Setting a Policy Agenda
by Alexa Briggs, CCVO Manager, Policy & Research
Nonprofits Vote: Albertans go to the Polls in 2019
As noted in a previous post, CCVO is rolling out an election toolkit to provide nonprofits with resources, tools and information to engage in the upcoming provincial election. The date of the election is not yet released but will need to be called by the end of May 2019. The full toolkit will be published in the new year. Please follow the CCVO blog as we release installments of the toolkit to help you engage in the provincial election.
In previous Election Toolkit posts, CCVO has armed you with knowledge about:
the rules for engaging in policy advocacy.
why policy advocacy is a crucial engagement tool for nonprofits.
Now, we’re encouraging you to consider: what’s on your policy agenda?
There are no step-by-step rules or established set of parameters that nonprofits can follow to ensure success when seeking public policy change. What we can do, though, is develop a policy agenda - a set of issues or problems aimed at gaining the attention of policymakers and decision-makers - sometimes known as the “policy ask”. Setting a policy agenda involves many components, including: identifying the issue, forming a clear goal or goals, framing the issue, and creating conditions for success.
It might seem like a daunting task to set a policy agenda, but it doesn’t have to be an intimidating or complex process. Simply, setting a policy agenda is a way for your organization to potentially increase its impact by focusing on a few key policy priorities. For example, you can clean waste out of a river, and also ask government to legislate that polluting rivers is illegal – both work to achieve the goal of a clean river. As mentioned in a previous CCVO post, policy advocacy work is best as a year-round focus, not just a one-off activity, which is critical in preparing for expected and unanticipated opportunities to bring a policy agenda forward.
The upcoming provincial election period presents an opportunity to leverage the election cycle to create attention for different policy ideas from nonprofits. The election period is a time when candidates and political parties are engaged and listening – they are developing platforms that best represent the interests of their constituents – an ideal time for your nonprofit to use your voice and ensure your asks are heard.
Specific vs Broad Policy Agendas
It may be tempting to think of a policy agenda as a specific policy ask but this is not always the case. That might be true in some cases, where the policy agenda consists of a very technical or specific policy ask (e.g., requesting a cost of living increase for income supports). Specific asks can be helpful, as the issues your organization is trying to address are likely complex, so your policy agenda might represent a stepping stone to the broader changes you wish to see. It may also be the case that a policy ask is more aspirational, idealistic, or inspirational (e.g., to reduce poverty by 50% in five years). Both of these approaches are valuable and serve different purposes - specific policy requests can make a big impact and broad policy requests can serve to prepare and motivate allies and supporters.
Creating a policy agenda is not likely to be a neat and tidy process. A good policy agenda is not created in a vacuum and is sure to be accomplished only after several revisions, lengthy discussions, and healthy debate. The more people you can talk to who have differing views and positions, the more robust and thoughtful your policy agenda will be.
To set the issue or issues on which you will focus your policy agenda, consider your strengths as an organization by asking questions like:
What issues have you already researched? What expertise do you possess?
What policy issues have you been involved with in the past? Are there opportunities to build on previous momentum?
If your organization is a registered charity, does this issue fall within your charitable objects?
What is the capacity of your organization? Who can lead and who can support the work?
What connections with the intended audience (e.g. government, community, industry) already exist?
What are other organizations doing and can you leverage each other’s work?
What kind of policy shift would make a big impact on the people, community, or issue in your organization‘s mandate?
Set the Goal
Oftentimes, we consider policy change to be the end goal, but you may not want to start there.
Ask yourself what it is you want to achieve with your policy agenda. The following are a few examples of some goals your organization might be trying to reach through a policy agenda:
Establishing credibility and/or expertise on a particular issue.
Building relationships with bureaucrats, elected officials, and/or media.
Maximizing impact by forging partnerships with other organizations.
Creating engagement among particular stakeholder groups.
Educating and/or informing decision-makers about issues.
Seeking public commitment on a particular policy issue from parties (either through the party platform or other public declaration of support).
Framing refers to the lens that you will apply when communicating about the issue(s) on your policy agenda. There are multiple ways to look at every issue or problem, so it is important to frame your policy agenda with communications that are crisp, clear, and in a language that speaks to your audience.
Framing a policy agenda comes back to your organization’s ultimate goal – once you’ve become clear in what you hope to achieve, you can ask yourself some of the following questions to help you frame your policy agenda:
What problem does this solve and how can that be communicated in a way that conveys the importance of your ask?
Who is your audience? Be specific, who are you trying to reach with your message?
What is most relevant or compelling about this issue to your audience?
What does your audience already know about this issue?
What is the language that will resonate with this audience?
What evidence exists for your issue? How prominently does the evidence feature in our message? Research evidence to support your policy agenda is important but it is rarely the central story, it is a supporting player.
Who does your issue impact? What would be the effect if your policy agenda was implemented?
Who are the critics and what are the risks?
Who are the allies and how can you bring them along?
Whose jurisdiction does the issue fall into?
How critical is the issue? Is there a need for immediate action or can it be addressed over time?
Creating Conditions for Success
Although there is no magic formula for developing a policy agenda, there are ways to set conditions for success to strengthen and position your policy agenda:
You know people. And you know people who know people! Use your networks and the networks of your networks to talk to people about your policy ideas. This may even lead to a collaborative approach and a stronger voice advocating for the same issue.
Test out your ideas for unintended consequences. Think through as many of the possible outcomes as you can by consulting with people who would be impacted by your policy agenda.
Know the timing of when and how all political parties are developing their platforms. If you aren’t in the know, rely on your networks to find someone who is, and gather information through connections.
Stay up-to-date on current events (e.g., sign up for newsletters from parties, pay attention to news of the day, find e-news sources that are timely and informative)
Stay focused on your policy agenda but be nimble on how to move it forward.
Finally, have fun with it! Remember that setting a policy agenda does not have to be a daunting task, but instead a way to maximize the impact your organization has on the communities you serve.