by Gerard Emmanuel Kamdem Kamga
As non-governmental organisations, we strive for the betterment of society, not only through participation in community decision making and encouraging democratic political engagement, but also by providing basic social and economic services to vulnerable and marginalised people, including individuals who experience violence and injustice. In order to achieve these objectives, organisations need to work collaboratively with a variety of partners, including the public sector and other stakeholders. But how do partners ensure that their voices are heard and how do they guarantee the impact of their activities across the system? The government remains the most important entity in terms of regulating life within the society, through the promulgation of laws, regulations and even coercion. Yet it is a fact that an effective governance is no longer based on concentration of powers and coercion but rather on decentralisation of decision-making and citizen’s participation. Within this context, organisations, communities, academics, researchers and civil societies as a whole have a role to play. These entities often identify and evaluate key socio-economic and political issues and provide advice to communities and the state through policies.
However, an important challenge for community based organisations (CBO) is that their opinions and perspectives may sometimes be overlooked by decision-makers located either within the center or the periphery of power. CBO voices may be ignored for a variety of reasons including the lack of interest and or political will, incompetence, or simply the poor skill surrounding the whole process of policy-making that ordinary people and experts are yet to familiarise with. My objective in this short reflection is to outline the art of policy-making and describe how to promote new ideas, so that they are not merely heard as suggestions, but instead become compelling political norms. However, before examining this process, it is crucial to have a brief overview on policy making.
Policy-making: a brief overview
The online edition of Cambridge dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/:2018)defines policy as ‘a set of ideas or a plan of what to do in particular situations that has been agreed to officially by a group of people, a business organisation, a government, or a political party’. Policy studies, more than anything, are academic works that attempt to do the real political work: contributing to the betterment of life, offering something that political actors can seize upon and use. (The oxford handbook of public policy, Moran et al. eds. 2006). Historically, Harold Lasswell, writing in the 1940s, is considered to be the founder of what was referred to as the policy sciences. Lasswell utilises an interdisciplinary approach to arrive at practical solutions and policy recommendations regarding issues that extended political debates could not provide solutions to. The policy sciences involve rigorously applying a scientific approach, so as to resolve problems in politics and governance. Lasswell’s approach to policy sciences is concerned with ‘knowledge of and in decision processes of the public and civic order’
(Lasswell:1971) which is to say designing a policy involve two important elements,namely, a knowledge base to inform the core of the policy and arriving at a process for adopting and ensuring passage of the policy. As Lasswell argues, ‘knowledge of the decision process implies systematic, empirical studies of how policies are made and put into effect.’ Simply put, policy-making is more concerned with practical and concrete implementation. The action to be taken need to be backed by a bank of knowledge acquired from previous experiences and researches. In line with his argument, Lasswell (1971) put the following example forward:
It is, for instance, unthinkable that the Chinese people’s Republic could develop a nuclear capability without drawing on the knowledge and skill of nuclear physicists and engineers. Or that the central bank of Western Europe, Britain and the United States would tackle the problem of the monetary stabilisation without benefit of economist. Or that the World Health Organisation would design a program to eliminate smallpox, cholera, or any other infectious diseases without relying on medical scientists. The same point applies to problems that go beyond political security, economic stability, or public health.
It is therefore advisable to any policymaker, to have available a stock of relevant knowledge from which he or she will be able to rely on to provide guidance regarding particular issues. This is important to the extent that by recommending certain actions or programs over others, policy-making differs from others disciplines in the sense that it is prescriptive. This requirement is important when it comes to designing an effective policy.
Designing an effective policy: agenda setting
Designing a policy firstly requires knowledge about what it is and what is the nature of its content. In fact, to do something ‘as a matter of policy’ is to do it as a general rule. This is the distinction between ‘policy’ and ‘administration’, between ‘legislating’ policy and ‘executing’ it. Policymakers of the most ambitious sort aspire to ‘make policy’ in that general rule-setting way, envisioning administrators applying those general rules to particular cases in a minimally discretionary fashion (The oxford handbook of public policy, Moran et al. eds. 2006). Designing a policy equate to identify an actual issue, assess it and raise awareness about it as well as providing practical steps that will help solving the problem. In order to achieve such a task successfully, policymakers must be aware of what is currently referred to as agenda setting, that is ‘the process by which problems and alternative solutions gain or lose public and elite attention.’ The reality is that there are so many issues to be resolved at the same time and there are various organisations focusing on different issues which required the same amount of attention from the state and other stakeholders. The whole situation can sometimes be compared to a fiercely battle into an arena where different entities and organisations are competing to raise their issues. In such conditions, the point is to examine what possible avenues policymakers can explore to ensure that their concerns are inscribed on the restricted agenda space already occupied by various other issues. Firstly, policymakers have the responsibility to make the public and decision-makers adhere to their policies. There is an urgent need to find the link between the general rules that are being designed and the issues experienced on the ground. The depiction of problems and or solutions is a crucial step to undertake. The reality is that people, for a variety of reasons might deny the existence of issues raised by CBO. Within this context, it becomes crucial not only to raise these issues, but also to find avenues to convince the public of their genuine existence and consequences. It is in this sense that policy-making is all about persuasion and ‘the way a problem is defined is an important part of this persuasive process and is important in the choice of solutions’ (Handbook of Public Policy Analysis Theory, Politics, and Methods (2007) Fisher F. et al.). Secondly if despite the depiction of the problems, consequences and solutions, CBO still do not have them on the agenda, they ‘can prepare for the time when a crisis makes their issue more likely to occupy a more prominent space on the agenda’ (Handbook of Public Policy Analysis Theory, Politics, and Methods (2007) Fisher F. et al.). Generally, policies are organised around questions of what we as a political community should do, rather than just around questions of what it should be (The oxford handbook of public policy, Moran et al. eds. 2006). In this sense, policy-making appears to be ‘a mood more than a science, a loosely organised body of precepts and positions rather than a tightly integrated body of systematic knowledge, more art and craft than genuine ‘science’ (The oxford handbook of public policy, Moran et al. eds. 2006).
