Back to top

4 lessons on growing the SI community's policy impact

Sophie Reynolds and Madeleine Gabriel (Nesta)

Over the three years of the SIC project, we have worked in locations all over Europe to help social innovators, policymakers and other stakeholders collaborate to tackle social challenges. Our workshops and interventions have explored topics ranging from using design-led approaches to support migrant integration, exploring how public and social innovation can contribute to a more inclusive economy, and finding out how more integrated employment and housing services can better meet the needs of marginalised people.

However, it was our work on the #SIDeclaration that best demonstrates our efforts to influence policy. Here we reflect on some of the approaches to influencing policy that worked for our project - and what we learned along the way.

As a community characterized by self-reliance and getting on with solving problems, social innovators often operate below the policy radar. This has meant that where social innovation practitioners come across policy barriers, they have faced major hurdles even trying to communicate this to policymakers.

SIC has tried to give greater policy visibility and support to the many community activists, grassroots initiatives, social organisations and others that we’ve worked with. Here are some of our key insights about how to influence policy. We hope these will help our community continue to grow from strength to strength in making an even bigger social and policy impact:

Lesson 1: Look for opportunities to influence policy when they arise…

We have written elsewhere about why 2019 is an important year for social innovation policy in Europe. Social innovators need to make their needs known to secure vital funding and support in the context of European Multiannual Financial Framework negotiations (Europe’s long-term budget for 2021 - 2027). As we reached the project’s halfway point, towards the end of 2017, we realised the EC was hosting an event, Opening Up To An Era of Social Innovation, with two Commissioners and many senior decision makers. (You can read more about it here). So we pushed hard to make sure we had a role. The organisers were happy to work with us and we ended up not only running a policy workshop, but playing a major role in ‘harvesting’ insights from the attendees.

A number of factors came together here that would later kickstart the process of producing the #SIDeclaration: The workshop asked a pertinent question of participants (namely, “How could EU policymakers enable social innovators make an even bigger impact in Europe”), and it was timely (coinciding with policymakers wider concerns at the time about the next EU programming period) and clear in its vision to use social innovation as a tool to achieve a more social Europe for all. Finding such opportunities to influence policy requires that we adopt the role of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ - looking to understand the policy landscape and anticipate the hot policy topics and events that could affect the community.

Lesson 2: Find social innovators and policymakers’ common interests

The #SIDeclaration process was highly collaborative. If we had tried to make demands of policymakers without considering how social innovation could help achieve policy objectives, then it’s unlikely we would have succeeded. Our consultation activities tapped into practitioners’ biggest barriers (through policy workshops, online policy roundtables, and a public survey). But in parallel, we also spoke to EU policymakers and other stakeholders, listened to their priorities and tried to find the hot policy topics that social innovation could help address. To influence policy, it’s critical to empathise with policymakers too!

Lesson 3: Be tactical - and play to you and your networks’ strengths and interests

Our project didn’t have a huge amount of time designated for policy influencing activities, so we needed to be tactical. We looked for ways to make best use of the SIC partners’ expertise, priorities and connections. Once a working draft of the #SIDeclaration was prepared, we organised partners into four ‘policy action teams’ to work on aspects of the Declaration which were aligned with partners’ own interests and objectives. In total, we created four action teams focused on building a wider coalition of support around the following policy topics:

The action team approach allowed us to work across many different policy fields that affect the community, and to reach out and engage with a wider more diverse constellation of stakeholders. Alongside it, we made good use of one of our greatest assets - SIC’s large consortium and international network. We prepared communication templates for our partners to use to reach out to key decision-makers in their respective regions about important updates or outputs of our policy work (such as the policy briefs above). We also sought to find external networks and organisations whose policy interests were aligned with our own, and looked for ways to strengthen our respective policy influencing efforts through partnership and collaboration.

Lesson 4. Find a champion

Never underestimate the power of insightful, committed social innovation champions to strengthen your policy impact. Finding even a few key people who are positioned in strategic organisations and who share the social innovation community’s values and vision for a more social Europe has undoubtedly helped our case. The #SIDeclaration was realised thanks to the input and contributions of the social innovation community. But it also made the policy impact it did as a result of committed individuals operating within the European Commission, the European Parliament, and civil society networks (to name just a few). These individuals advocated on our behalf and gave us friendly advice when we needed it most. The lesson here should be one that resonates with the community: policy impact (like social impact) is the result of people-powered change.

As the SIC project winds down, our hope is that the community can draw on these insights and continue to grow our policy impact in the year ahead. Read our blog about how you can support the #SIDeclaration and help make 2019 the year of social innovation policy.