Advancing Policies/Systems Change

Sustain the Policy Effort Through Implementation and Beyond

The struggle for policy adoption can build lasting capacity for change. Healthy, equitable community change generally takes a public outcry and/or an organized advocacy effort to become part of the policymaking agenda. This effort often results in more than just a new policy. The processes of analyzing choices, informing constituents, refining arguments for debates, training new advocates about the political process and their role, building relationships with decision makers and the media, and organizing coalitions are important capacity-building opportunities that plant the seeds for long-term success. Implementation can be complex and prolonged, and public commitment to policies can be fleeting. Partnerships that use the policy advocacy process to lay the informational, human and communications groundwork to address future challenges as they inevitably arise have a better opportunity to achieve lasting, systemic change.

Policy work is not over after policy adoption. During implementation, the implications of a policy become more clear. Disappointments, conflicts and unintended consequences can arise that need to be addressed to improve the operation and impact of the policy and sustain support for it. Unanticipated costs and barriers to implementation can also arise. Partnerships that can move beyond pure advocacy, anticipate such challenges and reorient themselves to address them achieve deeper success over time.

Pilot projects and community monitoring of implementation help align a policy’s consequences with its intention. Sometimes policies don’t work as smoothly as envisioned. Any disconnect between the intention of a policy and its actual consequences can be larger when advocates and decision makers are distant from the environment and people the policy affects. For example, a federal program designed by policy analysts with help from researchers may not anticipate state rule changes or roadblocks before it reaches communities. It may not account for various constraints faced by local implementing groups or participants, and the program may fail to provide needed supports. Furthermore, it may have only a partial understanding of the population or problem and make design mistakes with eligibility, technical assistance or evaluation. As a result, it can be wise to invest in pilot efforts, local monitoring and adjustment efforts, and greater grassroots participation and informed community engagement, especially when policy is created at higher levels of government or is geographically far from where it is implemented.

A strong constituency makes a policy change more resilient. A policy change can meet with resistance by those charged with implementing it, and by opponents’ efforts to reverse or undermine it. This is a particular risk in the wake of a large political shift in an elected body, if a policy incites strong ideological opposition or is perceived to threaten a powerful interest group. Whether opposition stems from an elected body, business and industry, or citizen action, the best way to defend policy change from attack is with a solid, broad and organized constituency. Occasionally, a hard-won policy is reversed or advocates grow fatigued. For these reasons, it is advisable to stay informed and vigilant, engage affected citizens directly, organize lasting coalitions and patiently build the long-term human, legal and communications foundation for a defensible policy.

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