Beating the Drum – how do influencing networks get results?

October 16, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

My colleagues at Oxfam Novib have published a nice set of ‘stories of influencing networks’- the coalitions of organizations and individuals that come together to press for change in everything from global institutions to individual communities. Beating the Drum’s ‘journey backstage’ asked people intimately involved with 9 such stories to reflect on their choice of strategies, methods, their successes, failures and dilemmas.

The 9 case studies fall into 3 categories:

Influencing Intergovernmental Organizations

Influencing National Governments

Influencing at Multiple Levels

Each story of influencing is unique, obviously, but I sprinted to the conclusions of the 130 page report to see what the Novib team had identified as recurring patterns and themes. Here are some that stood out:

‘Diverse networks seem to consciously search for a balance of actors working at national, regional and local levels. Ideally, this mix achieves a broad geographical spread. This broad spread helps to create public support for the network and its shared objectives. When we look at the types of member organizations we find that research institutes support evidence-based advocacy, while political allies can help to obtain support for the policy demand in the decision-making arena. Cases targeting intergovernmental actors showed how international arenas could adopt domestic policy issues that prompt change at national and sub-national levels. In conclusion, diversity within a network ensures complementarity in access, capacities and resources and even protects vulnerable members.

In our nine case studies, we saw that collaborations between different actors, such as policymakers, the private sector and civil society, are often loosely structured. This arrangement may be desirable and intentional. Despite these loose structures, choices made by the network affect all the network members. The case studies show that the degree of formalization and the governance structures do have implications. For instance, we saw networks that have experienced the readiness to formalize membership as a sign of commitment (for example, A Positive List for Pets in the EU), while others emphasized the great strategic value of informal networks (Women in the Afghan Police). Influencing networks embracing formal collaboration, emphasize the strong ties that make their partnership more focused and seemingly more effective. At the same time, in other networks informal collaborations are found important as they tend to offer weaker ties that can open up unexpected doors, provide inside information and inform strategic planning.

Diversity in the network adds to complementarity, but it also adds to the complexity in defining the policy demand. Across all nine cases, there is a common thread that having a shared ambition is the glue that binds influencing networks together, aids success and facilitates the commitment of members to support each other in good and bad times. Yet, defining and maintaining a common set of objectives is not a one-time exercise. It requires a continuous process of discussions, debates and consensus-building among the network members. Furthermore, carefully substantiated objectives must be represented by a concrete policy demand if they are to have an impact.

‘having a shared ambition is the glue that binds influencing networks together, aids success and facilitates the commitment of members to support each other in good and bad times. But it requires a continuous process of discussions, debates and consensus-building’

In the end, the process of defining a network’s firm policy demand is often linked to the existence of windows of opportunity in the policy-making arena. These windows of opportunity can raise or lower the salience of a specific issue – for example, focusing attention on a policy dilemma, a piece of legislation or a political issue.

The strength of national influencing networks lies in their ability to integrate influencing into their development programmes, as this can boost the implementation of the policy. The cases targeting the intergovernmental level worked out arrangements to redistribute resources in favour of national-level actors so that they could reach out to local CSOs and strengthen the relationship with communities.

Another strategy adopted by networks to ensure the implementation of policies in practice is to use their links to political allies. Networks can often promote the implementation of a policy through their access to decision-makers, as described in Localized Humanitarian Aid in Bangladesh. However, this approach can lead to tension between the network’s independence and the strength of the partnership with ‘inside’ actors. This confusion of roles was a challenge for some influencing networks (for example, Women in the Afghan Police). In some cases, a ‘step-by-step’ approach to implementation, in collaboration with officials, seemed to collide with the ambitions behind the influencing campaign. Sometimes, this may be unavoidable, but if networks fail to make this transition, achievements may come to nothing as a policy implementation gap occurs.

Mutually beneficial partnerships do not require a membership of entirely equal members measured in terms of know-how, access to decision-makers, credibility to influence and resources. Instead, mutually beneficial partnerships require all members to experience an increase of their capacity from being part of the network and, at the same time, contribute to the capacity development of others. Through a careful balancing act, networks can become self-sufficient and self-sustaining. The balance needs to be continuously adjusted, adapting to changing contexts, leadership changes and membership changes.

To ensure an effective network that balances inequalities in power with capacity development, it helps to have clear governance structures in place that are representative of the diversity present in the network. Several networks have indicated struggles with diversifying their leadership or creating a genuinely equal power balance when in fact the financial resources seem to come from one larger organization in the network.’

All good stuff, but it left me with lots more questions (some acknowledged in the report). How to manage the inevitable tensions between insider and outsider strategies? How important is luck and accident and what does that mean for your planning processes? Does the inevitable move online come at a cost – networks spread quicker, but trust is diluted)? Some of these questions might be addressed in these upcoming webinars in November. Please add your own, as this project will continue.

October 16, 2020
Duncan Green