Help me create and execute government policy
March 30, 2017 3:58 AM   Subscribe

I work in a US gov't policy shop and am looking for ideas and examples for contracting out policy and other support for our challenging mission.

Let's say you work in a policy shop in the government and your agency has a particular mission. The mission is Sisyphean - akin to promoting the use of the metric system in the US.

Your policy shop is tiny and you're given one million dollars set up "policy support contracts" to achieve your mission of convincing Congress and stakeholders to spend money on something that's very important to one constituent group but completely unimportant (indeed, threatening) to others.

Can you give me examples of what that would look like? Are there other government agencies who do this, and what does it look like for them?

I'm thinking about things like holding forums and sponsoring studies. It's not so much general marketing/advertising campaign stuff, since the audience is small and restricted mainly to decision-makers and stakeholders (Congress, the Administration, professional organizations that have power on the Hill, etc).

I realize the short answer is "hire a lobbyist," but that kind of stuff is frowned upon around here, since we are a member of the Executive Branch and cannot be seen advocating so blatantly. Thanks for any thoughts or suggestions!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You want to introduce your constituent group to potentially sympathetic members of Congress and potential allies in the bureaucracy, after smoothing off their demands and impatience. So you need to identify those people and how to get the constituents to meet an talk with them. Then facilitate (not fund, help them find the funding) what they view as the way forward.
posted by hawthorne at 5:45 AM on March 30, 2017

I work in policy development, but for a not-for-profit. Because of that, I'm involved in this process, but from a slightly different angle, so take everything I'm saying with a grain of salt.

It sounds like you're essentially on the right track when you suggest holding forums and sponsoring studies. With any issue, but particularly esoteric ones of limited public interest, one of the first hurdles you have to clear is getting anybody to take the issue seriously at all. Put another way, you have to begin to create a public narrative around the specific issue that you're advocating for, such that it actually becomes a legitimate part of the public debate around the broader issue area in which you operate, rather than a fringe idea that no one's really familiar with.

Either write or sponsor a white paper that concludes that your view of the issue is the only sensible view. Make sure the executive summary is full of compelling facts and anecdotes (and graphics, if possible!), so that interested staffers and journalists won't have to even read the whole thing to get the juiciest stuff from it. Promote the hell out of the paper; issue a press release to try to get journalists to write about it, and if possible, leverage your Rolodex to try to get a respected op-ed writer to write about it (you'd be surprised how powerful a David Brooks or Nick Kristof column can be in capturing a Congressperson's imagination). Try to write op-eds of your own, too; is there anyone in your org with a compelling enough by-line that the Post might be interested in 1200 words from them? If so, milk that for all it's worth.

Host several forums on the issue, in which you invite Congresspeople and staffers, respected academics, practicioners (if relevant), think thank types, and as many journalists as you possibly can. Try to make them as bi-partisan as possible, to ensure that the issue doesn't end up looking too one-sided. You want to paint your issue as the obvious solution to the problem, the one that's so obvious and common sense that it rises above mere politics. Make sure there's free food so that journalists will actually show up. Free wine is even better. Issue a press release touting the forum's bi-partisan bona fides, and how everyone who attended was blown away by how good your ideas are.

As your issue percolates, keep up the pressure. More op-eds if possible (including in home-town papers of select Congresspeople), maybe forums in a particular Congressperson's district if that would be helpful, and put together short policy briefs that you can circulate to congressional staff. Make sure the briefs are both pithy and thorough; the goal is for them to be readily digestible but at the same time to suggest to staffers that they are complete enough that said staffers won't be on the hook for any additional work. Put together "working groups" with staffers to hammer the issue home, to debate details, etc. More free food and wine if possible.

Explore partnerships with think tanks or advocacy groups that have any arguable overlap with your issue. Get your people invited to their forums to talk about your issue, and get them to hand out your white paper at events. Get them to write checks to sponsor these events.

Draft legislative language to circulate to staffers. Sell it as an easy fix, something smart that a Congressperson could easily introduce and get credit for passing, or whatever. Make it so easy and perfect that it would seem dumb not to pursue it.

At this point, if you've actually managed to get a toe-hold in the Congressional imagination, it's time to either lobby, or convince someone else to. Lean on your new advocacy group friends to put pressure on whatever Members they have in their stable. Find a rich weirdo who's a true-believer in your issue to make phone calls. Etc.

