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

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.

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12 Responses to “Which is more important – changing policies, or changing social norms and behaviours (and how are they connected)?”
  1. Søren

    This is a very important conversation to have, given past and present excessive preoccupation with capital P Politics, but, I’m not a huge fan of how you’re presenting it. Isn’t it a bit like asking: Which is more important on a bicycle? Wheels, pedals or handlebars?

    Btw, this post, along with some of your recent ones made me think of Adrian Leftwich’s chapter “Thinking politically: On the politics of Politics” in “What is politics” from 2004. Whether we want to talk politics or what we consider important or productive have a lot to do with how we think of politics.

    • Duncan Green

      I know what you mean Soren (i.e it shouldn’t be either/or between changing norms and changing policies), but there is a question of priority which matters. Are we changing targetting norms in order to change policy or vice versa? If we have £50 to improve our bike, do we spend it on state of the art handlebars, or new wheels? Legitimate question, surely?

      • Søren

        Absolutely. But your question then is ‘Which is lacking attention …’, no?
        I know this might sound pedantic but I think the widespread tendency for this ‘which is more important’, ‘what causes what’ etc. is really unhelpful. E.g. think of the qualitative vs quantitative debate.
        It frames the debate within an interventionist mindset – rather than encouraging context specific analytical thinking.

  2. Sue W

    I don’t think its one of the other, as you say, policy change is needed for regulation and to improve and protect collective action, for example. But incremental policy change will only get us so far, and that a bigger shift in world view, social norms, values and beliefs is required to get the more significant changes in policies, institutions and societies that is needed. Systems theory specialists such as Donella Meadows suggest that paradigm shifts are brought about by: 1) persistent highlighting of what is wrong in the current model, and 2) articulation of a clear, inspiring alternative. Political elites still have a role to play, but so too do individuals, families, community leaders, business leaders and, as you mention, faith groups. Another way of understanding system change is to see it as the destabilising of the pillars that perpetuate the status quo to allow for different or better models to replace it.

    It is unlikely that a few individuals, however bright, will be able to ‘solve’ the big challenges that we face in development. We’ve been wrestling with this at Tearfund and want to see how we can better harness the power and possibility offered by the church and a movement of many, many people, based on a groundswell of public support for change.

  3. Jonathan

    Sue, that sounds very interesting. The church could lead change if it can work out how to agree within itself and overcome its image problems – being in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent years. How can your organisation get the church to listen to what people want? And what if “people” don’t want things that the church wants?

  4. Sam Gardner

    I could not agree more with Sue, it is indeed very anglo-saxon, the idea that laws are relevant. Law becomes practice only when “sufficiently” supported. (sufficiently can be by a vocal minority alone, or only by the elites).

    But on the other side, policy change is also an advocacy tool for gaining more support.

    In general, a campaign should be goal oriented, and try for the strategy that works to foment change. Changing a law is in less democratic societies a very important lever for further change. The fact that the elites allow these laws however, proves they don’t find them very relevant. It is all about creating a space and then expanding.

    A change in norms and power relations needs a “total war approach” where a small guerrilla uses all the means at its disposal to change the general perception on how the society is supposed to work.

  5. Dailes Judge

    That’s so true Sam. I love to use examples so here is one on the recent surge in the commodification of human body organs and tissues. The story of Baby Gammy who was abandoned to her poor Thai mother by the couple from down under shows that surrogacy and commodification of human bodies/organs is a new global norm (if there is anything like that), It leaves much to be desired ethically but begs some call to action

    Mobilising constituencies and resources for collective action, in this instance challenging these norms that are supposedly becoming acceptable as a “new normal” – dubbed global assisted reproductive markets – is key in ensuring social protection especially for the powerless who get a raw deal out of this kind of industry. One would ask why. I suppose the fact that the industry is operating in a global market makes national sovereignty let alone national laws redundant.

  6. Gareth Price-Jones

    The point on the traditional division between ‘advocacy’ and ‘programmes’ is critical – I understand why the division is there, but the two are so interdependent when done well, with obvious advantages to using visible, high impact programs to provide proof, practical learning and networks that then drive the shift in policy and how its implemented in practice.

    My challenge is that I think many of the practitioners already delivering visionary approaches across many different environments struggle to develop the language and knowledge base to conceptualise and communicate the approach effectively to a wider community – you do it because it feels right, sensible and effective, and you struggle to understand why its not obvious to everyone and often don’t have the time, language or energy to justify/explain/communicate why you are doing what you’re doing.

    Its often pretty intimidating to make the attempt, too, particularly in brainy organisations like Oxfam where everyone seems to have two degrees or more. Yet if we don’t get better at supporting people to do this, we’re not going to have the impact at scale that’s needed, because although we have quite a few people who do do this, most of their colleagues (or outside of organisations, peers) struggle to get to that level of analysis themselves and end up doing things without necessarily understanding why and possibly missing the point. It may be unavoidable, but it limits the potential.

    Its a massive challenge, and I don’t know the answer.

    • Duncan Green

      Interesting, Gareth, I think you’ve identified an important gap. Great practitioners, and people at head office (advisers etc) who support them, but whose responsibility is it to codify the experiences and get them out to a wider public? For example, I find lots of demand for nuanced case studies, probably exceeding the supply right now.

  7. Lucy

    Point well made about ATT, Duncan.

    Not that I attribute it to the lack of engagement with faith groups, but I note that there hasn’t been any discussion (to my knowledge) in the #stoparmingisrael campaign to connect to the recent UK ratification of the ATT – although it would have been a simple case to make. Perhaps this is symptomatic of the disengagement between policy and attitudes that you are talking about.

  8. David

    Fascinating conversation. It seems Taylor is throwing out the baby with the bath water. I’d argue that all of the major social changes that have happened in the past century (at least in the global west) were a product of a combination of policy change and changes in social and cultural norms. That was certainly the case in the U.S. with the civil rights and women’s movements and more recently with the LGBT rights movement. On civil rights, early grassroots organizing over decades laid the groundwork for favorable Supreme Court decisions and later legislation and changes in the law in turn created an environment conducive to further change in social and cultural norms (not that there aren’t further changes needed). While cast in slightly different terms, Htun and Weldon’s “The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence against Women in Global Perspective, 1975-2005” in the August 2012 edition of American Political Science Review, makes a similar point. Based on their analysis of efforts to fight gender-based violence in countries around the world, autonomous social movements that explicitly challenge the established social order “are essential to catalyzing the process of progressive social policy change and for its continuation.” That is certainly consistent with CARE’s experience.

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