Lifting the veil on policy work

Rachael Stokes, learning and development manager at NCVO, demystifies a crucial role

When we conducted a survey and a series of interviews with policy staff in charities earlier this year, we found that many feel isolated in their roles and would like greater opportunities to network, share good practice and simply get to know each other.

That's why we're launching the NCVO Policy Forum this month: to provide information, support and, above all, networking opportunities for policy staff across the sector. We want to demystify the opaque and often intimidating world of public policy and ensure it is accessible to those who need to engage with it. More importantly, we want to get policy staff talking to each other, exchanging ideas, sharing expertise and collaborating on policy issues.

But what is policy anyway? And what does it mean to 'do' policy? Our research has found that many consider policy to be an ill-defined, intangible and opaque discipline. Some even admit that policy officers themselves add to the confusion by mystifying what they do.

There is greater clarity, however, on why the sector engages in policy work. In essence, it is to ensure that public policy decisions are in the public interest. Organisations across civil society have a crucial role to play in making sure policy decisions have a positive impact on the lives of those we represent, be it specialist interest groups, communities or society as a whole. Here, the line between policy work and campaigning inevitably becomes blurred.

We hope to break down some of the artificial divides that exist in the sector, such as the rift between campaigners and policy officers.

Policy work is not, as one might assume, the preserve of policy officers. Having a full-time, dedicated policy team - or even a single policy officer - is a luxury few organisations can afford. More often than not, policy is the domain of chief executives, development workers and staff who juggle policy with many other responsibilities, from parliamentary work, communications and campaigning to administration, HR and watering the plants.

Unsurprising, then, that the challenges described by the respondents to our survey who were not policy specialists included understanding how policy decisions are made, dealing with 'information overload', managing priorities, consultation fatigue and, above all, not knowing whether what they were doing was actually making a difference.

So if we're really serious about changing society and making sure public policy works to the benefit of those we work for, we need to get out of our boxes. Whether you have 'policy', 'campaigns' or neither in your job title, let's get talking.

- Rachael Stokes is learning and development manager (policy) at the NCVO

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