Policy entrepreneurs transform policy ideas into policy innovations, disrupting the status quo of existing settings. What makes for effective policy entrepreneurship and what attributes, skills and strategies do you need?
At a glance
In a paper for Policy Design and Practice, Michael Mintrom (Monash University) examines the research on policy entrepreneurship, providing insights for those who want to be policy entrepreneurs.
The work of policy entrepreneurs involves the following strategies:
- problem framing
- using and expanding networks
- working with advocacy coalitions
- leading by example
- scaling up change processes.
This works call for a range of attributes and skills including ambition, credibility, strategic thinking, collecting evidence, engaging multiple audiences and negotiating.
Who is a policy entrepreneur?
Policy entrepreneurs can be inside or outside of government, in elected or appointed positions, in interest groups or research organisations. Like business entrepreneurs, their defining characteristic is their willingness to invest their resources – time, energy, reputation, and sometimes money – in the hope of a future return.
Possessing specific attributes and skills, policy entrepreneurs deploy a range of strategies. The relationship between these strategies, attributes and skills is depicted in Figure 1.
Attributes are best thought of as inherent capabilities. Ambition, social acuity, credibility, sociability, and tenacity are attributes that are essential prerequisites for being an effective policy entrepreneur.
- Ambition: Policy entrepreneurs are defined by their willingness to invest various resources in the hope of a future return. Ambition leads people to make such investments.
- Social acuity: Through their social acuity, policy entrepreneurs discover how people are thinking about problems. They come to appreciate the concerns and motivations that drive others. And they develop ideas about how to construct effective advocacy efforts, how to make most use of networks of contacts, and what kinds of political support, policy arguments and evidence will serve them best.
- Credibility: To attract others to work with them, policy entrepreneurs must be deemed credible. They can achieve credibility by demonstrating expertise in a particular field, holding particular positions within or around government, or having a compelling narrative of their lives and their past achievements.
- Sociability: Policy entrepreneurs must possess the ability to empathise with others and understand other people’s needs. This calls for high levels of sociability. Effective policy entrepreneurs use their sociability to expand their networks and build advocacy coalitions.
- Tenacity: Policy entrepreneurs must be tenacious. Tenacity is the willingness to keep working towards a bigger goal, even when that goal seems nowhere in sight. This quality is important because policy entrepreneurs typically operate in complex contexts where the chances of achieving success can seem slim.
Skills differ from attributes in that they can be learned. Critical skills for a policy entrepreneur include strategic thinking, team building, collecting evidence, making arguments, engaging multiple audiences, negotiating and networking.
- Strategic thinking: When people think strategically, they choose a particular goal and then determine the set of actions they will need to take and the resources they will require to pursue that goal.
- Team building: Policy entrepreneurs must be team players. Individuals are often the instigators of change but their strength does not come from the force of their ideas alone. Entrepreneurial actions are carried out by teams and not just one individual.
- Collecting evidence: Policy entrepreneurs must be adept at collecting evidence and using it strategically to support their quest for policy change. The art of evidence collection is to establish a rigorous, defensible base of data to support a given position and to present it in ways that effectively draws others in.
- Making arguments: Collecting evidence becomes most powerful when that evidence is used to make compelling arguments. Policy entrepreneurs need to be skilled in making arguments if they are to have the influence they need to achieve policy change.
- Engaging multiple audiences: Policy entrepreneurs must find ways to engage multiple audiences. This requires reflecting on the nature of the content and mode of delivery that will be most effective in connecting with specific audiences.
- Negotiating: The skill of negotiating can be of high value to a policy entrepreneur. It can assist a policy entrepreneur to win support from those who stand to gain from policy change. It can also assist in reducing the emergence and scope of conflict from those who stand to lose from that change.
- Networking: Anyone seeking to have influence in policy making must develop excellent awareness of the nature of the policy networks operating around them and determine effective ways to participate in them.
All policy entrepreneurs deploy the strategies outlined below to a greater or lesser extent. Some rely more heavily on specific strategies rather than others. This reflects the nature of the political contexts they are operating in and their own capabilities.
- Problem framing: There are several common tactics policy entrepreneurs use when framing problems. This includes presenting evidence in ways that suggest a crisis is at hand; finding ways to highlight failures of current policy settings; and drawing support from actors beyond the immediate scope of the problem.
- Using and expanding networks: Policy entrepreneurs understand their networks of contacts represent repositories of skills and knowledge they can draw on to support their initiatives.
- Working with advocacy coalitions: The “glue” that holds an advocacy coalition together is its members’ shared beliefs over core policy matters. Policy entrepreneurs can work to establish advocacy coalitions or build on the strengths of coalitions that already exist.
- Leading by example: This helps make the pursuit of policy change believable. When they lead by example – taking an idea and turning it into action themselves – agents of change signal their genuine commitment to improved social outcomes. This can win credibility with others and build momentum for change.
- Scaling up change processes: Those seeking to promote policy change must pay careful attention to scaling up their advocacy efforts. Often, this requires starting off by securing desired changes in one jurisdiction and then using those changes as evidence to support changes in other jurisdictions.
What it means
Policy entrepreneurship is tough work. It often takes courage. By definition, the pursuit of change is highly disruptive. Those who wish to drive policy innovation through entrepreneurship need to understand the attributes and skills required of policy entrepreneurs and the common strategies they employ.
Want to read more?
So you want to be a policy entrepreneur? – Michael Mintrom (2019), Policy Design and Practice, published online: 14 October 2019
The Mandarin is hosting a Mandarin Live session on policy entrepreneurship, facilitated by Sally Washington and Michael Mintrom, on 19 November. For details about this event and to register, see Mandarin Live.
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