By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Kasia Uzieblo, PhD
One of the authors (Kieran) was giving a research seminar at another university in the UK last week; the talk was on his research relating to the prevention of sexual abuse and how community engagement and bystander intervention fit into it. In the discussion afterward, he was asked, “How do you get politicians on board to prevent sexual abuse?” In some ways this is a “stock” answer for many: you talk about community and personal values, you have a story that humanizes, you think of re-election, and what will play well in the public arena. But in answering, Kieran realized not only was that the wrong answer, but it was also the wrong question. The real question is, “How do you get governments to buy into the prevention of sexual abuse?” The answer, which is frustratingly easy, and hard, is you communicate and work with the middle person (in the UK that is portfolio leads, policy leads, and civil servants).
The realities of politics are that that politicians can be transient, which is particularly important to remember if you are a minister with a portfolio and ambition. Generally, politicians are not given roles based on their knowledge and skills, they are often given roles based on their position in the party or their relationship to the leader. While it might make sense to the public that the Minister for Health should have a background in health care, for example, this is rarely the case. What this means in practice that new ministers must learn their portfolios on the move with little time to process material at any great depth. Therefore, they are relying on, some more than others (fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be in different circumstances), on existing staff’s knowledge, networks, and ability. In this instance, it is very apparent that while the minister is important, these middle people are also important, and might be even more important. Adding to the complexity is that politicians around the world also sometimes take their staff with them or let much go, with the result that the “institutional memory” in some sectors of government can change.
The middle people in most instances are primarily policymakers, researchers, and civil servants. They have often been worked within the government for years, often outlasting ministers and some outlasting administrators. They understand how the system works, the types of information required by ministers and the timeframe, as well as the format needed to get it across the line. Therefore, the question should be about how to best work with the middle person so that you can make sure that your message is heard by the right minister at the right time. Not surprisingly these middle people have different wants and needs than the ministers that they work for. To them it’s about trust, reliability, being able to frame a complex story in a straightforward way, being quick to respond, and being able to frame the message within the policy and practice of the ministry at that time. Being on the side, or at least in conversation, with the middle person means that your message is more likely to be heard by the minister. It does not guarantee that you will get the outcome you want, but you are more likely to get heard.
How does this play out with respect to the prevention of sexual abuse and the safe community integration of people with a conviction for sexual abuse? We need to convince portfolio leads, policymakers, and civil servants that the prevention and responses to sexual abuse are variable, that they are cost and time effective, that they align with the administration’s policies, that they are fit for purpose (i.e., that they will reduce offending and victimization), that they are supported by the professional community and will not alienate victims. Which is a challenge to do in one conversation, you need many. You need to build a relationship and be the go-to authority.
Politicians will make their own decisions, in line with party politics and manifestos, but the middle person is the person that will (hopefully) make the politicians listen and who will be there to balance the message and bring others on board. How we work with them will help determine their influence on the key decision-makers.