Policy Campaign Guide

What Do We Mean by Policies?

Phil Rabinowitz, Community Toolbox

Policies are the written or unwritten guidelines that governments, organizations and institutions, communities, or individuals use when responding to issues and situations. They are generally shaped both by logic (e.g., get a medical history before you prescribe medication) and by people’s assumptions about reality, including:

  • Assumptions about the way things should be.These are formed by a combination of the values people learn as children, conventional wisdom (what “everyone knows”), local custom and community norms, cultural factors, religion, and “common sense” (which may be neither common nor sense). People’s conceptions of gender roles, relationships among groups, appropriate behavior, etc., are usually subject to this set of assumptions.
  • Assumptions about what works.These assumptions guide ideas about how to address a issue. They can determine, for instance, whether a community drug problem is approached with stricter enforcement and harsher punishment, or with an increase in funding for treatment and follow-up programs.
  • Assumptions about people.What people think they know about other people in general or about members of other ethnic, racial, or social groups. Sensitivity to other cultures – or its absence – has a lot to do with these assumptions, as do empathy and exposure to a variety of cultures and situations.
  • Assumptions about what’s good for the community. These assumptions may not reflect reality, or the needs and wishes of everyone in the community. Until the 1960’s, for example, the majority of the white population in many American communities – and not only in the South – honestly felt that separation of the races was best for everyone, and that African Americans were perfectly happy with their position in society. It is probably fair to say that most black people’s assumptions in this matter were quite different Policies can take different forms, depending upon whose policies they are, and what they refer to. They may be public or private, official or unofficial, expressed or unexpressed. Some common types of policies:

Official Government Policies 

These are usually discussed publicly and written down, either as or within laws and official regulations (such as those of a government agency, e.g. the Department of Education), or as statements of policy in government documents. It is, for instance, currently the US government’s policy to reduce the welfare rolls as much as possible, and to give welfare recipients only two years of eligibility. Official policy, in and of itself, can take many forms:


  • Simple recognition of the seriousness of an issue.
  • Support for addressing an issue, or for a specific position on that issue. A policy of support may mean that officials consider that issue when discussing others related to it, that it gets funding priority, etc.
  • The amount of funding available for a specific issue reflects government policy on the importance of that issue.
  • Funding and eligibility standards for publicly funded programs. Eligibility in this case might include the types of programs the government is willing to fund, which reflects its policy (and assumptions) on what will work to resolve the issue. It might also include who is eligible for services, which reflects official policy on where & what the need is.
  • Enforcement – or lack of enforcement – of existing laws and regulations. Whether laws and regulations are enforced strictly, leniently, or at all is an indication of policy toward the issues they cover and/or the entities regulated by them. The policy of many states is to consider marijuana possession a misdemeanor, for instance, because it is so widespread.
  • Actual laws or regulations are an expression of official policy, often brought about by pressure from citizens. Changes in official policy, leading to changes in laws and regulations, are also often motivated by public pressure.


Unofficial Government Policy 

Unofficial policies are shaped by the unspoken attitudes and assumptions held by policy makers. They aren’t generally written down anywhere, and may not even be stated to anyone, but they are powerful and long-lasting. They can become part of the culture of a governing body or agency, and, at least in part because they are unwritten, they are often incredibly difficult to change.

No one may admit that unwritten policies exist, or they may be so deeply ingrained that they’re viewed not as policies, but as facts. Assumptions about such issues as gender roles, race relations, or the relative status of particular groups may play a huge, but unacknowledged, role in public or corporate policy. Unofficial policies may have to be exposed and changed before any official policy change is possible.

Changing policies can be a crucial strategy in implementing community interventions. All too often, legislators and policy makers, local officials, corporations, or, as in the Penbrooke situation, state agencies don’t know about or entirely understand an issue, or have other reasons – inertia and self-interest among them – for making or maintaining policy that is outdated, ill-conceived, unfair, or just plain wrong. Changing such policy is one strategy for either implementing interventions or getting them funded.

Policies made by government bureaucracies & public services, i.e. police and fire departments 

These policies may cover such areas as:

  • How citizens are treated by agencies and departments, including disparities in the ways members of different racial and ethnic groups are treated.
  • How bureaucrats choose to interpret and enforce laws and regulations.
  • Whose emergency calls get answered, and how quickly.
  • The character and quality of schools and services in different neighborhoods.
  • The siting of environmentally questionable industries or facilities.

