Scoring a World Cup penalty is the same as having policy impact

We are reaching the climax of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this weekend so I’m blogging about a subject that has some relation to the global sports event.

I’ve worked in the education policy arena for the last dozen years and the holy grail for all of us ‘wonks’ has been achieving a positive and sustained impact on Government actions in specific areas of change/reform. This has never been easy given the human complexities in the way Ministers, civil servants, politicians and their advisers operate.

I thought therefore I’d start with a footballing analogy and see where it takes me …

The crux of a World Cup knock-out match nowadays is often the penalty shoot out. This is both nerve-wracking and exciting. You cannot help but sympathise for the chosen spot-kickers as they walk up to take their penalties – the pressure builds as the count goes on, particularly if their team has already missed a few.

When they place the ball on the spot, I guess they must have a few choices running around their head. Left, right or centre – power or targeted – high or low? Some players focus too much on the goalkeeper and apparently reduce their chances of scoring (there’s research on this!).

But what matters in the end is whether the ball impacts on the inside of the net or even just crosses the line. If it doesn’t, then the penalty adds no value to a team’s chances of making the next round and eventually picking up the trophy – it’s a wasted opportunity.

Policy is less about impact on goal nets and more about impact through formal and informal networks. These also involve people, often experts in their field. The same choices apply and the left-right-centre analogies can be helpful in defining these, though frustrating as well.

Focusing too much on the policy gatekeeper can become self-defeating.

A combined strategy is required which captures all they key stakeholders, assesses the extent of their relative importance to the success of the policy campaign or piece of targeted advice and most importantly, engages with them in a way which works best.

Perhaps this is a bit like getting the crowd on your side as you walk up to the spot?