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#10: The key ingredients for policy change

April 22, 2024 #Insights
#10: The key ingredients for policy change
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Different contexts require different approaches. But some things don’t change, no matter where you are. It was a pleasure to speak with the Stimson Center’s Elizabeth Threlkeld to learn from her experiences getting policy unstuck in Mexico, Iraq, India and Pakistan.

There is often an emphasis on think tanks sitting, researching, and scratching one’s chin – the ivory tower side of things. I doubt there are many of my colleagues who spend all of their time with their noses in books. Our role is to get out, talk to people, and create that space for dialogue. If you’re just doing research, you’re at-the-most making recommendations. It’s much better if you can help bring people together so you have the recommendation, and a way of moving that forward. That feels like the sweet spot for me.

One of the real challenges of working in South Asia is how few spaces for dialogue there are. Through our media platform, South Asian Voices, we’re trying to establish a way for regional analysts to get their ideas out there and engage with one another. We’re facilitating but we’re not saying “say this, or say that”. 

No matter the geography, you get policy unstuck through relationships, by finding the right people in the bureaucracy who are both interested and able to move the needle. It often takes a whole lot of work to find them, but once you do then you can get the wheels moving. It can take quite some work and creativity to figure out how to communicate the issues with the right framing and stories that your counterparts can relate to. You also need a little bit of luck – and that can come from strange places.

One of my most memorable experiences was when working on preventing human trafficking in northern Iraq. We were doing a public service announcement on it, how it’s a problem and how to identify it. And my counterpart’s eyes just lit up. This whole thing is being translated into Kurdish, and so I’m sitting there thinking ‘we’re making some progress, this is great’. My counterpart goes on this monologue for five minutes about what an important issue it is and how nobody’s focused on it. Then I realise that the word ‘trafficking’ does not exist in Kurdish, and he thinks we are talking about road congestion. We were able to work something out because he was so embarrassed by the whole thing.

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You have to be ready for those moments of opportunity when they come, and have the goods and the research and the resources to bring to bear. You also have to know that you can’t just push things through by force of personality and deadlines. You need a bit of humility. There is only so much that we can really do to try to create those moments for change. I see it more as keeping an ear to the ground and having almost a predictive focus. So, it seems as if this issue is going to intersect with this other issue soon, so let’s figure out who the five or six people are that we want involved in a conversation, and try to start those conversations in a way that will inform policy.

Our interests are driven by our values. I don’t think there is an interest that is value neutral at the end of the day. There is too artificial a separation when we get into these conversations about values versus interests. If you break it down, the things we define as being in our national interest, or being in our security interest, they are socially constructed. When you have people making those decisions, that is people with values and a certain set of narratives and a certain set of understandings of how the world works. Their values are defining what is in our interest.

I would break down the silos between foreign and domestic policy. Stimson is a foreign policy think tank. We don’t have a branch of Stimson that works on domestic policy issues. Other think tanks do though,  and from what I have seen there tends to be quite a bit of siloing between the two spaces. That is a missed opportunity. On things like immigration, economic inequality, and political polarisation… a lot of these issues that we see as a domestic policy question, are domestic policy questions for all of these other countries too.

I wish we had a better way of talking about our own challenges in the US and looking for lessons from South Asia. It’s not a one-way street. What has India figured out on this issue that might helpfully inform our domestic politics? As we air our dirty laundry to the world over the next several months over the election… Maybe we need to start looking for solutions outside of the US.

Parting thoughts….

Policy gets stuck in the bureaucracy. It’s in the implementation. You can have the grandest vision and idea and strategy, but for reasons of personality and the equities of certain bureaus or offices or agencies or just general inertia, what actually gets delivered looks far different from the lofty ambitions that were unveiled. As we are trying to figure out policy recommendations, you can’t just sit and say, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if blah blah’. You have to get to know the way the institution works, the people and the personalities on the inside, and have a mind for how what you’re proposing could actually be implemented. You need to be smart about finding ways around or through them at the very outset.

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