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Practitioner policy tools: Run your own social innovation policy workshop

Much of SIC’s policy work started from the premise that societal issues have become too complex for governments to solve alone. What is needed is more meaningful collaboration between policymakers and a wider cross-section of the people who are affected or who, like the many social innovation practitioners we support, are actively looking to tackle these issues. Over the course of the project, SIC ran policy workshops in more than 10 EU countries aimed at encouraging policymakers, community, public sector and civil society representatives to engage in meaningful dialogue, and to explore how they could collaborate on tackling different complex societal issues together.

Why run your own policy workshop?

Whether you are working to make a social impact from inside or outside government, there are several reasons you may want to run your own policy workshop. You may feel there is a need for a more participatory and socially innovative model of policymaking, and consequently want to introduce a group of people in your locale to social innovation policy principles. You may want policymakers in your city or region to better understand and address the policy needs of the social innovation community. Or you may be interested in exploring what opportunities there are to tackle a particular societal challenge through ongoing cross-sectoral and multi-stakeholder collaboration.

A social innovation policy workshop can be a useful tool to consider in each of these scenarios. The approach we developed for our Lisbon workshop will equip your participants with the tools needed to better communicate their policy needs, to reflect on whether the people in the room are the appropriate stakeholders to direct their policy asks towards, and finally, to work together to rapidly ideate policy proposals to address them.

Some things to consider if running your own policy workshop

While you will need to tailor the policy workshop to your specific goals and needs, there are some general lessons we can share:

  • Duration: A balance has to be found here. In theory you’ll be able to achieve more in a longer (day-long or two-day) workshop. However, in reality you will find that any workshop that exceeds 3 hours will likely result in a drop off of participants - particularly after lunch - when participants return to work or other commitments. We therefore suggest capping the workshop at half a day.

  • Makeup of participants: You may already have a sense of the kinds of participants you would like to involve at your workshop. However the People and Connections tool offers a useful way for you to visualise the different stakeholders you should consider inviting to your workshop. Bear in mind that the workshop should foster inclusivity (i.e. actively involve target users/beneficiaries) and diversity (in terms of the background of participants, but also the kinds of organisations and sectors that are represented). You should be clear about what level of policy you are trying to influence (e.g. city, national or European level). Understanding this can help you prioritise which policymakers you should have join.

  • Number of participants: The number of participants you are comfortable with having join your workshop will depend on your prior facilitation experience, the size of room you plan to host the workshop in, and how much extra support you will have with facilitation on the day. SIC has run policy workshops involving almost 100 participants. However, as a general rule we suggest keeping the number of participants to a smaller group size (i.e. approximately 25 people). Depending on the aims of your policy workshop, a smaller group size will allow you to get to know people in the room a little better - which is important if your goal is ongoing collaboration.

  • Do your research: Before your workshop, you should spend a little time making sure you clarify what your participants want to get out of your workshop. You should also test out how open the stakeholders you plan to invite are to collaborating beyond the workshop. If the longer-term goal is to co-develop policies that could eventually be implemented, then it’s particularly useful to clarify whether you can secure public sector buy-in from relevant politicians, policy makers and/or public agencies. Insights like these will help you be clear and realistic with participants about both the workshop’s objectives, and what they can hope to achieve.

Background of SIC’s policy workshop

The policy worksheets below were specially developed by Nesta for a policy workshop SIC delivered at the EC-hosted event, Opening Up To A Era of Social Innovation in November 2017. We didn’t know it at the time, but the workshop created the very conditions needed for us to kickstart the Lisbon Declaration of Social Innovation process. The workshop format and tools have since been successfully replicated in a number of settings.

The policy context for the Lisbon workshop was important; as European policymakers negotiated the future European long-term budget (the Multi-annual Financial Framework). Given the European Commission’s willingness to co-organise the workshop, and to host a high-level conference like this, we already knew we had a fair bit of buy-in to explore the question of how social innovation policy could be given greater support. As such, we wanted the social innovation practitioners in the room to reflect on the biggest barriers holding them back that they felt EU policymakers could help address. A key goal was that by the end of the workshop, participants would identify their biggest issues and make policy proposals to EU policymakers to address their key needs in future.

