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How to win political friends and influence policy

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” ― Steve Jobs

Think tanks measure success in varying ways.

For some, it’s raising the profile of an issue with the public or a particular group of people. Others exist to advocate a specific philosophy or ideological position – the Adam Smith Institute’s promotion of free market principles would be one such example. Others exist solely to get their policy ideas adopted by major political parties, and preferably the government.

Once the end goal is known, it becomes much easier to measure impact. If it’s simply raising the profile of an issue, success might be the number of times a report is downloaded and the amount of media coverage, social media activity and blog mentions it receives. If it’s advocating a certain philosophy, that’s much harder to measure – some analysis would be required to explore not just the content of party policies but the justification used for them. And if it’s changing party or government policy, success will be measured by the number of specific policy recommendations adopted or incorporated into manifesto commitments.

Whatever the goal, the very best think tanks and think tankers use a number of methods and behaviours to maximise their impact. Those who want to do well in the industry would be wise to emulate the following principles, which I’ve seen practiced by some of the very best in the business:

Get the timing right. The government’s development and adoption of new policy ideas goes through fairly predictable stages, from concept gathering to drafting specific bills. So if you want to influence policy, timing is everything. There’s little point publishing the most earth shattering report on the future of the rail industry the day after the government has published its own five year strategy on the subject. There’s likewise little value in focusing on issues where the government has already made up its mind (except in the hope that a future administration may open the debate once more). The minister may have publicly declared that they’ve ruled out certain policy options altogether, or do not regard certain topics as priorities. The most effective policy wonks ensure their ideas feed into the process at a point where they have the greatest chance of being considered seriously. The best way to do this is to develop close relationships with government or party officials who can tell you what is on and off the table, and when new ideas can be fed into the system with maximum impact.

Frame recommendations as solving a problem the government actually has. It may sound self-evidence, but this marks out the think tanks that regularly succeed in influencing policy from those whose work falls on deaf ears. In the UK, the dominant political narrative since 2010 (at least until the even bigger story of Brexit) has been austerity and the need to make budget cuts in public services. The top priority of most civil servants and special advisers has therefore been to find ways to deliver more with less. With my own interest in technology policy, it quickly became apparent that if I wanted a meeting with a senior civil servant, spad or politician, I had to be able to offer a way of saving money. My ideas could do much else besides – make public services more responsive, personalised and citizen-centric. But to get them heard, I had to first and foremost frame them as being about saving money. As the introduction to this book laid out, politicians, spads and civil servants don’t have the luxury of time to think about issues outside a particular set of priorities. So focus on addressing them.

Keep reports short. Really short. Think tanks have an unhealthy addiction to writing long reports. If you’re trying to encourage government’s most senior officials or ministers to take a particular course of action, sending them a 60 page report is likely to be 59 pages more than they have time to read. If you can’t explain your idea in a single page then you probably need to clarify your idea. If you must write a long report in order to include all the necessary evidence (or simply to keep a sponsor happy) make sure you create an abridged version that can be sent to senior officials. One way of thinking about this is to consider that your executive summary is actually the main report – the rest is just an appendix. Keeping things short is not being lazy – it requires greater focus and clarity of thought. As Blaise Pascal, and later Mark Twain, famously put it: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.

Avoid jargon. Every industry and sector suffers from its own jargon. Don’t inflict it on those you seek to influence. Good think tankers remember that most civil servants and politicians are generalists; they can get up to speed on most issues but aren’t domain experts. Don’t risk losing the argument simply because you used terminology they don’t understand.

Build your personal profile. Working for a well-known think tank can open doors and ensure you get an audience with senior officials. But the best policy wonks work hard to build a powerful personal brand as well. Your ideas are far more likely to be listened to if you’re known as the go-to person on your subject. For people to want to meet you, you need to be known as someone who has something interesting to say. In addition to getting known for writing excellent reports, you can raise your personal profile through speaking at conferences, blogging regularly, writing articles for well-known publications and working on your presence on social media. If you’re looking for ways to become the best known person in your field, Daniel Priestley’s book Key Person of Influence provides plenty of practical tips and advice.

Blog before you publish. Some policy wonks believe firmly they should only blog about their ideas and recommendations after their report has been published. My preference was always to blog while writing the report. It’s a low-risk way of sharing new ideas and seeing how people react. Do they point out a flaw in your thinking or offer a point of view you hadn’t considered? Perhaps they’ve got a great case study of where your idea has already been tried and tested. Or maybe it will simply confirm that your hunch is correct. I’ve never regretted sharing my ideas before publication – and often the final recommendations were much stronger as a result. Blogging early also has the added bonus of advertising your report in advance so people take note when it’s finally published.

Box 4: Blogging tip

In addition to publishing blogs on your think tank’s website, post them on platforms where people already spend their time online. Medium.com and LinkedIn.com are ideal for this purpose and have the distinct advantage of making it easy for people to find and comment on your work.

Use peer review to hone and improve your work. By the time you’ve published a report, everyone who matters – and particularly those who you seek to influence – should already have read it and preferably fed ideas into it. Let me put this a different way for emphasis: the official publication date is only for the media and other general readers, not for decision makers. Too many think tanks make the mistake of thinking that merely publishing a report is enough for it to be read by senior officials. As we’ve already established, that simply isn’t the case. Sharing your work before it’s completely polished can feel intimidating, but you’ll almost certainly get back comments that can make it better (there’s no need to accept the ones that don’t). Circulating a draft to decision makers can also make them feel some ownership of your report so they’re more likely to endorse it when it comes out. On which note, create a list of key influencers to email on the day of your report’s launch. Send them personalised messages first thing in the morning, and include some wording to tweet out to encourage them to share the report on social media.

