The truest truth?

In an African country (that I won’t name now, as it could be any and we are in the middle of the process) we are mapping people’s perceptions of who influences specific policy making processes. After a first look at the resulting maps we realize that there are two quite different narratives:

  • Some people say: The policy process basically happens in the president’s head. Maybe influenced by a few informal advisers. The activities of others who claim a formal or informal role in the process are basically just noise but don’t change anything.
  • Others say: There are a lot of different actors influencing the policy process. The president plays a crucial role but is only one of many actors.

The automatic researcher’s reflex is to ask: So who is right, whose truth is true?

But as this project is also about advising our partners on how to have a stronger impact on policy making in this country, this question might be slightly besides the point. For strategic planning it’s much more important to ask: So who believes what (including yourself)? Because if we know that, it will be much easier to predict people’s behavior and to know how to approach them.

Those people who believe in their own ability to have an impact, will be more easily drawn into a coalition to advocate for change than those who think that decisions are completely removed from their sphere of influence. Basically there are two different approaches if you want to get these two groups to take action:

  • For those who believe that it’s all in the president’s head: Focus on process. They will only act if they believe that they can have an impact. No need to overwhelm them with content (such as: we should change the policy to become this and that) before they believe that they can achieve change.
  • For those who believe that other actors can play a role: Get them on board to share your goals. Got get there, you can bring in all the content you want to share. But keep the process in mind and while convincing them to join you, shape the format in which you advocate for shared goals.

But… before you even start, the question is: Which narrative do you believe in? If you’re like me, you’ll have good days (we can do it!) and bad days (it’s all in someone else’s hand). But the fact that you took the job of impacting on this country’s policy let’s me guess that you tend to believe that there is at least a sliver of a chance. And even if you strongly doubt it at times, just go for some pragmatic optimism because if there is the chance that you have an impact (which you aren’t sure of) you will only realize it if you believe that you can.

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