Policy matters, even when you’re in R&D

by Sarah Miers

Nov 04, 2019

Sanku policy blog

You’re working hard to hone your solution, to make it simple and cheap enough to replicate. Policy seems like something far away – something you might consider once you have significant traction and are going big. You’re not planning to scale through government, anyway, so why worry about politics when you’re in R&D?

If your goal is scale, we’d encourage you to think about it from day one.

The need for this is more obvious in sectors where government plays a significant role as your Doer or Payer, like healthcare and education. In these scenarios, you might aim to integrate your solution into government policy or potentially train the government to deliver it. But even if you aren’t hoping that government will eventually adopt, replicate or pay for your model, government priorities and policies (favorable or unfavorable) can greatly affect your ability to push forward. A recent visit to Tanzania with some of our portfolio organizations really brought this to light.

Let’s first take a look at Sanku, a micronutrient fortification organization in Tanzania. Their approach is to get “dosifiers” – machines that mix a precise dose of micronutrients into flour during the milling process – into the hands of small millers to ensure that grain in last mile communities have the essential nutrients to improve families’ nutrition. Their solution is not tied to government – it operates in the market. Nonetheless, policy plays a crucial role for the potential for their solution to scale. The government is serious about compliance with fortification laws, but only mandates that small mills fortify when a critical mass is available in the local market. As the only current option for small mill fortification, this has huge implications for Sanku’s scale prospects. If they can help a district reach critical mass, then their job gets a whole lot easier – it becomes compulsory rather than voluntary for small mills to fortify, which should give them a boost in sales. Of course the question of actual enforcement at the local level is still on the table, but national fortification policies can create an enabling environment for their solution to truly take off.

But what if policies undermine your solution or your work? We’re seeing this happen with our two media-based portfolio organizations in Tanzania. Increasing government media censorship – such as the suspension of all birth control related media content on TV and radio – has affected what content they can air and the resulting impact they will have. As free media is increasingly under threat, so is their ability to scale in that market.

So, what can you do when you’re still early stage? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Get your grounding. The first step is just knowing the relevant laws and people who influence them. If you haven’t already, identify and prioritize the essential policies needed to get your solution to scale and the individuals that affect these policy decisions. Behavior change is key here - just like any organization, government is made up of a bunch of people – know who the key decision makers are and what may influence their behavior (check out our behavior change resourcesfor help). A few tips:
    1. Work to understand what motivates people as well as who benefits from the system being broken.
  2. You might be working on a health policy, but the real decision maker on whether it gets funded may sit within the Ministry of Finance.
  3. Don’t overlook the technocrats – their position may be more stable than the person in charge and could therefore be a solid bet for building a long-term relationship.
  4. Everyone likes to get credit – let your partners shine and take ownership of the solution.
  5. Make it look good. As nerds focused on impact and data, we’d love to believe that the most impactful and efficient solutions will prevail. Unfortunately for us, that’s just not how it works. We’ve learned this the hard way by making investments in impactful solutions that were controversial or just not that popular – hard to convince the government to scale something up if it doesn’t make them look good. Governments are highly motivated by public support and - in most countries at least –are focused on winning the next election. (A recent study from Guatemala is a great case in point – it essentially showed that government was more influenced by community complaints than by rigorous data.) Again, behavior change is key here – how can you make your solution something that governments are both equipped and - ideally - genuinely excited about scaling up?
  6. Make a plan. After you get your grounding, create some specificgoals (note: “engage government” is not specific!) to get you closer to influencing the people and policies that affect your work - then assign someone on your team ownership over those goals so they actually happen. For example, maybe you want to speak at a specific conference to get your idea in front of a range of policy makers, or you want to get to know the people in the finance department who actually control the budget, or add a board member with deep policy experience and connections. Making a plan with a few concrete goals will keep it on the radar and make sure you’re laying the groundwork to engage more deeply with government as you gain traction. This is not a one-time exercise - government officials change, policies change. What’s your strategy to stay up to date and relevant?

We know that time, resources and energy are tight in R&D and that adding another thing to your plate is not what you want to hear. We’re not saying that you need to create a government relations team from day one – just don’t ignore the potential for politics to dramatically help or hinder your ability to get your solution to scale, regardless of your stage and the sector you’re working in. Get your grounding, make a plan to influence the relevant policies and people, and try to ensure your solution makes your government partners look good.

And remember – government is a unit made of up of a bunch of people. The principals of relationship building and behavior change will be key to your success in engaging with them.

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