Here’s an overview of the three core exercises (and worksheets) we designed for the workshop:

Introduction and setting out the workshop’s objectives

We started the workshop by clarifying what we hoped participants would get out of the workshop, and how the exercises were structured. Recognising that some practitioners in the room had very limited experience engaging with policy, we spent some time asking that they not just list their demands of policymakers, but spend some time putting themselves in policymaker’s shoes. Philippe Martin (DG RESEARCH) gave a short introductory talk with some general guidance on what makes good, actionable policy proposals (for more details more about this in the participant booklet), which we asked participants to keep in mind.

Exercise One: What are the key challenges facing the SI community the European Commission could address?

In the 30 minutes we assigned for this task, participants were asked to identify important challenges for the SI community, and then select one that they agreed was the highest priority to work on in the next session (exercise two).   

Working first on their own, participants were asked to spend 10 minutes writing their priority issue on a large post-it, as well as an explanation about how this is also a priority for the wider social innovation community. The kinds of issues participants selected ranged from difficulty accessing suitable funding or public procurement contracts, but also the issue of citizens feeling excluded from decision making processes (read more about the Lisbon workshop here).

As a group, participants then discussed where they would position their post-its on the prioritization matrix. (On a flip chart, we had sketched out a prioritization matrix like the one below).

Participants were then tasked with deciding on their group’s top priority issue. (We weren’t prescriptive about this, but recommended that participants selected the post-it that was closest to the top right corner of the prioritization matrix, since partners had agreed this was both impactful and feasible).

Exercise Two: What could the European Commission do to address your priority issue? (30 minutes)

Using our specially designed Rapid Policy Idea Generator tool, the name of the game here was for participants to brainstorm policy ideas to tackle their top priority issue. To avoid participants proposing ideas which failed to recognise past efforts to tackle this issue, they were asked to spend some time taking stock of the different ways the issue has been tackled so far.

Then through a series of prompts on the Rapid Policy Idea Generator worksheet, participants were asked to rapidly ideate new solutions that build on past approaches and tackle the issue. The prompts encouraged participants to explore different types of solutions, by stretching, inverting and/or borrowing strategies from other sectors. (See the worksheet below for more).

As a final task for exercise two, participants were asked to use dot stickers to dot vote on the policy idea they felt was most promising. The winning idea(s) would be worked on more as part of the final workshop exercise - exercise three.



Exercise Three: Your Policy Proposal

For the final exercise, participants were invited to refine their top policy idea, write it up and present it (in our case, the final policy pitches were made to camera).

For 20 minutes, participants were invited to discuss and refine their idea, using the following questions:

  • ‘What should the EC do to tackle your issue?’

  • ‘What will be needed to make it work in practice?’

  • ‘Does it fit with the general guidance for a good policy proposal?’

Finally, participants were asked to fill out the Policy Pitch worksheet and when completed, to let the SIC facilitators know when they were ready to pitch their policy idea to camera.

One of the participant teams prepare to make their policy pitch to camera.

On the day we had 10 groups of participants working together to identify their top priority issue, and to work on pitch for a policy proposal that could address it. (You can read more about the key policy priorities and proposals put forward by our ten groups here.)

This was quite a large group to facilitate, and so to make this easier to manage, we designed a participant booklet. Inspired by orienteering manuals, it included instructions to guide participants towards their main mission: preparing a policy pitch. You can find a copy of this here.

We did not expect that on its own the workshop would yield all the insights needed to co-produce the policy declaration. Indeed, in the 6 months that followed, we led a process of on- and offline activities to engage with a larger cross-section of the community to co-design the Declaration. But, it was a great way to create momentum behind the Declaration, to sow the seeds for future collaboration, and to quickly understand the community’s biggest policy challenges and priorities of the SI community.  

Social innovation policy practitioner tools

The PDF versions of our Rapid Policy Idea Generator and Policy Pitch worksheets are freely available for you to download and use.  What’s more, the SIC Learning Repository includes a range of tools and resources to support you on your social innovation journey.


Reach out to us on Social Innovation Community Facebook page to let us know if you plan to run your own social innovation policy workshop.