Stages of policy development
In a democratic government, a political party should propose policies that are representative of its members, then campaign on those policies and implement them when in power. If a party is in opposition, it should critique or present alternatives to the ruling party’s policy proposals. Developing viable policies is therefore a key task for any political party, and technology, if used well, can play an important role. The section below describes several components of policy development and outlines the corresponding helpful tools. For more information on policy development, please see Developing Party Policies, from NDI’s Library of Political Parties and Democracy in Theoretical and Practical Perspective Series.
Understanding Citizen Needs
Citizens generally support the party whose policies align most closely with their needs and concerns. A party must therefore have effective methods for engaging with citizens in order to understand their needs and prevent disenfranchisement. To ensure that its policies are inclusive, a party might seek the help of outside experts — such as civil society organizations or academics — to better understand international best practices and various populations’ points of view. Engaging youth and women’s wings for input also helps a party design more inclusive policies, and it should aim to incorporate the opinions of all of the sectors with which it engages, including but not limited to rural populations, poor citizens, people with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBTI communities. Reaching out to different segments and understanding their specific needs requires time and money, but in some cases, a party can use technology tools to increase its effectiveness and lower its outreach costs.
Some examples of how technology tools can be used:
- Community town halls can be costly and time consuming, but with internet connectivity, online community forums with special interests groups might cost less;
- If the literacy rate is high and most of a party’s target audience owns mobile phones, SMS polling on applications like WhatsApp can help the party better understand citizen needs; and
- Asking followers’ opinions on a party or candidate’s social media page can be useful in gauging support for specific issues. On Facebook, for example, there is an application that allows users to post a custom poll for follower/supporter completion.
Once a party understands its constituents’ needs, it should identify the most pressing issues and propose realistic solutions. It is crucial to understand the issues’ historical context and possible consequences, and this should involve desk research — collecting reliable information to inform the party’s understanding of and response to an issue. Good research should focus on outcomes, such as what the party needs to do and how it can achieve those goals.
- Online research, to understand the policy’s environment and context;
- Sentiment analysis, to examine the attitudes behind social media comments. Measuring sentiment can provide party officials with an indicator of the party’s public image, without requiring them to dig into individual comments. However, sentiment analysis will not reveal the context behind the positive or negative feelings, and should be supplemented with other types of research and outreach;
- Polling of people’s perceptions of different topics, making sure to disaggregate by gender, age and other demographic factors. A party can use a database to aggregate and organize responses in order to share them with regional party offices and refer back to them later;
- Interviews, which are vital to in-depth research. Digital communication tools such as Skype and Google Hangouts can save a party time and money by allowing party members to conduct interviews without traveling; and
- Research notes, which a party can store in a glossary such as Google Drive or Microsoft Cloud for easy sharing and updating by party members in different locations. Multiple users can make comments and edits on a single document from any internet-equipped location, as long as they have proper login credentials.
Mindful of the findings from policy research, the political context and the environment, party members can then develop robust policies. Given the available resources, a party should determine whether the policy will respond to the problem (according to the community it affects) and whether it will effectively serve all members of that community, including women.
Developing effective policy solutions requires clear issue identification, a solid base of evidence, sound financial skills and innovation. Good communication within a party allows officials to better understand political sentiment in different regions of the country, and to more effectively request feedback and support. Tools that can aid internal party communication include:
- Cloud programs, such as Google Drive or Microsoft Cloud, which can help a party’s central office collaborate with regional offices;
- Skype and Google Hangouts, whose video and chat features can help party members communicate with each other from different regional offices; and
- Intranets or private internet sites, which allow a party to have internal discussions on policy issues and post relevant information.
For more information on internal communication, see the management section of this paper. For more information on policy development, see Module 5 from NDI’s MENA Campaign Skills Handbook, as well as Political Parties, Public Policy and Participatory Democracy and Developing Party Policies from NDI’s Political Parties and Democracy in Theoretical and Practical Perspective Series.