Obviously this is pretty general advice and may not fit with the thing you're actually working on, so apologies if it's useless. But I'm happy to discuss specifics if you think that would be helpful. My contact information is in my profile. Good luck, and happy hunting!
posted by saladin at 6:34 AM on March 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

Here's my perspective as a worker bee in a policy shop in the Ontario government (Canada):

So you have a million dollars, wow I'm jealous. What's your timeframe? I would hire a high-profile individual (or 2 or 3) to show that government is taking action on this issue. This person would hold stakeholder meetings, do research, and produce a final report with recommendations. A year is typical for this sort of thing, but if you need it done faster, I'm sure that can happen too. Hopefully they can also shift some views while they're undertaking the work. Your role in the policy shop is to get approval for this idea, figure out how the advisor(s) would legally come on board (i.e. do you contract somebody/procure services? Do you appoint someone through the government appointments process?), draft their terms of reference, get the funding for this/these individual(s) remuneration (and what their remuneration should be), find the individuals who could do this work, set them up with staff and an office and provide background materials for them. They would be in regular contact with your shop's head cheeses, i.e. the person who owns the budget for this work to provide updates, get some direction, etc. Note that while your shop funds this work, they should still be independent.

In terms of who you want for this role: someone who has name recognition, but not deep linkages to the issue or stakeholders, and who has a well-respected reputation. They don't have to be from the stakeholder community but someone who appears fairly neutral to the issue at the outset. Maybe someone who has subject matter expertise not directly on the issue, but adjacent to it. E.g. they're an expert in occupational health and safety, your issue is road safety. If possible, make sure they're not terrible people or assholes who treat people like crap, because that can happen too!

In terms of who to tap for this role: academics who have provided advice to government before, former senior government officials, former government agency heads, even former politicians are some ideas.

Leading up to the release of the final report, you can begin implementation. Because they've been liaising with government throughout, government should accept the report (and they paid for it. It would look bad that they hired someone to look into the issue and they don't accept the final recommendations) which creates expectations they will implement. There will be detractors to the report of course; not everyone will be happy. The hope is that what you've tasked the advisor to do really gets at the issue rather than just dealing with some of the issues and nothing really changes. Otherwise you might end up in a situation where you've shifted things only a little bit when they really needed to go further and the core issues are still there and unaddressed. Then again, sometimes it takes more than just one report to shift core issues.

My suggestion here is almost the inverse of saladin's very good advice: saladin suggests doing a white paper and promoting it (which I think is a very common, effective strategy of non-profits and NGOs), my suggestion is to get someone to do research and stakeholder outreach, and produce a report that will have implementable recommendations.

I hope that other state governments (or your own) have gotten independent advisors to produce reports on an issue for you to have examples to look at. I would look for reports on "reform of [x]" as an example. I don't know of any since all my references are Canadian... Let me know if you want to talk more!
posted by foxjacket at 8:25 AM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hey, don't forget to cultivate any potential allies you may have in state governments. In the present blasted age, sometimes states are going to have be in there doing heavy lifting. Bonus: it's free.
posted by praemunire at 8:36 AM on March 30, 2017

Good suggestions above, but don't hire a high-visibility professional right out of the gate. That should be your last step, when you're ready for press attention.

Before you get there, you need to marshal all the people working on this already who exist outside your governmental policy shop. Pull together a planning meeting with USMA, Go Metrics USA, and so on. Find out what they've learned, roadblocks they've identified, and strategies they've tried. You want to make sure you don't waste your $1M reinventing the wheel or duplicating past efforts that went nowhere.

Your next step would be taking steps to integrate all the external expertise you've just corralled with all the internal expertise you can muster. Host a workshop that brings together not just the experts and orgs you've already consulted, but internal expertise (since you have better ability to get NIST, FDA, USDA, etc. on board than any external group ever could) and independent, international, academic luminaries who've worked on this issue for the last century. In my org, we do this all the time. Workshops with a distant goal in mind are a great way to get a thousand really particular people to agree on an overall strategy as well as building consensus on whose project needs to happen first. Plan a follow-up workshop 1-2 years later.

After the workshop, armed with your strategy and a host of advocates, you get the gleaming PR celebrity to take it to the news. Mention your follow-up workshop. Invite more people to it.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Good luck!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:56 AM on March 30, 2017

To the good advice above, I would add creating a small grant program to help fund a few demonstration projects or provide technical assistance to the people who care about the policy. Include in your planning how to promote the opportunity, determining who comprises the ideal target audience (e.g., experienced orgs or newbies, public, private or not-for-profit entities, etc.) given your goals and budget, and what the requirements should be (e.g., requiring applicants to get support letters from legislators, since you need to target them anyway, so they're on record as champions for the idea, agreeing to promo activities, etc.).

It's a way to spread the word and having a ready answer when you encounter interested people, including legislators, who don't care about the theoretical and want a real-life example. The process, including the proposals, will also give you ideas about other ways to advance and/or market the cause.
posted by carmicha at 10:05 AM on March 30, 2017

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