Which is more important – changing policies, or changing social norms and behaviours (and how are they connected)?

August 22, 2014 12 By Duncan Green

It can be a little disorienting when you stray from your intellectual silo, and read stuff from other disciplines. Sometimes it is entirely unintelligible, but it Darwins_finches_by_Gouldgets more interesting  when it resembles debates in development land, but with slightly different language (or the same words mean slightly different things) and reference points, like Darwin’s finches diverging on their different Galapagos islands.

So thanks to Katherine Trebeck for sending over a blog by Matthew Taylor, a top UK domestic policy and chief executive of the RSA, a sort of proto thinktank (founded in a coffee shop in Covent Garden in 1754). In it, Matthew decides he has spent too much of his life arm-wrestling on policy, and not enough on norms and ‘collective impact’:

‘Like a reformed smoker I am lifetime policy wonk who has now turned against my former habit. This is how I put the argument in a recently co-authored review article on ippr’s recent Condition of Britain report:

This is not, of course, to say that policy is dead. The point is that most social policy goals involve what Jocelyn Bourgon, and her colleagues in the New Synthesis project on 21stcentury public administration, call ‘civic effects’, that is changing social norms and behaviours and increasing in the resilience and problem solving capacity of communities. But if this is the goal the success factors are as likely to be authentic leadership, convening new forms of dialogue and collaboration and creating varied platforms for local and individual initiative as policy codified in legislation. To put it another way, the centre left has tended to see social engagement as a facet of the transformative project of policy making but instead we should see policy as a facet (and sometimes even a relatively unimportant one) of the transformative task of social mobilisation.’

He then cites a piece from Stanford Social innovation Review, by Fay Hanleybrown, John Kania and Mark Kramer on collective impact projects and their success factors.

‘The authors provide more case studies of successful collective impact projects in areas ranging from tackling teenage binge drinking in a Massachusetts district to cutting homelessness in Calgary, Canada. These projects have a clear mission which the participants are willing to spend years working at, they are highly collaborative and combine expert agencies with community groups and concerned citizens.

It's the swarming not the eating......Here are four extracts that help illustrate why collective impact is different than conventional policy making:

The most critical factor by far is an influential champion……. one who is passionately focused on solving a problem but willing to let the participants figure out the answers for themselves, rather than promoting his or her particular point of view     

Collective impact efforts are most effective when they build from what already exists; honoring current efforts and engaging established organizations, rather than creating an entirely new solution from scratch.

Strategic action frameworks are not static….They are working hypotheses of how the group believes it can achieve its goals, hypotheses that are constantly tested through a process of trial and error and updated to reflect new learnings, endless changes in the local context, and the arrival of new actors with new insights and priorities

One such intangible ingredient is, of all things, food. Ask Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, founder of the Elizabeth River Project, what the secret of her success was in building a common agenda among diverse and antagonistic stakeholders, including aggressive environmental activists and hard-nosed businessmen. She’ll answer, “Clam bakes and beer.”

Of course, national and local policy can facilitate collective impact projects (although on the whole it has been more likely to disrupt and deter them) and these projects may well end up identifying necessary policy reforms. However, the question posed by collective actors is ‘what can we do given the policy context we have’ much more than ‘how can we change that policy context’.’

I love this (especially the food bit). Matthew is asking what the UK can learn from the US, but what are the implications for those of us working in other countries? I think the challenge he is raising is to the traditional division between ‘advocacy ’ and ‘programmes’, in which advocacy is about changing government policy, and ‘programmes’ are about supporting and working with communities on the ground. I find the distinction increasingly unhelpful.

If you accept Matthew’s argument (that the real driver of change is collective action (what he calls ‘collective impact efforts’), rather than policy change), possible implications include:

–          The need to reconnect advocacy and programmes into a single process (something we are trying to do in Oxfam, using the word ‘influencing’ to span this search for broader impact)

–          You might focus more on the implementation of existing policies rather than arguing for new ones

–          When seeking policy change, you would explicitly think about the broader normative and collective aspects, rather than just seeking a quick campaign win

jubilee 2000I’m not entirely convinced by all this – policy change on issues such as tax and spend, or regulating over-powerful players, is vital in creating an environment in which collective action can flourish. But there is something there. The last point has cropped up in my discussions with Anna Macdonald on our case study on the global campaign for an Arms Trade Treaty. I was struck by the lack of engagement with faith groups (apart from getting Desmond Tutu to sign stuff, but while welcome, doesn’t really constitute an institutional engagement).

The contrast with the Jubilee 2000 debt campaign (right) is striking – given its subject matter, the ATT work could have been based on religious teachings and put down deep roots in faith organizations. That would have been longer and more cumbersome, and you might respond ‘hey, we got the treaty, so what’s your problem?’ But Matthew’s post points to a possible consequence – what happens next? What will decide whether the campaign leads to real changes in attitudes and practices among leaders and populations? I wonder whether the campaign could have prepared better for this stage by thinking about collective impact and normative shift, and designing the campaign around that as well as working the corridors of power in search of a new policy instrument (which they did brilliantly, of course).

Over to you.