Pathways to Policy Change

Submitted by Mark Cabaj on July 22, 2016 - 1:24am

The idea of "policy change" pops up regularly nowadays in conversations where people are doing whatever they can to dramatically strengthen their communities. They share a sense that public policies - e.g. income security policy for seniors, policies designed to manage the pace of oil sands development, regulations that determine what drugs are covered (or not) by public health plans - can yield the deep, broad and durable results people desire.

Yet for all the increased focus on changing public policies, many advocates are unclear about precisely how to go about it. In her resource, Pathways for Change, Sharon Stochowiak helps de-mystify the policy change process by laying out six common theories or pathways for policy change. These include:

  • Large Leap Theory - Like seismic shifts, significant changes in policies occur when the right contextual conditions are in place (e.g., the battery of new policies and regulations to reduce the practice of drinking and driving that emerged in response to pressure for action by police services, politicians and the courts).
  • Coalition Theory - Policy change happens through the coordinated activity of a range of individuals with the same core policy brief (e.g. When a coalition of agencies encouraging a city to adopt an urban food policy).
  • Policy Windows - Policy changes occur when advocates are able to effectively define a problem, possible solutions, and/or shape or take advantage of the contextual factors that encourage "action" on the problem (e.g. the recent "window" to regulate gun ownership in the United States that emerged after the horrible incidents of gun violence).
  • Messaging & Frameworks - Policies change when advocates frame or present issues and policy options in a way that reflects the worldview and preferences of decision-makers (e.g. encouraging a Provincial Government concerned about a tight labour market to support the policies that strengthen early learning and care programs as way to encourage more parents to participate in the workforce).
  • Power Politics (Power Elites Theory) - Policy changes are more apt to occur when advocates develop relationships and work with those in positions of power and influence (e.g. working with oil and gas companies to develop policies that balance resource development and environmental sustainability).
  • Grassroots (Community Organizing Theory) - Policy change happens when those people directly affected by an issue work together to address that issue, including pressuring decision-makers to change specific policies (e.g. residents of an inner-city neighborhood organizing to pressure a municipality to change a policy that encourages suburban traffic to move quickly (and dangerously) through their streets).

For each theory, Stochowiak provides a short account of its underlying assumptions, a visual account of the typical activities and outcomes related to the theory, and some points on the practical applications of the theory by advocates.

The six theories laid out in this brief are not comprehensive (there are more ways to change policies than these six) nor are they mutually exclusive (they can be woven together). However, they are helpful to advocates of policy change in a variety of ways:

  • They sharpen a group's thinking about which approach best suits their particular context and guides their planning once they settle on what they feel may work.
  • They can be used to help communicate their overall approach to others who would want to understand - and perhaps support - their work.
  • They offer a framework to monitor and evaluate their policy change activities and outcomes.

Changing policies is a tricky and unpredictable business. Stochowiak makes the compelling case that having a good theory of change can make the enterprise more robust, manageable and improve advocates' probabilities of success. And in the high stakes game of community-building, where every little bit helps, the document Pathways for Change is a welcome resource for would-be change makers.

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