Policy 101: Community Action Workshop

What IS policy, anyway?  And how do we, as civil society, engage with it and work to change it?

Earlier this spring in our pilot, “Policy 101: Community Action Workshop”, we set out to tackle these questions.  Together with FoodARC and the Nova Scotia Nutrition Council, we brought together about 30 people engaged in the food movement in Nova Scotia for a day of policy discussions.  All the participants were involved in some manner of food security related work, from health to agriculture to poverty reduction. All had various levels of experience engaging in policy change and were looking to deepen their understanding.

Our agenda for the day was as follows:

  • Presentation: Demystifying Policy
  • Sharing stories of Policy Change
  • Activity: Stakeholder Analysis & Policy Mapping
  • Presentation: Tools for Policy Action

Demystifying Policy

Our ice breaker question was: What is one word that comes to mind when you think of “policy”? The participants threw out words like “confusing”, “messy” and “turbulent”, which formed the starting point of the presentation and our discussions of the day.

Policy 101-stickies

So, what is policy anyway?  Well, policy is basically a guide for action.  It can include guidelines, regulations, laws and more.

Individuals and families have their own personal policies, like not eating dessert until all the vegetables are eaten. Organizations have policies, like dress codes or personnel policies. And governments have policies that include all levels of laws, regulations, standards and more.

Why would we want to change policy?

  • Basic needs are not being met
  • People have been treated unfairly
  • Current policies or laws are not enforced or effective
  • Proposed changes in policies and laws would be harmful
  • Existing or emerging conditions pose a threat to public health, safety, education or well-being

So, how do you do that?

Policy 101-Opening presentation

The broad steps for policy change are:

  • Do your homework – know your issues, goals, supporters and opposition
  • Identify potential allies & stakeholders and engage & develop networks
  • Know the policy process, policy tools, context and policy makers
  • Take Action!

Stories of Policy Change

We were fortunate to have 4 great presentations of policy change from the institutional level to the municipal level to the provincial level.  We heard from: Angela Emmerson about Dalhousie University’s sustainable food policy; Sharon MacIntosh & Phyllis Price about their experience in changing municipal tobacco policies; Kim Hernandez about the School Food Nutrition Policy; and finally Christine Saulnier about her experience advocating for improvements to the Special Needs Allowance for people on Income Assistance.

In each story, we heard from each speaker about their path of collecting the data they needed, finding their allies, learning the context and making change – and learning that the work doesn’t stop when a policy has been put into place.

Activity: Stakeholder Analysis & Policy Mapping

Policy 101 - Policy MapDuring the registration process, we asked for suggestions of policies that the participants were working to change.  In the afternoon, we split into 5 groups to work through the issues.  First, the groups identified and analysed the stakeholders affected by their given policy goal.  Who is a stakeholder in this issue? To what degree are they affected by the policy (low, medium or high)? And how much influence do they have (low, medium or high)?  For example, if you were trying to develop a municipal food strategy, stakeholders could include, among others, city councillors, public health, the food bank and the local community garden organization.

After listing the stakeholders, the next step is to map the policy context and decision points, including gatekeepers, potential policy leaders, potential allies and potential resistance.  The policy map helps to identify spaces and pathways (e.g.opportunities) for participation and influence in policy change.  The point is not to get a map that is “right” but to get a clearer idea of who you might need to influence in order to achieve your policy goal. The goal of policy mapping is also to start the conversation about the different paths  to creating change. It is only one step in strategizing towards change.  Through the activities, participants began to see who they should reach out to and who might have the power to change the problem.  As one participant said, “The most important things I learned is that we don’t have to do this alone!”

(The Stakeholder Analysis and Policy Mapping Tools were developed by the Policy Working Group of Activating Change Together for Community Food Security.  Please contact foodaction@ecologyaction.ca if you’d like a copy of the instructions for this activity.)

Policy 101 - Group Activity3

Policy Actions

Next we had a presentation on actions you can take to effect policy change.  One of the keys is being ready to act when a window of opportunity opens.  This could be a change in leadership, a surge in media attention on a given issue or some other change that creates the conditions for moving forward with your proposed policy change.  Strategies for action include everything from petitions and letter writing to meetings with stakeholders and policy makers.  One meeting will not fix the issue.  It is integral to build relationships, both with the people who can change the policy and with others who have similar goals.  Policy change can be a very slow process.

Finally, we ended the day by returning to our original question of what word comes to mind when you think of “policy” and has it changed over the course of the day.  It was heartening to see the word “doable” appear on more than one sticky note!

Policy 101-Day End Stickies

A big thanks to all who participated in the day!  We’re looking forward to running this workshop again in the future.

Additional Resources:

Thought About Food: A Workbook on food security & influencing policy

Policy Readiness Tool


-Marla MacLeod, Community Food Coordinator


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