Influencing from the inside

At the Blavatnik School of Government students are taught how to critically analyse, develop, and influence public policy. The tools and skills gained by students are universal and the ability to think about policy challenges through economic, philosophical, legal, scientific, and political lenses opens a wide array of professional paths. Graduates who decide to continue in the field, however, face a choice: should they seek to influence policy from the outside or the inside?

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My own career has largely followed the latter. Prior to my education, I worked as a political aide. Since graduating, I have been fortunate enough to have been elected. I knew from a very young age that my path to making a difference was going to be an ‘inside job’. That is not the case for everyone.

If the end goal of a policy debate is to convince government to act in a certain way, then we arrive at a question of motivation. How does one get government to act in a particular way?

In advising political candidates on what issues to campaign on, renowned strategist Lynton Crosby landed on four political criteria:

  • Is the issue salient?
  • Is it personally relevant?
  • Does it differentiate you from the other team?
  • Will voters consider this issue at the ballot box? (the classic ‘ballot box question’, for our political insiders)

I would contend that the most successful groups at influencing policy from the outside are those that coalesce around issues that naturally tick off most of Crosby’s criteria. I think, for example, of low-tax movements, small business advocates, or the environmental movement. Outsiders who can build compelling cases that their issues fall into these categories are likely to find success when attempting to persuade government – provided they can communicate effectively.

Where this becomes infinitely more difficult is when issues do not tick off these boxes. Take, for example, support for individuals with developmental disabilities. While those with developmental disabilities invoke a great deal of empathy, the issue as a public policy challenge often lacks the aforementioned political criteria. For those removed from it, it lacks personal relevance and it is not particularly salient. Political opponents largely agree that support is needed, leaving little room for political ‘wedging’. And rarely would you see an election fought over this issue in the same way topics like taxation, healthcare, or ethics often dominate electoral discourse.

Because of this, those with developmental disabilities and their families often struggle to achieve public policy changes. This is certainly the case in Canada and, I suspect, around the world. It remains true despite the plethora of wonderful and engaging work being done by those outside government in the developmental services sector.

It is here where someone on the ‘inside’ can make all the difference. With the ability to pursue personal priorities, a politician can, for example, put an issue on the policy agenda.

Canada’s former Minister of Finance, the late Jim Flaherty, is remembered for deftly navigating the country through the Great Recession, helping us emerge competitively stronger than most of our G7 counterparts and with a balanced budget to boot.

It is an impressive legacy which misses the relatively unknown fact that Jim is probably the politician who did the most for people with developmental disabilities in Canadian history. He introduced a powerful savings tool for children with developmental disabilities called the Registered Disabilities Savings Plan. He financed Canada’s first purpose-built and fully-accessible community centre. And he invested heavily in employment initiatives for those with developmental disabilities.

While many of those projects were pushed by outside groups, none would have been as successful had Jim not taken personal interest in seeing them get through. Jim had a son with special needs. Despite some of these issues not falling neatly into Crosby’s political boxes, they were personal priorities that Jim was able to put on the political agenda.

Countless other examples exist of politicians getting the ball over the proverbial line on public policy issues of personal relevance. The late Minister Flaherty was my boss and a mentor. Much of my own decision to run for office was motivated by his example. As the older brother of a sibling on the autism spectrum, I too have had a personal issue that I have sought to influence from the inside.

I first started in politics from the ‘outside’. When I was 14 years old I joined an autism advocacy group in protesting outside the office of the then Ontario Premier – the head of Canada’s most populous sub-national government.

Autism spectrum disorder is the fastest-growing neurological disorder in the world. It affects individuals’ communication, social and sensory processing skills. 1 in 59 children are born with an autism diagnosis, with the number spiking to 1 in 37 for boys. My brother is among them.

Around the world, governments have struggled with sorting out how to properly support families with children with developmental disabilities, including autism. The challenges are both complex and legion: timely diagnosis, effective treatment, integration into schools, housing, employment, caregiver support…the list goes on.

It is safe to say that no government has achieved a perfect system. Despite the autism advocacy community’s success at turning autism support into a political issue that ticks off multiple boxes, the need for an ‘inside’ push has been apparent. It was this need that served as a key motivator for me to put my name on the ballot in last year’s Ontario provincial election.

As a newly elected Member of Provincial Parliament since June 2018, I have been in a position to make that difference from the inside. Alongside Amy Fee, a fellow elected member who has two children on the spectrum, we have been working to move the issue forward amid a flurry of competing policy priorities (many of which are much more salient, personally relevant, differentiable and election-oriented).

We are not across the finish line yet. The complexity of the issue demands that appropriate time be taken to achieve a positive outcome. But by using the levers at our disposal as elected officials on the ‘inside’, I am confident that the results will be a welcome change.

In reality, the decision over whether to influence policy from the inside or outside is false dichotomy. When tackled successfully, public policy challenges are addressed with help from both sides. However, for those seeking to make a difference on an issue that fails to tick off many political boxes, they should consider addressing it from the inside. If you can learn how to navigate the political world effectively, you can expend capital to put items of both deep and personal relevance on the public policy agenda.

In a world where the level of political discourse seems to be spiralling downward with every tweet, it can be easy to overlook the tremendously powerful and meaningful work being done by politicians on the inside all around the globe. Influencing from the ‘outside’ is arguably viewed as the more principled route to change. Maybe if we took the time to highlight some of our positive political examples we would be reminded that fighting for policy change on the inside is indeed a noble and necessary calling.

Jeremy Roberts is the Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa West – Nepean. He also serves as Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Children, Community & Social Services and he is an alumnus of the Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School (MPP 2015).

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