Policies of Businesses

All businesses, from the smallest mom-and-pop corner store to the largest multinational corporation, have official and unofficial policies about the ways they do business. Among most businesses’ policies are:


  • Hiring policies. Some businesses may favor minority applicants, for instance, while others may pay no attention to racial or ethnic background, or actively avoid hiring minority applicants. Some may try to hire workers from the local community, while others may simply look for anyone with the appropriate skills.
  • Compensation.Starting salary, regular raises, stock options, and fringe benefits all fall into this category. Compensation policy – including the difference between the pay of those at the bottom and those at the top of the company – reflects the business’s view of employees’ importance.

Policies Adopted by the Community as a Whole

While there may be no discussion or complete consensus about what community policy actually is, communities do have policies on issues and other matters. During the darkest days of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, it was community policy in most communities in the South to maintain segregation, often by any means necessary. In many affluent communities, it is clearly a community policy that education is important, and worth spending money on.

Community policy is made by a combination of factors, but two are by far the most important.

  • One is the opinions of community leaders – not necessarily those elected, but those whose opinions are listened to, because of their economic or political clout, or simply because of the respect they’ve earned. These may include influential business people, clergy, educators, or directors of organizations, among others.
  • The second factor is public opinion. Public opinion may be formed partially by the opinions of community leaders, but is also a product of people’s own experiences, the media, and the long-time standards and practices of the community. Segregation was unquestioningly accepted because it had been in force for a hundred years. Affluent communities are willing to spend money on schools largely because many of the parents in those communities themselves gained affluence through education.


Why Try to Change Policies? 

As we’ve discussed, policies usually grow out of people’s basic assumptions about the world. As a result, they’re often difficult to change, and efforts to do so require patience, sensitivity, and hard work if they’re to be successful. Why go to all that trouble? Why not just try to get around or ignore policy in the particular instance you’re concerned with, and leave it at that?

There are a number of excellent reasons why changing policies is worth the trouble. In general, it’s the difference between sweeping problems under the rug, and actually cleaning them up so they don’t appear again.’


  • Policies are the basis for community decisions.If you can change the policy, you may be able to affect – for the better, we assume – community decisions about an issue well into the future.
  • Attempting to change policies can start a community conversation about the issues in questionAttempts at policy change make clear that current policies are inadequate to deal with the issues, and start people thinking about why. The resulting discussions can change people’s thinking about other issues as well, and about the direction of the community as a whole.
  • Changing policy is easier in the long run than fighting the same battles over and over again.Even if you’re successful in gaining concessions on a particular issue, if you haven’t changed the policy toward that issue, you may have to work to gain those concessions again each time the issue arises. Addressing policy versus addressing the issue in a vacuum can be compared to addressing the root causes of a disease versus treating its symptoms. If you eliminate the causes, the patient can be cured; if you only treat the symptoms, he’ll feel better for a while, but the disease will flare up again.
  • Changed policies can change people’s minds and attitudes.One theory of child-rearing that seems to work reasonably well in practice is that if the child behaves in an acceptable way for long enough, that behavior becomes internalized as part of the child’s self-image. It is, in other words, no longer merely behavior, but part of what the child conceives as herself and the way she is. The same can be true of a community: once an issue is addressed in particular ways, the new policies themselves become part of the community’s self-image, and lead to long-term change.
  • Changed policies have effects on the next generation.As proponents of civil rights hoped, and racists feared, integration had its greatest effects on schoolchildren. A whole generation grew up feeling that having friends of different races was normal. It would be foolish to pretend that racial prejudice no longer exists in the US. It’s still a serious problem, but nowhere near the problem it was for the first hundred years after the Civil War, largely because of the generational effects of the enforcement of anti-segregation laws.
  • Policy change is one path to permanent social changeFor all of the reasons above, changing policies is really a way to change society. The policies in question may come from above, in the form of official government policies translated into laws or regulations. Or they may come from the grass roots, from unions and workplaces and social groups. Regardless of where they originate, changes in policy that speak to the real causes of social issues and to the real needs of the people involved lead to real and permanent social change.

When You Should Try to Change Policies

There are particular times when the political or psychological climate is right for changing policies. That doesn’t mean that you can’t work on policy change at any other time, but simply that it’s smart to strike while the iron is hot. If it’s a good time for change, you’re that much more likely to be successful.