Box 5: Publishing tip

If they don’t already do so, encourage your think tank to publish web (i.e. HTML-based) versions of your report. PDFs are fine for reading on a full-size computer screen, but are terrible for those wanting to engage with your publication on their smartphones.

Show and tell with images and infographics. In the low attention span world of social media, people are drawn to images. The most effective think tankers therefore use photos and other pictures that help convey their key messages. And if a picture’s worth a thousand words, an infographic can be priceless. Some of our most successful social media attention at Policy Exchange came as a result of my colleague Matt Smith (@mattsmithetc) who had a remarkable knack for creating powerful infographics. The example below was created to promote a report on air pollution in London and was widely shared, not least by the future Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

London air pollution infographic

Educate before you influence. The majority of politicians and civil servants are, by necessity, generalists. Their roles require them to navigate across a whole range of different policy domains. It’s therefore entirely probable that they won’t have deep knowledge of your area. In some cases that can present a problem: how can you persuade them of a particular course of action if they don’t understand the field itself? Recognising this issue, some of the best think tankers go out of their way to raise the general level of awareness about their policy area so that when they do publish a report, it’s much better understood. One technique for doing this is to send politicians single page “what you need to know” briefings about the implications of upcoming bills.

Be provocative. What’s the point of working for a think tank if you can’t be provocative? Expressing commonly-held wisdom is unlikely to grab much attention; saying something distinctive just might. Recall the advice I was given on my first day: that the goal of a think tanker is to change the way people think about a problem, not merely to make recommendations. One way of achieving that is to stimulate debate on an issue by taking a strong line. Policy Exchange adopted this approach when they issued a report saying that if pupils failed their GCSE English or maths, their school should be fined to cover the cost for Further Education (FE) colleges to oversee the compulsory retake. The solution was never going to be politically palatable, but it succeeded in raising the issue of funding inequities in FE, which the media had previously ignored.

Offer practical policy suggestions. Finally, an astonishing number of think tank reports meet with derision from officials because they fail to acknowledge political realities, don’t have numbers attached, or are so vague as to be virtually meaningless. A major factor in being effective at influencing policy is writing specific, workable recommendations. Box 6 outlines nine rules to live by if you want your policy proposals to be taken seriously:

Box 6: How to write policy recommendations that influence government

1. Be specific! Many reports fall on deaf ears because the recommendation is simply too vague. Tell them how they should it, when they should do it, who should act. Don’t be lazy! Focus on the detail.

2. Avoid un-costed, unfinanced ideas. If your recommendation requires ploughing an additional £400 million into a particular area, you’re unlikely to be taken seriously unless you spell out exactly where the money will come from to pay for it. The government could do a lot of things if only it had enough money. Show a plausible route to get it.

3. Don’t propose setting up a new organisation unless it’s absolutely necessary. Government has enough bureaucracy already. Don’t suggest a new department, team or organisation unless there’s nowhere else the function can logically fit.

4. Don’t rearrange deckchairs on the Titanic. Simply suggesting responsibility for a policy area should move from one department to another often fails to solve the problem. For all its silos, government is actually quite flexible as to who does what internally anyway. If something isn’t working well, there are likely to be much bigger issues than that it sits in the wrong place. Address the core problem.

5. Don’t just suggest a tax incentive. There are hundreds of loopholes and areas of complexity in the tax system. Do we really need more? A policy suggestion is unlikely to be effective if the only way to motivate new action is to pay someone to do it.

6. Never suggest that a review / commission be set up, or that more research be conducted into an area. What’s the point of your research if the best you can come up with is to suggest someone else does some research? Have confidence in your analysis and say something meaningful.

7. Make sure you can summarise your recommendation in Tweet length. There’s a useful discipline in summarising your recommendation in 140 characters. If you can’t, it probably means the suggestion isn’t clear and well thought through. It also means your ideas are much less likely to be picked up on social media and reach a large audience.

8. Resist attacking those you seek to influence. If you want to succeed as a professional policymaker, you need to play the long game and focus on building relationships. You may passionately disagree with the government’s current policies in your field, but you should resist the temptation to attack them out of hand. Yes, you might have good evidence that they’re wrong. But work hard to frame your recommendation in a way that lets them save face. Remember that politics is the only industry where updating your ideas in light of new evidence is considered a negative. (Recall the hundreds of “Government makes U-turn on major policy decision” headlines that have led the front pages over the past several decades.) If you make it politically impossible for a department to endorse your idea, don’t be surprised when they fail to adopt it. Work with them, use their language and phrase your arguments in a way that they can buy into. And if they’re simply on the wrong track, preserve the relationship so they’ll at least listen to you on other matters further down the line.

9. Recommend ideas that some people will disagree with. Think twice before including recommendations that no-one could possibly dispute. Policy decisions are about making tough compromises; there is rarely a perfect solution. The value of a think tank is providing evidence and good arguments for choosing one option over the others available. If the idea is completely uncontroversial, it’s likely that you’re not saying very much at all.

Smart thinking

In almost every profession there are a handful of individuals who are better known and regarded as more effective than the rest. They receive the majority of attention and the spoils of success. Policymaking is no different. From everything I have observed from the very best in the field, adopting the techniques listed in this chapter is the best way to ensure you’re operating in the top five per cent of all policy influencers.

All that’s left is to secure your place working for a think tank.

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