[ Question ]

What Are Effective Alternatives to Party Politics for Effective Public Policy Advocacy?

byEvan_Gaensbauer19d30th Jan 20196 comments


In the United States, the Open Philanthropy Project has made many grants to public policy advocacy NGOs that have had significant successes. And some regional EA organizations in other countries have also focused on policy project. Typically in EA I see public policy favoured for being along the following lines:

  • evidence-based
  • backed by expert consensus
  • has broad-based support
  • solves a pressing and neglected problem

I've been thinking about what it'd take for EA to pursue goals of effective policy advocacy in different countries around the world. In Canada, I asked a friend of mine how people can start influencing politics and policy. He has several friends who got involved in federal party politics in Canada by becoming highly involved volunteers and members with a major party. I visited the office of my local representative (my Member of Parliament, or MP) to ask how one gets involved in the party, and I got the exact same impression I got from my friend who told me several anecdotes of what active party membership was like for his other friends. This is seen as the most typical route a typical citizen might get involved in politics. Unfortunately, joining a political party as the primary route to influence policy struck me at odds with what policy advocacy from an EA perspective would ideally look like.

  • At least in Canada, there is tight control of decision-making inside federal political parties. This means shaping a party's policy platform is done from the top-down, requiring a long time or a remarkably quick rise up party ranks to shape it. This is years of a career someone is forgoing time to advocate for public policies they consider more effective to go along with the party line, or even compromise their values by condoning party policy platforms one considers countereffective/ineffective.
  • Political parties which heavily centralize decision-making are still large and diverse coalitions of voter blocs that make compromises to hammer out an agenda and stand a chance of being elected. Unfortunately from an EA perspective this makes the public policy platform of all kinds of political parties look random, with some effective and ineffective policy positions, but by and large political parties are focused on issues other than implementing more effective policies in the first place.
  • Political parties won't give preference to hearing out a still extremely small lobby that is EA. So if a party has policy positions that aren't backed by evidence, or aren't up to the standards of evidence EA would seek, it's easy for those parties to ignore EA, and hard for EA to be taken seriously.
  • A culture in political parties of loyalty to the general thrust of the party and its priorities at present, which makes public communication or discussion whatsoever critical of party policies or activities difficult if not practically impossible. This is at odds with EA's style of public evaluations of effectiveness; our pursuit of the most effective policies on a typically evidence-based and case-by-case basis; and a focus on longer-term outcomes.

This makes trying to build a movement in a country for effective policy advocacy and reform through joining political parties look like a highly uncertain prospect that could end up being years of effort wasted that could have been spent on genuinely and successfully helping people by pursuing a different career. EA community members should definitely consider and pursue careers in politics and policy, and much of the time that may necessarily involve party politics. But not everyone in EA has to do that, and party politics may not a good personal fit for many of us who would nonetheless seek to see public policy reformed. So it seems worth exploring other options for alternative means by which EA organizations can successfully advocate for effective and altruistic public policy. Possibilities include:

  • EA community members getting involved and trying to build organizations focused on influencing local politics, where politics and policy-setting takes place on a less competitive scale where individuals can have a greater impact. In time, these networks could be scaled up from grassroots and local origins to influence policy-setting by higher levels of government.
  • Find ways to identify and coordinate with the most impactful NGOs already working in a country on public policy issues that dovetail with EA priorities or policy positions, similar to how the Open Philanthropy Project has made grants to public policy NGOs which already have an ongoing track record of success.
  • EA organizations in different countries find ways to build effective lobbies for various causes in public policy they prioritize, and try directly influencing governments, political parties, and other key institutions to change their policy positions.
  • Combine other efforts with grassroots movement-building to try shifting public opinion and other levers of influence on public policy.

These are all methods for advocating, influencing, and changing public policy that have been successfully employed in many ways by many different movements and organizations in the past. I have some familiarity with how different movements and organizations have succeeded, but I'm not confident enough to say which methods or means would be the best fit for the kind of policy advocacy EA organizations would aspire to. This is the summary of my mild foray into thinking about general approaches for EA to take to public policy so far, and I thought I'd start a conversation about what other options for public policy advocacy and reform EA should look at?


4 Answers


Jan 30, 2019


There's a lot to be said for public opinion or "political mood." I think the legalization of gay marriage in Canada would be a good case study. Factors that led to legalization included:


-court decisions

-Private Member's bills

-a change in public opinion

-political circumstances

For a large-scale issue, working on any of the above would probably be worth your time.


Jan 30, 2019


Ballot initiatives, at least in the US.


Jan 30, 2019


It's worth noting that state- or province-level powers are usually not "less important," they're just based on particular categories, so they're worth paying attention to. For example, Canada stopped exporting asbestos to developing countries in 2012 due to a provincial decision. http://www.preventcancernow.ca/canada-has-stopped-mining-and-exporting-asbestos-but-the-battle-to-protect-people-from-asbestos-harm-continues/


Feb 02, 2019


I find this a very important "skeptical" and outside perspective on working with EA Policy Advocacy. I have had some similar doubts and concerns myself, and I hope to see more proposals here in the comments.

As an alternative to joining a party and aiming for becoming MP or similar, there's also the option to become a political adviser, and/or to work somewhat politically in the civil service. In my experience, from Norway, the former option allows to climb quite fast (but not the latter!), as you can quickly become the trusted adviser even to central politicians given some necessary conditions (relevant skills, network, standing in the party, that the party grows/enters government and thus need people for new positions, often that you grew up in the same region as the MP/minister, etc.). Although far from rational conditions, positions as advisers seem to demand much less of everything typical "non-EA" that a career as an MP might require, IMO.