Dr Dolly Theis is a Visiting Researcher at Cambridge University’s MRC Epidemiology Unit where she completed her PhD examining UK government obesity policy. Alongside her research, Dolly is a policy consultant. Prior to her PhD and consultancy work, Dolly led the childhood obesity and grassroots sport research at the Centre for Social Justice think tank and was a parliamentary researcher in the House of Lords. Dolly co-founded 50:50 Parliament’s cross-party #AskHerToStand campaign which helps women in the UK get selected and elected. She is an ambassador of military veterans charity Forward Assist and ex-offenders employment charity Tempus Novo.
Government policy is failing. Despite hundreds of policies proposed to tackle key problems, many of these problems are getting worse.
I can still remember the moment, mid-analysis of England’s obesity policy, when it became apparent to me that almost 700 government policies had been proposed over 30 years and yet there had been no reduction in the prevalence of obesity or related health inequalities.
I could not quite believe what I was seeing. How can we possibly have had three decades of policies that have not improved things by even a little?
After completing the analysis I began looking at other government policy agendas. I realised that this problem was not unique to the obesity policy agenda. Far from it. The failure of policies to solve problems is something you can find in most issue areas.
Understand why policy recommendations fail
What became clear was that policies are largely proposed in a way that is unlikely to lead to their implementation.
There are seven key pieces of information a policy should include to increase the chances of it being actioned. (I will detail these below.)
The information is not complex, it’s pretty straightforward. Information like: who is responsible for implementing the policy? What is the time frame? How much is the policy likely to cost and is there a budget allocated? And how will the policy be monitored and evaluated?
Of the 689 policies, the largest proportion (29%) were proposed with none of this information, versus just 8% that were proposed with all seven pieces of information. No wonder policies were not ending up actioned. There appeared to be little attempt to communicate how policies could be progressed.
The government largely do not adopt policy recommendations, even when government itself commissioned the report.
The same goes for many other policy reports too, for example by think tanks, charities and independent government reviews. There are countless reports published and yet how many of the policy ideas ever get adopted and progressed? One could argue that it is the fault of the government for not actioning the policy ideas.
But what if the way in which organisations proposed policies could help increase the chances of adoption? Would we begin to see policy change occur more frequently and more effectively?
Include the right information in your policy recommendation
To increase the chance of your policy recommendations being adopted and implemented, propose them with the following seven key pieces of information:
- Specific target population: Who is the policy aimed at? Who is doing the changing?
- Responsible actor: Who is responsible for delivering the policy?
- Monitoring or evaluation plan: How will the policy be monitored and evaluated and will that be conducted independently?
- Time frame: What is the time frame of the policy? Is the time frame defined or ongoing?
- Cost and budget: How much is the policy likely to cost and is there a budget allocated?
- Evidence: What evidence is the policy based upon?
- Theory of change: How is the policy theorised to work? What are the key assumptions underlying how it is theorised to work?
Some of the information may be impossible or incredibly challenging to determine at the policy proposal stage. In these instances, a policy should still include important considerations for the government regarding these seven key pieces of information: suggestions of how to consider them or explanations of why the information could not be provided.
Translate policy recommendations to policy change
Publishing a report is one thing. Getting the policy recommendations adopted is another.
Many organisations see publishing a report as job done. There is a launch event, everyone claps, the researchers get patted on the back. And then, as long as policymakers have been sent the report, it feels like the responsibility is handed to them for actioning. However, the government largely do not adopt policy recommendations, even when government itself commissioned the report.
What if the way in which organisations proposed policies could help increase the chances of adoption?
For example, in July 2021, Henry Dimbleby’s government-commissioned National Food Strategy, an independent review of the entire UK food system, was published. The government committed to responding, which it did. But its response was to not adopt all of the policies.
I can’t help but ask: why would a government not adopt the policy recommendations from an independent, well-evidenced and incredibly thorough examination that it commissioned itself?
There are many reasons. But one key barrier is the way in which policymakers perceive the issue and solutions. This links to the concept of framing. Although it was beyond the scope of the research discussed above to examine how government obesity policies were framed, my later research found that framing clashes were another prime barrier to policy progress.
Ensure you’re framing the issue in a way that builds support
Framing relates to how we make sense of the social world around us. It is about what we emphasise when we think and communicate about an issue and, importantly, what we leave out. The way we frame issues has profound impact on how we perceive problems and policy ideas. It affects the extent to which we agree on what needs to be done to solve a problem.
If we can effectively frame issues through sector and media communications, this will influence the public discourse. This, in turn, will influence policymakers’ mindsets and create a conducive space for effective, equitable policy change.
Take the National Food Strategy again. It frames the problem of poor diets and related health problems as a consequence of a broken food system within which unhealthy junk food dominates.
The way we frame issues has a profound impact on how we perceive problems and policy ideas.
It argues that companies and consumers are trapped in a ‘Junk Food Cycle’ – a vicious cycle created by the interaction between commercial incentives and our evolved appetite. Humans are programmed to seek out and enjoy high-calorie foods rich in sugar and fat. Because these are easy to sell, companies invest more into making and marketing them, which in turn expands the marketplace. The end result is that food companies have created a catastrophically unhealthy food environment.
By framing the problem this way, the proposed policy solutions focus on fixing the broken food system.
However, the way that most people frame this issue area differs from the National Food Strategy. The most common framing tends to be highly individualistic and often involves blaming individuals for their poor diets, leaving out the fact that people exist within a food system that makes eating healthily incredibly challenging.
By focusing solely on individuals and not on the broken food system, people are more likely to reject or write off policy ideas that seek to improve the food system. They are more likely to suggest that individuals simply need to change, regardless of the evidence showing that this does not work. Research shows that people will even reject high quality scientific research if it differs from their way of perceiving the issue.
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People’s ideologies can also affect the way that they frame issues. For example, someone who identifies as a libertarian may perceive government intervention as a more important problem to avoid than poor diets and the ill health that results. They may therefore reject policy ideas that they see as involving government intervention, regardless of the potential improvements in population health and other outcomes.
Make the shift
So long as policymakers are thinking in ways that jar with what scientific evidence and policy reports say, they will continue to reject, overlook and ignore effective and equitable policy ideas.
That’s why we must use good framing to influence how policymakers’ view the world around them so that it is consistent with high quality scientific evidence about problems and their solutions. That way, they are more likely to support and progress them.
Just like any product, both the form and the function must convince others to make the purchase. We need the right information and the right framing to shape policy that creates change.
If you need help implementing this in your organisation, we can help. Get in touch.