  • Election years.Politicians are often more receptive to suggestions from constituents when an election – especially a close election – is on the line. If you’re seeking a change in official government policy, close to an election may be the best time.
  • When the issue first arises.Even though policies about the issue may already exist, it’s sometimes easiest to change misguided ideas before there’s been an investment of time and money in trying them out. If you can convince policy makers or the public that there’s a better way, they have less to lose by listening than they will after they’ve put their resources and reputations on the line backing something different.
  • When there’s a deadline for adding input to or making a policy decision.In 1995, for instance, when the federal Adult Education Act (which provided over $300 million for adult literacy) was up for renewal or discontinuation, adult educators and learners in many states mobilized to testify at public hearings, write to members of Congress, and otherwise try to influence the final decision.
  • When a crisis is reached, and it’s clear the current policy isn’t working. If the community, for instance, has been responding to a drug problem with increased enforcement and punishment, and it’s continuing to get worse, people may be willing to try alternatives. By the same token, a government agency or foundation may be willing to try a new program or approach when it has become clear that what they’ve been funding hasn’t been particularly effective.
  • When a particular event or circumstance puts your target population at risk.A state fiscal crisis can often result in the threat – or reality – of a reduction in services, for example. You may have to address policy to stave off the threat.
  • When public opinion has reached critical mass.Policy makers often – very often, in fact – lag behind the public in their judgment of what people actually think and want. The public may be more progressive and be behind the change you’re aiming for. If that’s the case, then it’s a perfect time for a policy-change campaign.

Another circumstance when public opinion can be your guide is when the public has become fed up with the policies of a particular business or institution. That entity might then be convinced to change its policies out of self-interest.

How Do You Change Policies?

The fundamental guidelines for changing policies are the 8 P’s:

  1. Planning, using a participatory strategic planning process.
  2. Preparation, including doing all the necessary research and becoming expert on existing policies.
  3. Personal contact with policy makers, other change agents, and anyone else you have to deal with.
  4. Pulse of the community: knowing what the community’s attitudes are, what citizens will accept, where to start in order to be successful.
  5. Positivism, framing policy changes and their outcomes in a positive light.
  6. Participation, including everyone affected by or concerned with the issue in planning and implementing policy change.
  7. Publicity for your effort in general and for your suggested policy changes – and the reasons for them – in particular.
  8. Persistence, monitoring and evaluating your actions, and keeping at it for as long as necessary.

Preparation: Prepare well for changing policies. You’ll need a firm foundation for the work you’re about to do. Changing policy is one of the most difficult – and one of the most effective – means of changing the community or the society for the better. To do it well, you’ll have to prepare. Conduct the necessary research to get to know as much as possible about the issue. Make yourself or your group the acknowledged expert, the one individuals, groups, and the media contact when they want information on your issue. Your research should confirm or establish that the particular policy change you’re seeking is, in fact, appropriate and helpful, with no disastrous unintended consequences. If research shows the opposite, you should rethink your strategy, and look for change that will have a positive effect on the issue.

  • Know, or get to know, the current policy intimately. That includes knowing the current policies, laws, and regulations inside out, and knowing who actually makes and influences policy, who supports current policy, etc.
  • Know who your allies and opponents are, who’s open to argument or to public pressure, and who’s ideologically flexible or inflexible. Be particularly aware of who your most difficult opponents are, and of their arguments. They may be people who have all the facts and their interpretation of them at their fingertips, can quote statistics, and can speak or write convincingly about their point of view. They may, conversely, be people who are willing to lie, make up statistics, and misrepresent your point of view. In either case, you’ll need to be ready to counter their arguments and attacks.

Planning: Plan carefully for changing policies. In order to ensure that your overall strategy makes sense, and that changing policies is a necessary and appropriate part of it, strategic planning is essential. If you haven’t yet engaged in a participatory strategic planning process that involves representation from all groups affected by or concerned with the issue, stop, back up, and do so now. It will take time and effort, and may result in your changing some of your ideas, but it will pay huge dividends in the long run. If the situation you’re dealing with is an emergency, you may not have the time to develop a formal strategic plan, but you can strategize with a group and consult with others who’ve been in similar situations. Planning, even if it has to take place in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks, always leads to better results than simply doing whatever comes into your head at the time.

The ideal is to have done your planning before emergencies or the need to act immediately arise. If your group is newly formed to deal with an emergency, you may not have that choice. But if your group has existed for a while, and its purpose is to address the issue at hand, the development of a strategic plan should have been – or should be – one of its first activities.

Personal contact: Establish and maintain personal contact with those who influence or make policy. All politics is not only local, as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said, but all politics, at bottom, is personal. Personal relationships are the key to successful advocacy of all kinds, and changing policy is no exception. If you can make a personal connection, not only with policy makers, but with opinion leaders, and even opponents, you can get your phone calls returned, make your voice heard, keep argument civil, and maintain a level of credibility far greater than you could if you were only a name or a face. Some of those with whom you might want to establish personal contact:

  • Legislators and their aides.
  • Local elected and appointed officials. Especially in small communities, this is easy to do – in general, these people are your neighbors. Even in large communities, officials are usually interested in what citizens, especially those who represent sizeable constituencies, have to say, and are willing to meet with you.
  • Individuals at regulatory and funding agencies. Very few of the folks who work at these agencies are the faceless bureaucrats everyone fears. They can in fact be extremely helpful, whether the policies you’re concerned with are statewide, or have to do with funding or local enforcement of regulations. They can provide information, speed up applications or complaints, and generally make your life easier.

