Practitioner Insights: influencing policy – the soft side of public sector change

From the politics of policymaking to flexible programme implementation


You have the budget you asked for. You have a great technical team. You have political buy-in. You’re ready to assist the government’s policy efforts towards delivering public sector change that will improve the lives of millions. What could go wrong?

As many will attest – a plethora of things. This note reflects on some of the lessons learned from the design and implementation of large public sector change programmes, as insiders and working closely with the decision makers.

Ensuring that public sector reform programmes deliver results is at the core of most development policy practitioners’ job descriptions. This takes different forms, depending on the programme, from providing advice to high-level politicians and officials on leading change to supporting civil society to demand changes at the policy level. Some of the activities refer to influencing individual beliefs or behaviours, others to various features of the organisations and the wider institutional environment in which our work unfolds.

The politics of policymaking: Influencing policy is never only about providing technical solutions. Developing a technically appropriate solution based on high-quality research is of paramount importance, but only part of the equation of effective policymaking. The way the research and policy advice is presented needs to be approached as a change process in itself, if the policy is likely to be taken up. For some busy decision makers, the content of the policy advice is no more, or even less, important than the credibility of the messenger, how the evidence is presented, and its timeliness. For instance, in a recent study in Nepal, we learned from the local decision makers that one of their preferred ways of information was watching videos and listening to the radio – means of communication that were far more influential for them than the traditional reports or briefings.

It’s all about the team: A strategic mix of staff is critical to influencing change. Today, the importance of national expertise is widely accepted as critical to success. These insiders know how change happens in that particular context, and have already built up the social and political capital of trust with the decision -makers. Not all national consultants are equally good to help advance a change agenda though. We have faced a broad range of challenges, for instance, working with former bureaucrats. The challenge is that getting things done within the government requires slightly different competencies than those needed when working outside the government. Additionally, his or her peers do not necessarily perceive a competent government employee as a trusted, qualified advisor outside the government. One common characteristic of successful team members across programmes was their entrepreneurship and reactiveness in demonstrating their usefulness from the beginning of the project, which will eventually build the needed acceptance and trust.

Work on the government’s agenda: Influencing policy needs to build on valid entry points. The enabling environment for influencing policy relies on working on reliably identified entry points to reform. This dilemma is relevant especially when the external consultants are asked to work on donor-driven, instead of government-demanded, priorities. Often, the donors identify the critical steps on the path to development, but even in these cases, the externals may end up working for years on an agenda that the government is not interested in or with which it is not willing to engage. As a rule of thumb, a basic triple As analysis can help identify a space for reform. This refers to defining the junction between acceptance (that the problem to be addressed is a real problem), authority (from the principals to work on that particular problem, and consequently unlocking resources to solve it), and ability (to work on the issues at hand).

Patience: Plan strategically for building trust, by including small tangible gains along the policy journey. Influencing policy takes time, primarily because it is a process that depends on building relationships and trust. Influencing policy takes time primarily because it is a process that depends on building relationships and trust. While acknowledging the limits of programmes that employ delivery units, one approach that they manage to use wisely in most cases is the development of an action plan that mixes quick wins with longer-term sustainable reforms. The quick wins are essential to building trust, to show your usefulness to the government and to advance the acceptance. For instance, analysing strategies to influence climate change policies in South Asia uncovered a mix of strategies. These ranged from more responsive support to immediate government needs, to strategic capacity development investments or support in securing additional funding for climate change mitigation. All these small activities were necessary to contribute to a broader agenda to mainstream climate change adaptation and mitigation into policy and policymaking. 

Design policy with an eye to policy execution: If you’re working with politicians, don’t forget the bureaucrats and frontline workers, and vice versa. A common reason for policy failure is that the people executing the policy have been ineffectively involved in its design. When advising the government, many implementers focus on their main counterparts to the degree that they ignore (knowingly or not) other key stakeholders, their interests, and their potential contribution to the programme. For instance, working at the centre of government with politicians and bureaucrats sometimes means that the lessons learned from frontline workers are not considered sufficiently to have an impact on policy design. In this context, even if the advice is politically sensitive and technically sound, it may not be administratively feasible. At the same time, working directly with bureaucrats and frontline workers, and neglecting the ideologies or political manifestos of high-level politicians, may lead to technically sound and administratively feasible solutions, but with no political buy-in. Either way, the answer is to go beyond a standalone stakeholders’ analysis or a kick-off stakeholders' consultation, towards finding ways to include the relevant actors in the solution generation and implementation – even if this process takes longer and is more challenging.

Coherent narrative and flexible programme implementation: The theory of change needs to be synchronised with the reality of the change process. Most change management literature emphasises the critical role stories and coherent narratives play in successful reform efforts. In development, this usually comes in the form of a theory of change, which provides a clear vision for the programme and supports the teams to pull in the same direction. However, the theory of change is not enough on its own, even if it comes to be seen as the narrative for change, owner by the policymakers. This needs to be  aligned with the reality on the ground.

One way to do this is by using an adaptive framework for operationalising the vision, by using different routes to reach the destination. It is like driving the car and using a GPS. When you enter a destination, the GPS offers a few options: the shortest, the fastest, and the eco-friendly route. This choice is made at the beginning of the journey. However, sometimes, the road is blocked, the GPS will provide alternatives, and in most cases, drivers will opt for an alternative route. In policy implementation though, teams often become stuck, investing all their resources in debottlenecking the road instead of finding alternative ways to achieve the vision they were set to meet. This is the main difference between a traditional and adaptively managed programme. More concretely, designing a programme that sticks to the same vision, but having the flexibility to juggle with different tools and products is vital. The portfolio of solutions combined with a proactive learning framework allows for fast and low-impact failure in a low-risk environment, and thus without high political cost. This, of course, will make the collaboration more attractive to government counterparts.

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Alexandra Nastase is a senior public sector governance specialist, who leads the Policy Execution Hub in OPM. She has almost ten years of experience of working with governments in Europe, South Asia, and east Africa on public sector change programmes. She advises on strengthening policy execution, improving government performance, and developing state capability.

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