).

turkeys voting for christmasThe twin temptations of turkeys-for-Xmas and cumbaya campaigns: I’m trying to help the students design winnable campaigns, but some seem determined to try and persuade assorted turkeys to vote for Christmas (i.e. unwinnable campaigns to persuade those in power to do something that runs completely counter to their own interest), while others go to the opposite extreme and design campaigns that everyone already agrees with (in which case, you really just need a feasibility study).

Faith organizations: these were often absent from the analysis, even though they are highly relevant both to shifting norms, and in many cases as sources of behind-the-scenes ‘hidden power’ able to influence decision makers.

Stunts: The students were big on research, rational analysis, social media, but not many wanted to have fun with stunts that capture public or policy makers’ interests. Feels like I must have failed to get this across – I ended up suggesting to the student advocating for paid interns at the UN that they consider setting up an intern encampment in the middle of Geneva to highlight the issue of intern poverty there!

And some dilemmas too:

Insider v Outsider: People’s choice of tactics often seemed to reflect their personal preferences, rather than their analysis. Some students said ‘this country/process probably suits an insider approach’ and then promptly started talking about petitions and protests!

Should campaigns be winnable? I personally veer towards the achievable, but that can make you terribly timid, always looking for little tweaks here and there, rather than going for the big prizes. I guess my compromise is that if you want to pursue long shots, I want to see your working!

Do you go broad or narrow? My preferred option is for students to choose a specific change (a new policy, law or institution), which then allows you to go deeper into understanding the way decisions are made, the stakeholders involved and the power analysis of the various players, before coming up with some possible influencing strategies. You can then get started and adapt the strategy in light of experience. But then I realized that this introduces a bias against some of the less precise, but important ‘power within’/’invisible power’ influencing on norms, attitudes and beliefs. Maybe the compromise is ‘broad issue, narrow strategy’ or ‘narrow issue, range of strategies’. What doesn’t work is a broad issue, and a whole load of possible strategies, which tends to lead to a lot of vague hand-waving.

The tyranny of frameworks: I’ve run through a few of the ways to think about power (four powers, power cube etc) and already they are starting to look like a new orthodoxy, with students anxiously asking me which one to apply (or should they use all of them). Time to remind everyone that they are tools, and only useful if they work for you in a given situation.

Here’s the guidance I gave for the influencing project. This is the first year I’ve given the course, so any advice on how to improve it would be very welcome.