Policy making is not limited to our traditional understandings of simply being decided in Parliament by lawmakers - it involves citizens, local councilors, institutions and academics. Local issues can require discussion, debate and input from international experts before change is agreed upon. The British Council, the UK’s organisation for cultural relations, often facilitates policy-making discussion. Outward-facing and internationally oriented, it is the primary promoter of knowledge on the English language and of the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world; culturally, educationally and scientifically, and is an apt body to facilitate education on policy making. Recently I myself undertook an online policy making course led by them, and it was an invaluable and an enriching experience.
I learned more about the nuanced and multifaceted nature of policymaking from the practical advice that was directed towards a certain type of policy creator: citizens with a passion. Of course, decision-makers who can formally establish policy or propose new laws, such as MPs, have idiosyncratic passions and drives motivating their work, yet this course focused on showing individuals who are not decision-makers how to leverage their passion to influence policy. Passion was therefore the thread that ran throughout, whereby the ‘equation’ of passion was described as a combination of what you want to do and what you can do, emphasising the dynamic fusion and strengthened possibilities which emerge when intentions and interests harmonise with one’s actual capabilities.
It was fascinating to hear from speakers around the world with different employment and education backgrounds sharing their passions and subsequent stories of how and why they are involved in policy. It was palpable that people across the world largely mentioned the same issues as what they care about or are concerned with the most, for example, climate change and equal resource distribution, gender equality; equal educational opportunities and LGBTQ+ rights. Whilst a wider number of issues were divulged, it was interesting to see individuals thousands of miles apart and not knowing one another talk personally and professionally about why the same issues matter so much to them.
The sentiment of shared passion and fundamental connectivity was encapsulated in a speech by Graça Machel, the Joint Deputy Leader of the Elders (an independent group of global leaders working together for peace, justice and human rights); to a young audience, she said “you are not alone.”
She reminded that, comprising the largest percentage of the global population, it is over to young people to lead today, not in the future, in re-shaping and re-imagining institutions that currently embody inertia and a slow and resistant approach to change. Hearing these words aloud creates a feeling of urgency, a feeling of wanting to act right now to bring about the wide scale change you envision, the change you see the world needs.
A similarly motivating message for those aiming to push for policy change was voiced by Jayathma Wickramanayake, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, reminding us to “never give up…really, never give up”. Feeling inevitably enthused, there remains a strange disconnect, with it not sinking in that it is you who is being spoken to, it is you who is being told to not give up on your vision. This response demonstrates how, whilst enthusiasm and ideas are possessed abundantly within us, we are mostly less able to comprehend how our skills, life situation, personality and knowledge could bring our visions into fruition. Indeed, it is well-known that many people understand the significant threat to planet Earth, and thereby inevitably to the history, present existence and future of humankind, due to climate change, but feel ‘too small to make a difference’. The suggestion of personal insignificance is entirely rebuffed in environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s book title, and more people are realising that taking positive actions in their own lives is not a small feat by any means. Throughout the course, several speakers remarked how no one should underestimate the impact that their personal life choices can have on wide scale issues.
Then, to challenge doubts about personal ability to influence policy, it is key to engage with the nexus for harmonising our intentions with our abilities. This is our choice to reflect on what our current remit for contribution is, such as our experiences and skills, whilst equally recognising our limitations and what we lack and need to build or acquire. However, whilst there is this urge to develop ourselves to be able to directly support and further the cause/s we care about, it was also expressed that having ideas is valid enough – you do not have to have all the answers. For example, a constituent emailing their MP about an idea or concern can make a significant impact, particularly if a similar matter is expressed by many. Such pressure can be the push that encourages an MP to attend a reading where a policy is being discussed which they can choose to establish or not. It was the collective effort of journalists, local organisations and citizens throughout England sending emails and raising awareness that encouraged MPs to turn out en masse to the House of Commons on a Friday, usually spent in their constituencies, to pass a bill concerning the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, a legal framework aiming to help end violence against women.
Moreover, the point was made multiple times that it is invaluable to find people who share a similar concern and same policy interest as you. This makes you ask yourself, not only firstly ‘what is the issue/s that I care most about?’, but ‘when did I last talk with someone about the policy issue that matters most to me?’. Whether connecting with others in university societies or becoming involved in organisations that focus on the issue, it is crucial to make yourself known to others who think along the same lines, since policy is the product of many peoples’ work. It was reinforced that these people, our ‘partners’, may view the issue differently to how we do but that being engaged in the same vision and wanting the same outcome is what matters. Hearing different perspectives offers an insightful way to learn more and broaden the depth of our arguments and understanding.
Conversely, a type of cognitive bias called confirmation bias, a tendency to interpret or seek evidence to support one’s personal beliefs, was raised as an issue to be aware about. To prevent this from obscuring our policy visions, being frank about personal ideas, whilst equally upholding humility, was advised. This entails being open to the idea that we may be wrong, or at least, may not yet know all the facts comprising the bigger picture. It is therefore through having discussions that the current barriers to consensus can be realised, making it easier to know where people stand with each other. Putting differences into the open was described as the way to find common roots with others and be then able to work on ideas or projects together.
A similar message was expressed towards the respect that should be shown towards those we want to influence, not just those we work with or collaborate with directly. It was described to be of paramount importance to not just vehemently oppose the person who disagrees with us, but to understand tactfully how to convince them, such as by understanding what their own interests are and possible ways to align with these. The point was strongly made that this was not advocating the augmentation of evidence or fitting data into different narratives depending on who was being spoken to - such practice would counterproductively and unethically decrease a matter’s credibility or objectivity.
Rather, it was explained to be consistent with human behaviour and psychology to recognise the importance of understanding an audience well to be able to present policy ideas to them in a way most likely to achieve the desired response. To emphasise this point, it was even said that the best policy idea in the world would still need to be presented well in order to be sufficiently convincing. This was said to entail summarising the policy aim with clarity, clear articulation and conciseness, and being able to succinctly answer questions like: ‘why should the current policy should be revised?’, ‘what does the outcome look like in reality?’ and ‘what is the rigorous evidence supporting this?’.
Overall, completing the course taught me that passion is not just ideas but rather the bringing together of ideas with relevant capabilities so that practical outcomes, contributions and movements are the results. The message was therefore overt that developing skills and personal understanding is essential, yet the value of connecting with others with the same visions was described as being the first way to start pushing for policy change. It is also intriguing to have been reminded to consider precisely who needs to be convinced of your idea and where they need to be to have marked influence over the policy. This course has furthered my personal interest in policy making and likewise my desire to talk more with people about the issues that matters to me the most. I would always be excited to have conversations with anyone sharing interest in equal access to education, unequal understanding within society about the capitalist system and unequal engagement in politics, particularly considering the role that social class has to play on this in the context of the UK.