Now the LSE term is over, I’ve been catching up with the backlog of The Economist and Prospect (my two print subscriptions). One Economist piece caught my eye – ‘How to Change the Policy of the British Government’. The answer is apparently….blogging!
‘To wangle £11bn ($14bn) out of the British government, it helps to write a blog post. “Full expensing”, which allows firms immediately to write off their spending on machinery, plant and computer equipment from their taxable profits, was the costliest part of Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement on November 22nd. A long-standing policy in America, the idea of full expensing first wormed its way into British politics in 2017 via blog posts from Sam Dumitriu and Sam Bowman, both then of the Adam Smith Institute, a small think-tank known for its staunch neoliberalism and deranged internet memes about its Scottish namesake.
A post can easily become policy. In a crisis, wrote Milton Friedman, “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Thanks to the tweets and blog posts of a few centre-right types, full expensing was lying around when the government propped up the economy during the pandemic. A souped-up version of full expensing was first introduced on a temporary basis by Rishi Sunak, the then-chancellor; Mr Hunt has made the policy permanent. A few blog posts helped overhaul the tax regime.’
As a blogger, this was music to my ears, obviously. In the past, I always thought that few people in power read blogs, so although blogging might reach the junior ranks of the civil service, it was unlikely to get much higher. If the Economist is right, that has changed, which could be down to generational shifts, as digital natives rise through the ranks.
But what the piece also highlights is that blogging is only one piece of successful influencing. Effective blogs are primarily a form of intellectual branding – lodging a ‘big new idea’ in the consciousness of decision makers, preferably with a memorable name (although ‘full expensing’ hardly qualifies) and some broad brush strokes on how that idea would work. That’s just the start, as the piece explains:
‘Posting alone changes nothing. A few posts may have triggered interest in full expensing but it still took plenty of meetings and arguments to win over those in government. The Centre for Policy Studies, a storied Tory think-tank, noisily praised the policy (as did The Economist). The posting-to-policy pipeline tends to benefit those with a modest profile already, whether academics, former think-tankers or well-established analysts. Likewise, those who are most capable of harvesting attention are best-placed to boost their policies. Attention can be gained in many ways: Mr Bowman mixes analysis of tax policy with amusingly implausible boasts, such as insisting he is the inventor of the tomato salad.’
So as always when discussing influencing, it comes back to relationships, relationships, relationships. Build networks and profile in ‘peace time’, lace good analysis with a bit of humour or other social skills, and then go hard when a window of opportunity for a particular idea opens up, backed up by a chorus line of allies.
The piece may suffer from selection bias of course. Sure, full expensing registered as an idea, but how many other ideas has ASI churned out that have sunk without trace? What is the right balance between breadth and depth? I think about this in terms of this blog. I bang on in numerous posts about certain recurring themes (complex systems, adaptive management, power, norms etc), in posts that have hopefully contributed to shifts in thinking in the aid sector (but no idea how you would prove it, or otherwise).
But sometimes it’s a single story or post that, in an entirely unpredictable fashion, resonates with people and makes stuff happen (e.g. the ‘cash for coffins’ story from Vietnam that reportedly helped get Paul Niehaus thinking about cash transfers, and eventually to setting up GiveDirectly).
My feeling is that NGOs probably narrow the range of topics too much – seeking effectiveness, they chose one or two priorities and then focus solely on them, which ignores the serendipitous element of how ideas get picked up. But if you just opt for a firehose of random ideas, that probably doesn’t work either, because people will rapidly see that you don’t have the substance to back them up.
Anyway, it’s all v reassuring – I was starting to think that blogging has had its day, but this piece suggests I just need a Christmas break….