One of the recurrent issues surrounding policy-making has to do with the language used by policymakers. Several disciplines have a particular lexicon that experts in the designated fields regularly refer to and in so doing, they sometimes appear to be talking to each other. It is crucial to keep in mind that decision-makers or high authorities in the government do not always possess the necessary expertise in a particular field. Therefore, anyone conceptualising a policy should use a language accessible to non-experts and non-professional individual who will be able to draw their own conclusion. To have people’s sympathy and to stimulate their adherence to a project, the opportunity to stand in front of them in person might not always be available. Providing such people with written words might well be the only available medium of communication at that time between the two sides. In such a situation, the fate of a particular proposal or policy could depend solely on the amount of intelligibility or clarity of those written words now in possession by readers. I have mentioned that policy is about persuasion but the point is to know how to really persuade decision- makers. Language remains a crucial ‘weapon’ of the policy designer and then the choice of such language should not be taken lightly. Language is without a doubt the most relevant feature in terms of communication process. The following observation says it all:
Choosing the language in which to communicate is therefore a tricky, but essential, part of the vocation of policy analysis. (The oxford handbook of public policy, Moran et al. eds. 2006)
When designing a policy, it is advisable to avoid complex formulations and technicalities that will make the (written) communication or the message difficult to understand by decision-makers, non-professionals and ordinary people. Policy-making does not limit itself to an effective design as it also need some networking skill.
Policymaking, power and networking
Once a policy has been designed, the next step consists to looking for avenues for this policy to be considered by decisions makers and stakeholders. It is at this level that the networking capacity becomes crucial. Networking is understood to be ‘the process of trying to meet new people who might be useful to you in your job, often through social activities.’ Networking is a concept at the heart of governance that emphasises the relationships among different actors located either at the center or the periphery of power. However, this does not mean that actors at the centre of power are necessarily those issuing decisions. When referring to power, we might think of how people, governments, and powerful groups in society can compel others to do things, often against their will (Handbook of Public Policy Analysis Theory, Politics, and Methods (2007) Fisher F. et al.). This means that in terms of influence and collaboration, networking and policymaking are intertwined. It is a game of persuasion that does not always comply with formal, slow, complex, obscure and even tricky procedures and processes. The current understanding of the process of governing is not alien to this conception: governing is less and less a matter of ruling through hierarchical authority structures, and more and more a matter of negotiating through a decentralised series of floating alliances. The dominant image is that of ‘networked governance’ (The oxford handbook of public policy, Moran et al. eds. 2006). A good policymaker should therefore be aware of how to establish relationships inside and outside organisations and communities. Negotiations and alliances become crucial elements to deal with, for turning a policy into a norm of general application require interactions between different center of powers with sometimes different interests. It is therefore a matter of bargain, persuasion and even ‘diplomatic’ attitude that should prevail. It is well known that ‘the ability of groups (acting singly or, more often, in coalition with other groups) to influence policy is not simply a function of who makes the most persuasive argument, either from a rhetorical or empirical perspective but it is because some groups are more powerful than others, in the sense that they are better able to influence the outcomes of policy debates (Handbook of Public Policy Analysis Theory, Politics, and Methods (2007) Fisher F. et al.). The art of policy-making requires organisations to always consider that ‘policy increasingly depends on what economists call ‘‘relational contracts:’’ an agreement to agree, a settled intention to ‘‘work together on this,’’ with details left to be specified sometime later’ (The oxford handbook of public policy, Moran et al. eds. 2006).
At the beginning of this reflection, my concern was about how organisations could make their voice heard in an environment where they work collaboratively (and sometimes in competition) with various entities and stakeholders including the state. It appeared that policy-making is one of the most efficient and reliable tool to influence the system in place and then it is crucial to master the processes surrounding it. After a brief overview of the concept of policy-making grounded on knowledge and the decision process, I have provided information on designing an effective policy which is about agenda setting and persuasion and how to bring such a policy into pass through power and networking capacity characterised by interactions between a variety of actors located at the center as well as at the periphery of power; interactions that aimed at overcoming complex, formal and hierarchical structures in organisations.
Cambridge dictionary, online edition available at (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/ 2018).
The oxford handbook of public policy (2006) Moran et al. eds. Oxford University Press, New-York.
Handbook of Public Policy Analysis Theory, Politics, and Methods (2007) Fisher F. et al. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, New-York.
Lasswell, H., 1971 A preview of policy sciences American Elsevier Pub. Co., New-York.