Approval Mechanisms and Member Feedback
There are a few options for approving party policies, including approval by a party congress, the full membership or the executive. An open and inclusive process might keep members engaged. Although party members might not agree with all of the party’s positions, the opportunity to change or challenge those positions over time can give them a reason to remain engaged. Member input incorporation mechanisms also allow the party’s positions to adapt and change over time. The state of a party’s internal democracy also plays an important role; for example, if a party’s members elect its leaders, policy approval also tends to be more democratic. In the long run, building a strong party externally is easier if a party has strong internal democratic processes.
Having a party congress is the most common approval mechanism; it provides party members with the opportunity to debate policy platforms. A party congress can also be a forum for officials and activists at different levels and from different structures to exchange ideas and experiences. It is possible to combine party congresses with other forms of discussion, such as an online forum where delegates can discuss policies and vote virtually from various regions. This could save a party traveling costs, but the party must consider all of the pros and cons with electronic voting — for instance, security and privacy issues. For examples of online voting, see the case studies on Italy’s Five Star Movement, Net Parties, Denmark’s Liberal Alliance’s use of Blockchain secure online voting and the European Green Party.
Another approval mechanism — the full membership vote — has become more popular as rising internet penetration has lowered logistics costs. While highly inclusive, involving all members in policy approval remains a logistical challenge. However, some parties have begun using this method.
- Argentina’s Net Party uses source software called DemocracyOS. This software allows citizens (not just party members) to vote on existing legislative projects in order to determine how the party’s representatives will vote, and allows citizens to suggest new policies for the party’s representatives to propose.
- The German Pirate Party has PiratePads, which allow members to collaborate on policy documents and discuss them via online chat.
- Podemos in Spain used TitanPad, a collaborative document application that allows members to write, share notes, and discuss policy proposals.
The least inclusive approval mechanism is approval by the party executive. Although this approval process does ensure that party leadership can focus on the policies they consider the most strategic, it also permits potential leadership abuse, as well as disconnect between leaders and members. However, this approval mechanism can work well, provided the party has installed mechanisms that guarantee communication and consultation between party leadership and membership, and provided the party factors communication and consultations into the approval process. Tools that help party leadership consult with members include:
- The interactive use of social media or the party website. The party can ask members to share their opinions about specific topics and issues online; and
- The use of a video engagement tool such as DemTools’ The Issues. The Issues and similar tools allow party leaders to discuss key issues with members and give members the opportunity to pose questions directly to the leadership.
Once a party has approved a policy, whether by congress, member vote, or executive decision, it has to communicate that policy to party members, constituents and voters. Having a well-researched policy agenda with realistic outcomes during the campaign season can strengthen a candidate’s overall message. Technology tools can be a great asset to a party during this outreach and communication stage. However, as the outreach section of this paper states, technology does not replace traditional forms of messaging, though it can amplify them. Among other things, broadcasted debates are an important tool through which a party communicates to constituents that it has a solid policy agenda, a clear and specific map for implementation, and plans for realistic outcomes. Whether via radio, television, online or multiple mediums, the more people who hear a candidate discuss his or her policies and the party’s plan for implementation, the better.
Communicating policies is equally important outside of campaign season, because it can mobilize stakeholders, change attitudes, and allow relevant government departments to prepare a response. Outreach should be multi-pronged to ensure that the greatest number of people are hearing, understanding and responding to the party’s message. Additionally, for outreach to be truly inclusive and reach as many citizens as possible, the tools and methods with which it is conducted should take into account different languages spoken and different levels of access to media. For more information on message targeting, see the audience section of this paper.
Tools that can improve the efficacy of a party’s outreach efforts include:
- Email blasts, which update supporters on party policies, and permit a party to track and test interest in and response rates to different policy issues;
- Social media, which makes it easy for supporters to share party information and updates with their personal networks;
- SMS blasts, which spread the party’s message to areas with less internet penetration; and
- Traditional forms of communication, such as radio, community meetings, and door-to-door interactions, to communicate the party’s message to as many people as possible.