Getting policy unstuck #5: Fran Bernhardt

Fran Bernhardt, the Commercial Determinants Coordinator at Sustain where she advises governments on food policy, speaks to Tom Hashemi about campaigning from the age of nine, the power of LinkedIn, and the dangers of acronym soup.

It's very rare that people admit to how much they don't know in a meeting. In any niche that you get into, we start using acronyms. We start talking about things in certain ways or at a really high level. Someone will say something like “I spoke to Pete”... who is Pete? How are people meant to know if they’re not in that particular niche? It's so important to speak in simple language that anyone can understand. We should be making it accessible pretty much all of the time. Otherwise, we're just not going to get anywhere.

It's hard to know where campaigning ends and policymaking begins. Do we set out specific policy details that we want policymakers to bring in, or do we call for changes, make the case and then leave them to make the decision on how to do it?

Framing gets us so far. It definitely does help us to make the case in a useful way. But we also need to be listening to the kinds of ways in which target audiences talk, what their concerns are and see if we can address them. When you think about what framing is, quite often it's based on focus groups, which are a bunch of people who are talking about how you can unlock that problem for them. But that’s not necessarily the same way of thinking as the people who we're trying to work with. 

When it comes to the crunch, we need to make food policy reform go beyond public health. It's really useful to be able to say, “it's not just us in public health”, and list off all these other different groups that want to see something happen, so you have an army going to that big meeting rather than just you standing there representing that one group or that one cause.

Food falls between the cracks. There's that amazing study from City University where they found 16 different English government departments work on food policy. If it's one of our basic human rights, then what are we doing? Why isn't it seen as one of the most important things that we prioritise and have a specific team working on this at all government levels?

People tell me that they've decided to focus on my area of work because of my LinkedIn posts. When you think about a lot of the work that I do - commercial determinants of health, broadly speaking - it feels like a sideline conversation to the major priorities in most government departments. Increasingly it’s a conversation that is starting to happen, and a number of different people have said that's partly thanks to the conversations that are going on LinkedIn, which is just great.

It can feel a bit scary putting yourself out there on LinkedIn, but it is a really useful network for linking in with people (pun intended) but also for understanding more about other people’s work and the major issues. It’s really worth going for it. Start small. Don't feel like you have to do something huge and impactful first off, but you can start with something that you feel more comfortable with, that very much sits within your area of work. Definitely respond to other stuff that's going on. Don’t just like posts, but write comments, ask questions and reach out to people.

I was little and I got hold of this book. I have no idea where it came from because no one else in my family is into campaigning or these sorts of issues, but somehow I got my hands on it. It was all about animal rights. It talked about food as part of that, and also the beauty industry and animal testing. I was appalled by what I was reading and I wanted to do something about it. So from a very young age I was writing letters to companies and institutions. I feel very fortunate in that I'm basically now paid to do what I've been doing since I was nine years old.

I'm lucky in that the work I do has momentum. We are getting somewhere with it. It's a real privilege that I get to work at the local government level, because I can go wherever there is momentum and so many local government leaders are showing incredible leadership on food and health. If progress is looking unlikely in one local government, I can move on to another. It's quite a good approach to take: go where the momentum is.

Parting thoughts…

Disillusionment with policy work is a problem. We need to consider our actions, as well as the harms of inaction. Quite often the government will make an announcement, and we'll think: “Right we need to go and petition that”. But we don't necessarily think through the costs to ourselves as an organisation in terms of resources, as well as the long-term harms if we don’t succeed. If we repeatedly have all these things we're making people do: taking time out to go down to that protest or sign that petition and nothing happens and there is no change, that's I think where we start to get a lot of that disillusionment from. We need to more regularly stop and consider: is it worth it? Could we be spending our time elsewhere doing something that's more effective? Sometimes we can get swept up in what we've done before, or feeling like we need to respond. We need to have an honest conversation with ourselves about what is actually going to work and what isn't.

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