Getting policy unstuck #1: Sonya Sceats
Sonya Sceats, CEO of Freedom from Torture, speaks to Tom Hashemi about the move away from evidence-informed policymaking, culture wars, and the importance of civil society taking a stand.
The power has sapped out of the traditional model of influencing. The answer to that has got to be a wholesale theory of change shift away from a presumption that we can get the right thing done by drawing on the evidence base and doing government advocacy, in favour of movement building approaches aimed at building public constituencies who will actively defend the norms we believe in.
The golden poo was just one small element of a really great campaign that we ran with survivors and many other partners in civil society called Stop the Flights*. The motivating insight was that the government isn't listening to us, so we decided to run a corporate campaign targeting the airlines on which the government was relying to make this scheme effective. We got that campaign launched within a month of the Rwanda scheme being announced.
* for non-UK readers, this targeted the UK Government’s plan to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda.
We called up these 3D printers and said we need this thing done. How quickly can you do it? They said look, we're busy, we've got no availability for a month, but what is it? And we said, it's a golden poo “world’s worst airline” award to present to the airline that wants to fly the refugees to Rwanda and they said right, we'll do it by tomorrow, and we'll do it for free.
One of my colleagues describes it as a surround system approach. We went for them in the public eye, we went for them in their own backyard and we went for them in their own communities of peers. Torture survivors were really keen to front this campaign and not just be in the background advising and helping to create the concepts. So we did things like have survivors over to the world's largest aviation conference in Amsterdam, and they stormed the stage and they told the airline industry what was happening. The industry was horrified and of course we put that all over social media. We finally got this email through from the airline saying, “call your campaign off, we are out of this game.”
It's a really good example of the importance of agility in campaigning and that goes against the orthodoxy in so much of the campaigning that I have seen, the kind of orthodoxy that everything needs to be really carefully planned out: very processed, very deliberative. This campaign was the absolute opposite of that.
I never saw myself as a campaigner, definitely not. I absolutely came from the legal policy world, and so actually I've had a bit of a conversion. I believe that it's movement building, litigation, or bust. They are the two most important strategies for delivering policy change in this political climate. And that's why I still believe very strongly in the role of law as a tool for securing social justice, and for fighting policies that are regressive. But I've absolutely over the last six or seven years reached a really strong view that traditional policy campaigning work focused on securing amendments to this policy or that wasn't working anymore. And so there was an interesting transition for parts of our community to accept that evidence-based research wasn't going to change things in this political moment, and that we needed to move the resources away from that work to fund a movement-building approach instead.
The presumption is that a Labour Government will shift the sector’s ability to engage, and suddenly there will be proper dialogue about how to fix the various ills of the bureaucracy in Britain. But also there will be a race for contracts. Charities working with refugees are unbelievably cash-strapped right now because we've been hit very hard by the cost of living crisis, and so there is going to be pressure to be taking service contracts from the Home Office. I don't care what anybody says: that really impacts your ability to speak truth to power.
We've had to become much more political because our issues have been heavily politicised. I was at a dinner last week with some great thinkers and experts on culture wars where the message very much was ‘do not engage in culture wars.’ But it's really challenging: you can't in the face of that just say we're just going to keep a low profile and not be a corrective to the myths that are being fed into our electorate. There's a really important role in any kind of moment where there is an authoritarian turn happening, for civil society to be taking a stand.
There is an overwhelming majority of people in this country who believe that Britain should be a place of sanctuary for people fleeing war and persecution. But it is also just a fact that anti-refugee rhetoric is a tried and tested means of whipping up fear. I know this very well as an Australian, where we had multiple elections that were won and lost by diverting attention away from things like the economy and the state of public services to focus on small boats arriving in the country. It's the same election strategists who were there in Australia who are very active now here in Britain.
I am really motivated and energised by challenge. We run a collectivised approach to thinking, especially with survivors. I have a really great team and I'm not just saying that - you’ve met some of them. But I also spend a lot of time with other CEOs and that is really great as a way of getting or testing new ideas and peer support, when things are really challenging and you can't quite see the way through. And I like swimming. I'm a bit of an Aussie in that way and I do really like to hit the pool at 6am. You wouldn't get me on a bike though, Tom.
Sign up to our newsletter to get insights from other policy campaigners like Sonya into your inbox every fortnight.
Best practiceDiscover More
How-to guidesDiscover More
NEVER MISS A POST
Subscribe for the latest on shaping impacful policy comms
If they are to shape our world for the better, research and policy organisations must remould themselves. The writers in this series are known for thinking deeply not just about their own work at their own organisations, but about the work of research and policy organisations as a whole. They offer their visions, and show us that more is possible.Read articles
How are think tanks and research institutes viewed from the outside?
What do leading journalists, academics, lobbyists and philosophers think of the work they do? Vantage Point reveals what the world wants from wonks.Read articles