Cofounder of the Simon Institute for Longterm Governance and EA Geneva.
It’s all somewhat mixed up - highly targeted advocacy is a great way to build up capacity because you get to identify close allies, can do small-scale testing without too much risk, join more exclusive networks because you’re directly endorsed by “other trusted actor x*, etc.
Our targeted advocacy will remain general for now - as in “the long-term future matters much more than we are currently accounting for” and “global catastrophic threats are grossly neglected”. With increasing experience and clout, it will likely become more concrete.
Until then, we think advocating for specific recommendations at the process level, i.e. offering decision-making support, is a great middle way that preserves option value. We are about something very tangible, have more of a pre-existing knowledge base to work with, do not run into conflicts of interest and can incrementally narrow down the most promising pathways for more longtermist advocacy.
Regarding public advocacy: given that we interact mostly with international civil servants, there aren’t any voting constituencies to mobilize. If we take 'public advocacy' to include outreach to a larger set of actors - NGOs, think tanks, diplomatic missions, staff unions and academics - then yes, we have considered targeted media campaigns. That could be impactful in reframing issues/solutions and redirecting attention once we’re confident about context-appropriate messaging.
Yup, the portfolio approach makes a lot of sense to us. Also, as always, thanks for the summary and links!
A big question is how to define “extremely nearby”. Within the next 5 years, SI should be in a position to directly take meaningful action. Ironically, given SI’s starting point, making short-term action the main goal seems like it could make it less likely to attain the necessary capacity. There’s just no sustainable way in which a new actor can act urgently, as they first have to “stand the test of time” in the eyes of the established ones.
Yeah, public attention can also be a carrot, not just a stick. But it’s a carrot that grows legs and will run its own way, possibly making it harder when you want to change course upon new learnings.
Our current take here is something like “public advocacy doesn’t create windows of opportunity, it creates windows of implementation”. When public pressure mounts, policymakers want to do something to signal they are trying. And they will often do whatever looks best in that moment. It would only be good to pressure once proposals are worked out and just need to be “pushed through”.
To influence agendas, it seems better, at least mid-term, to pursue insider strategies. However, if all you have is one shot, then you might as well try public advocacy for reprioritization and hope it vaguely goes into the right direction. But if you think there’s time for more targeted and incremental progress, then the best option probably is to become a trusted policy actor in your network of choice.
Thanks a lot for the compliments! Really nice to read.
The metrics are fuzzy as we have yet to establish the baselines. We will do that until the end of September 2021 via our first pilots to then have one year of data to collect for impact analysis.
The board has full power over the decision of whether to continue SI’s existence. In Ralph Hertwig’s words, their role is to figure out whether we “are visionary, entirely naïve, or full of cognitive biases”. For now, we are unsure ourselves. What exactly happens next will depend on the details of the conclusion of the board.
I prefer the lower pitch "wob-wob-wob" and thus would like to make a bid to simply rename Robert Wiblin to "the Wob". Maybe Naming What We Can could pick this up?
Hi Khorton, thanks for the pointer - we will make sure to update. Is there something you'd be particularly keen on reading? We're happy to share drafts - just drop me an email firstname.lastname@example.org
4. Two of our forthcoming working papers deal with “the evidence underlying policy change” and “strategies for effective longtermist advocacy”. A common conclusion that could deserve more scrutiny is the relative effectiveness of insider vs outsider strategies (insiders directly work within policy networks and outsiders publicly advocate for policy change). Insider strategies seem more promising. What is well-validated, especially in the US, is that the budget size of advocacy campaigns does not correlate with their success. However, an advocate’s number of network connections and their knowledge of institutions do correlate with their performance. These findings are also consistent with this systematic review on policy engagement for academics.
As it’s not our top priority, we’re happy to share what we’ve got with somebody who has the capacity to pick this up. To do so, get in touch with Max (email@example.com).
3. I sympathize strongly with the feeling of urgency but it seems risky to act on it, as long as the longtermist community doesn’t have fully elaborated policy designs on the table that can simply be lobbied into adoption and implementation.
Given that the design of policies or institutional improvements requires a lot of case-specific knowledge, we see this as another reason to privilege high-bandwidth engagement. In such settings, it’s also possible to become policy-entrepreneurs who can create windows of opportunity, instead of needing to wait for them.
Whenever there are large-scale windows of opportunity (e.g. a global pandemic causing significant budget shifts), we’d only be confident in attempting to seize them in a rushed manner if (a) the designs are already on the table and just need to be adopted/implemented or if (b) we were in the position to work in direct collaboration with the policymakers. Of course, SI leverages COVID-19 in its messaging but that’s to make its general case, for now.
If an existential catastrophe is happening very soon, SI is not in a position to do much beyond supporting coordination and networking of key actors (which we’re doing). Being overly alarmist would quickly burn the credibility we have only begun to consolidate. Other actors are in positions with higher leverage and we hope to be able to support them indirectly. Overall, we see most of SI’s impact potential 5-20 years down the line - with one potential milestone being the reassessment of the 2030 UN Agenda.
2. You’re right. We’re assuming that policy analysis is being done by more and more organizations in increasing quantities. Highly targeted advocacy is well within the scope of what we mean by “building capacity locally”. There are some things one can propose to advance discussions (see e.g. Toby Ord’s recent Guardian piece). The devil is in the details of these proposals, however. Translating recommendations into concrete policy change isn’t straightforward and highly contextual (see e.g. missteps with LAWS). As advocacy campaigns can easily take on a life of their own, it seems highest leverage to privilege in-depth engagement at this point in time.
Toby’s Guardian article is an interesting edge case, as it could be seen as “advocacy campaign”-ish. But given its non-sensationalist nature and fit with the UK’s moves towards a national health security agency - in which a bunch of EAs seem to be involved anyway - that’s a well-coordinated multilevel strategy that seems unlikely to catch on fire.
1. Quick definitions first, an explanation below. “Policy engagement” - interacting with policy actors to advance specific objectives; “start locally”: experimenting with actions and recommendations in ways that remain within the scope of organizational influence; “organizational capacity” capability to test, iterate and react to external events in order to preserve course.
Achieving policy change requires organizational capacity to sustain engagement for indefinite amounts of time because (a) organizations have to have sufficient standing within, or strong connections to, the relevant networks in order to be listened to and (b) the funding to hire staff with appropriate experience to react to what arises.
For example, we wrote this announcement because input from the EA community is of high quality and worth engaging with. If, instead, we had written a big online newspaper announcement for international Geneva and beyond, the reactions would likely have been more overwhelming and interactions more likely to harm SI’s standing than here. This illustrates one way in which SI currently lacks the “capacity” to react to big events in its direct environment and thus needs to build up first.