In return, you should try to make their lives as easy as possible. Do what you say you’ll do, completely and on time. Be unfailingly pleasant and cooperative, even in difficult situations. If it’s clear you’re doing your best to be helpful, they’re likely to return the favor.

  • Key individuals, and contacts at groups and institutions in the community. Opinion leaders, clergy, business leaders, members of target populations, members of service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.) and other community institutions – the more people you know, the more community support you’ll be able to mobilize when you need it.
  • Directors or others at other community-based organizations, initiatives, and coalitions. It’s particularly important to maintain personal contact with organizations with which you already have a common purpose. It’s much easier for all of you to call on one another if there are personal ties, and being able to present a united front is powerful.

Pulse of the communityTake the pulse of the community to understand what citizens will support, what they will resist, and how they can be persuaded. You have a far greater chance of success if you set out to change policies in ways that the community will support, or at least tolerate, than if you challenge people’s basic beliefs. When it’s possible, it makes sense to start where the community is. That may mean putting off your final goal, and working toward an intermediate one that the community can support. Many campaigns base their whole strategy on this kind of approach.

There may, of course, be times when the moral issues involved demand that you address the core issues regardless of the community’s position. The Civil Rights Movement in the US, which demanded voting rights, integration, and equal justice under the law for African Americans, is a prime example. The injustice involved was so great, and the attitudes of communities so entrenched, that nothing would have been served by halfway measures.

Positivism. Where you can, choose tactics that emphasize the positive. The old adage, “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar,” applies to policy change as well. Suggesting incentives (tax breaks, for instance) for doing the right thing, rather than punishment (special taxes) for doing the wrong thing, is one way to accentuate the positive elements of a proposed policy change.

Tax breaks for doing the right thing and tax increases for doing the wrong thing really have the same results – the same people benefit, and the same people pay. The difference, however, is that in the first case, some people gain something, where in the second case, other people lose something. Incentives put a positive spin on what could be seen as a negative consequence.

On the other hand, research seems to show that people are more likely to take action when they have something to lose. The possibility of using both incentives and punishment may be one to consider in some circumstances.

There are many ways to emphasize the benefits of policy change.

  • Recycling saves tax money and brings in income for the community. A healthy environment reduces medical costs. Attention to worker safety reduces time lost from accidents and injury, and saves money in the long run.

In Bellevue, Washington, an environmental group conducted a study that showed the dollar value – in the millions – of trees to the community in absorbing pollution and stormwater runoff. As a result of the study, the community enacted laws for the preservation of green space and tree cover, and the planting of more trees.

  • Less violence and fewer drugs on the street leads to a more vibrant and satisfying community life, more opportunities for recreation, and better opportunities for youth.
  • A safe working environment means less stress and greater feelings of security for workers, leading to greater productivity at work, and better family lives.
  • A cleaner environment, preservation of open space, and public art all bring people beauty in their daily lives.
  • Physical and health.Lower stress, safer streets, less pollution, etc. all result in greater general health and physical well-being.

Participation. Involve as many people in the community as possible in strategic planning and action. Try to engage key people particularly – opinion leaders, trusted community figures – but concentrate on making your effort participatory. That will give it credibility, encourage community ownership of the effort, make sure that a wide range of ideas and information are considered in developing a plan and action steps, and encourage community leadership of the effort.

Publicity. Use the media, the Internet, your community connections, and your imagination both to keep people informed of the effort and the issues, and to keep a high profile. You want the community to be aware of your policy-change efforts, to know how and why you’re trying to change policies, and to understand why change is necessary. You can use everything from straight news stories to street theater and demonstrations to get the message out. Publicity will help you gain and maintain community support, which will greatly increase your chances of success.

Persistence. Policy change can take a long time. You have to monitor and evaluate your action to make sure it’s having the desired effect, and change it if it’s not. And you have to be prepared to keep at it for as long as it takes if you hope to be successful. As with all advocacy work, policy change takes a long-term commitment.

The rest of the sections in this chapter discuss specific tactics and how to use them effectively. The guidelines above – the Eight P’s – should help you understand how best to apply any of those tactics to realize your overall strategy of changing policies for the benefit of the community