Grappling with evidence in public affairs – Indigo Connected

Back in early 2016, during a hustings event Indigo organised to push for improved children’s hospice care funding, we knew we had the speakers hooked when one opened with, “Usually we come to these pre-election events and just argue. Tonight I’m here to listen to you”.

When the entire panel nodded in agreement, that was the precise moment that we knew our strategy was working: they were all listening, including the minister with the power to bring change.

The decisive factor, you see, was what they were listening to but also how and where. Detailed facts on need, backed up with clear human examples of impact, delivered in a setting where the truth just couldn’t be ignored.

That sounds quite simple but the first part of that equation – evidence – is key. After all, few organisations campaign without feeling sure that the change they seek will make the world a better place, but not all can demonstrate their case effectively. A sense of purpose and righteousness will only get you so far.

Everyone has a right to be heard but that doesn’t mean that policymakers – including ministers, MSPs, councillors and civil servants who can enact change – can’t decide to pick and choose who they listen to and whose advice they decide to take on board in decision-making.

Making them act is about providing clear, concise ideas backed by convincing supporting evidence that performs the trick of making what you’re arguing for unarguable.

In the era of ‘fake news’ and the rejection of ‘expert’ opinion, it’s perhaps heartening to consider that hard facts still matter to policymakers.  They want to make decisions based on evidence that that those choices are likely to improve lives.

Compelling evidence comes in a lot of forms and from a multitude of sources.  If you have time and resources to spare, it’s hard to beat the rigour of in-depth professional or academic research that draws to light underlying need on a large scale.

Often though, time and money are luxuries that campaigners don’t have. A lot can be achieved on a shoestring by mining already-existing data sources, sometimes through Freedom of Information requests or via Parliamentary Questions asked by a sympathetic MSP.

Campaigning, however, frequently comes down to ensuring that people empathise with other people enough to take action that improves their lives – and not facts and figures. Often it’s one story, picture or face to face encounter that hits home by convincing policymakers that they have the power to help.

The most effective campaigns often harness evidence, leavened with emotional power, to deliver maximum impact.

We’re hugely proud of the success we helped deliver for Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS) in that 2016 hustings event I mentioned earlier, and its aftermath. We were pleased to pick up a Public Affairs Awards win and a CIPR Pride Award nomination for the effort.

But credit must go where it’s due. The path to change began when CHAS and the Scottish Government had the foresight to work together on a major academic study that asked for the first time ever how many children and young people needed access to services.

The answer – more than 15,000 across Scotland – was far higher than previously thought. So when it became clear that CHAS only had the capacity to reach one in three of the children dying in Scottish communities each week, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that change was needed.

To use that information to leverage change, timing was key. We used the upcoming Scottish Parliament election as an opportunity to translate political goodwill into campaign promises that had to be delivered. To do that, we packaged our written evidence into a bespoke CHAS manifesto and then invited representatives to all of the major parties in Scotland to a hustings event within Rachel House Hospice.

That way, before the debate took place, we had the chance to introduce the politicians directly to service users and hear some of their stories. So by the time those politicians entered the debate they were all agreed on one thing: that CHAS needed help, that it deserved help and that help could only be delivered by an increase in statutory funding.

In this instance, if CHAS hadn’t worked hard to gather the detailed empirical evidence to change minds from the outset, progress would have been limited. Once in hand though, that data could be combined with the stories of real families in need and communicated to key stakeholders to make sure the issue wasn’t just seen in abstract terms, but rather in ways that politicians could see themselves doing something to address.

Granted, politicians saying “I’m here to listen to you” are often met with raised eyebrows and pinches of salt.  Makes sure your campaign is driven by evidence and deliver it in ways that grab them by the lapels and makes them care and there’s every chance that they’ll act too.

Peter Smyth

Head of Public Affairs