Empathy in Policymaking

In Nicaragua’s Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), there is no single experience of childhood.

For a child in seaside Prinzapolka, a highlight of daily life might be playing on the town’s sandy beaches. In rural northern Wangky Maya, the picture of home might be mother and sisters standing over a smoking wood stove in the yard. Children may spend their after-school hours helping split firewood and carry well water home; others might join friends around the neighborhood church for a pick-up soccer game or help with a small bread baking business run out of the family house.

Equally diverse are the constraints affecting these children’s lives: economic weakness in RAAN, poor physical infrastructure, lingering effects of conflict and natural disaster, and sociocultural complexity. Almost one-third of RAAN children suffer from chronic malnutrition and poverty affects 34 percent of children up to 17 years of age—nearly twice the rate of poverty in and around Nicaragua’s capital, Managua.

For policymakers in RAAN keen to draft a comprehensive policy to protect children’s rights, this reality presents a challenge: how to design a policy that can account for the diverse array of circumstances and needs facing the children of the region?

Channeling Empathy into Policymaking

Empathy is a good place to start.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Channeling empathy into the policymaking process means intentionally seeking a deep understanding of the lived experiences of those a policy will affect to inform how that policy is designed.

Previously, we’ve written about how operationalizing empathy in international aid institutions can support more successful development programs. When applied to the policymaking process, an empathetic approach helps ensure: 1) the process is collaborative, grounded in regular engagement between policymakers and constituents; and, ultimately, 2) the resulting policy is both inclusive and appropriately tailored to the local context, able to serve as an effective framework for guiding programmatic interventions.

Together with UNICEF, we implemented this approach to help channel empathy into the policymaking process in RAAN. Some of the concrete steps we took included:

  1. Engaging policymakers in constituent experiences. We helped structure a research process that exposed policymakers to an intimate portrait of their constituents. Rather than holding town hall discussions or consultations with local leaders, policymakers engaged with constituents at all levels of society and across the region on constituents’ own turf—in their schools and churches and homes. Where constituents spoke different languages, policymakers brought interpreters. Where they were in remote communities, policymakers took the time necessary to reach them. From these experiences, policymakers brought back stories, photos, and lasting impressions. Policymakers also engaged in service trials that allowed them to personally witness the rich variation of personalities, infrastructure, environments, and activities that exists in RAAN. These trials provided a rich perspective into the services shaping children’s health and wellbeing, such as schooling, maternal and infant health, and childcare.
  2. Creating buy-in through collaboration. We worked with a core group of policymakers representing different institutional factions, some of whom trusted each other and some of whom didn’t. By collaborating together throughout the full duration of the engagement, we we were able to help cultivate greater trust among factions and generate personal investment in the policymaking process. This brought a diversity of perspectives and expertise, as well as political buy-in, to the process. This is operationalizing empathy at the institutional level.
  3. Focusing on systems, not collections of individual problems. We facilitated synthesis exercises that encouraged policymakers to think in terms of systems by building connections between individuals’ stories and their contexts. Through this process, policymakers could explore the role of social, cultural, economic, and other key factors in shaping these systems.
  4. