Identifying Where to Start: Agenda Setting, Policy Reform or Practical Change?

The path to policy advocacy can be seen as a three-­step process that consists of agenda setting, policy reform, and practical change. It often moves in sequence from agenda setting to policy reform, and finally to practical change. Some issues may not require all three steps but it is useful to think of this framework when analyzing where to begin your policy advocacy activities. The following page will explain these three steps, and offer advice on how to identify the current status of your issue. This is an important procedure before considering how to tackle your issue at hand.

Agenda setting

When a critical issue is largely invisible or ignored, a first objective is often simply to get it on the agenda. The goal in this case is to raise awareness of the issue, engage key actors in a discussion about the issue, and to persuade policymakers that the issue must be dealt with.

Policy reform

Once the critical issue is on the agenda, policy reform can produce incremental shifts in existing structures, or to legislate new and innovative policies. For example, the obstacles that block refugees from making choices about their own lives are often embedded in laws and policies at both local and international levels. Policy reform is a step towards creating a supportive policy environment to facilitate long­‐term, sustainable change in refugee rights.

Practical change

Policy reform is typically only the beginning of a long and complicated struggle to implement a norm. Even with supportive policies in place, poor implementation can leave a major gap between the rights refugees are legally afforded and those they can access in practice. Therefore, practical change emphasizes the implementation of a policy in practice.

 Consider, for example, the problem of landmines in war-torn countries, and how you might develop a policy advocacy campaign to address the issue:

  • Agenda Setting: draw attention to the gruesome dangers of landmines.
  • Policy Reform: promote the ratification of a treaty banning landmines.
  • Practical Change: mobilize programs to remove landmines from the ground and eliminate them from military arsenals.

For a more detailed illustration of the different stages of policy advocacy, you may download the anti-warehousing campaign case study at the bottom of the page.

Issue status consideration

Given the different stages of policy advocacy, it is critical that you assess the current status of an issue before deciding how to address it. Consider:

  • Is there already acceptance of the norm?
  • Is the problem in the area of implementation or practicalities?
  • Are there different parties or levels of power who see the issue differently than other parties or levels?

For example, imagine that a group of refugees had difficulties communicating with an essential government ministry because it is difficult to travel to its offices. This may be unintentional on the part of the government, but with dire effects on refugee lives. It may be possible to resolve the issue by working with the government to develop a logistical solution – a telephone hotline, a drop box for correspondence, a satellite office, etc. If the government is not in principle opposed to addressing a problem, public criticism – which is common during the agenda setting stage and in the classic “name and shame” strategy – might backfire by eroding goodwill to solve practical problems creatively.

Also, keep in mind that not all advocacy initiatives will move in this order, from agenda setting to practical change. Law and policy are often the products of a particular agenda, but they also have powerful influence over how people think about issues. One can change the agenda to change the law, but one can also change the law in order to shift the agenda. Likewise with practical change. While implementation sometimes lags behind policy, there is sometimes more flexibility at the front lines than one might realize. Thus it may sometimes be possible to change a practice, at least in a pilot project, and then later push for a change in policy.

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