What Are Effective Alternatives to Party Politics for Effective Public Policy Advocacy?

In the United States, the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject has made many grants to pub­lic policy ad­vo­cacy NGOs that have had sig­nifi­cant suc­cesses. And some re­gional EA or­ga­ni­za­tions in other coun­tries have also fo­cused on policy pro­ject. Typ­i­cally in EA I see pub­lic policy favoured for be­ing along the fol­low­ing lines:

  • ev­i­dence-based

  • backed by ex­pert consensus

  • has broad-based support

  • solves a press­ing and ne­glected problem

I’ve been think­ing about what it’d take for EA to pur­sue goals of effec­tive policy ad­vo­cacy in differ­ent coun­tries around the world. In Canada, I asked a friend of mine how peo­ple can start in­fluenc­ing poli­tics and policy. He has sev­eral friends who got in­volved in fed­eral party poli­tics in Canada by be­com­ing highly in­volved vol­un­teers and mem­bers with a ma­jor party. I vis­ited the office of my lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive (my Mem­ber of Par­li­a­ment, or MP) to ask how one gets in­volved in the party, and I got the ex­act same im­pres­sion I got from my friend who told me sev­eral anec­dotes of what ac­tive party mem­ber­ship was like for his other friends. This is seen as the most typ­i­cal route a typ­i­cal cit­i­zen might get in­volved in poli­tics. Un­for­tu­nately, join­ing a poli­ti­cal party as the pri­mary route to in­fluence policy struck me at odds with what policy ad­vo­cacy from an EA per­spec­tive would ideally look like.

  • At least in Canada, there is tight con­trol of de­ci­sion-mak­ing in­side fed­eral poli­ti­cal par­ties. This means shap­ing a party’s policy plat­form is done from the top-down, re­quiring a long time or a re­mark­ably quick rise up party ranks to shape it. This is years of a ca­reer some­one is for­go­ing time to ad­vo­cate for pub­lic poli­cies they con­sider more effec­tive to go along with the party line, or even com­pro­mise their val­ues by con­don­ing party policy plat­forms one con­sid­ers coun­tere­ffec­tive/​in­effec­tive.

  • Poli­ti­cal par­ties which heav­ily cen­tral­ize de­ci­sion-mak­ing are still large and di­verse coal­i­tions of voter blocs that make com­pro­mises to ham­mer out an agenda and stand a chance of be­ing elected. Un­for­tu­nately from an EA per­spec­tive this makes the pub­lic policy plat­form of all kinds of poli­ti­cal par­ties look ran­dom, with some effec­tive and in­effec­tive policy po­si­tions, but by and large poli­ti­cal par­ties are fo­cused on is­sues other than im­ple­ment­ing more effec­tive poli­cies in the first place.

  • Poli­ti­cal par­ties won’t give prefer­ence to hear­ing out a still ex­tremely small lobby that is EA. So if a party has policy po­si­tions that aren’t backed by ev­i­dence, or aren’t up to the stan­dards of ev­i­dence EA would seek, it’s easy for those par­ties to ig­nore EA, and hard for EA to be taken se­ri­ously.

  • A cul­ture in poli­ti­cal par­ties of loy­alty to the gen­eral thrust of the party and its pri­ori­ties at pre­sent, which makes pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion or dis­cus­sion what­so­ever crit­i­cal of party poli­cies or ac­tivi­ties difficult if not prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble. This is at odds with EA’s style of pub­lic eval­u­a­tions of effec­tive­ness; our pur­suit of the most effec­tive poli­cies on a typ­i­cally ev­i­dence-based and case-by-case ba­sis; and a fo­cus on longer-term out­comes.

This makes try­ing to build a move­ment in a coun­try for effec­tive policy ad­vo­cacy and re­form through join­ing poli­ti­cal par­ties look like a highly un­cer­tain prospect that could end up be­ing years of effort wasted that could have been spent on gen­uinely and suc­cess­fully helping peo­ple by pur­su­ing a differ­ent ca­reer. EA com­mu­nity mem­bers should definitely con­sider and pur­sue ca­reers in poli­tics and policy, and much of the time that may nec­es­sar­ily in­volve party poli­tics. But not ev­ery­one in EA has to do that, and party poli­tics may not a good per­sonal fit for many of us who would nonethe­less seek to see pub­lic policy re­formed. So it seems worth ex­plor­ing other op­tions for al­ter­na­tive means by which EA or­ga­ni­za­tions can suc­cess­fully ad­vo­cate for effec­tive and al­tru­is­tic pub­lic policy. Pos­si­bil­ities in­clude:

  • EA com­mu­nity mem­bers get­ting in­volved and try­ing to build or­ga­ni­za­tions fo­cused on in­fluenc­ing lo­cal poli­tics, where poli­tics and policy-set­ting takes place on a less com­pet­i­tive scale where in­di­vi­d­u­als can have a greater im­pact. In time, these net­works could be scaled up from grass­roots and lo­cal ori­gins to in­fluence policy-set­ting by higher lev­els of gov­ern­ment.

  • Find ways to iden­tify and co­or­di­nate with the most im­pact­ful NGOs already work­ing in a coun­try on pub­lic policy is­sues that dove­tail with EA pri­ori­ties or policy po­si­tions, similar to how the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject has made grants to pub­lic policy NGOs which already have an on­go­ing track record of suc­cess.

  • EA or­ga­ni­za­tions in differ­ent coun­tries find ways to build effec­tive lob­bies for var­i­ous causes in pub­lic policy they pri­ori­tize, and try di­rectly in­fluenc­ing gov­ern­ments, poli­ti­cal par­ties, and other key in­sti­tu­tions to change their policy po­si­tions.

  • Com­bine other efforts with grass­roots move­ment-build­ing to try shift­ing pub­lic opinion and other lev­ers of in­fluence on pub­lic policy.

Th­ese are all meth­ods for ad­vo­cat­ing, in­fluenc­ing, and chang­ing pub­lic policy that have been suc­cess­fully em­ployed in many ways by many differ­ent move­ments and or­ga­ni­za­tions in the past. I have some fa­mil­iar­ity with how differ­ent move­ments and or­ga­ni­za­tions have suc­ceeded, but I’m not con­fi­dent enough to say which meth­ods or means would be the best fit for the kind of policy ad­vo­cacy EA or­ga­ni­za­tions would as­pire to. This is the sum­mary of my mild foray into think­ing about gen­eral ap­proaches for EA to take to pub­lic policy so far, and I thought I’d start a con­ver­sa­tion about what other op­tions for pub­lic policy ad­vo­cacy and re­form EA should look at?

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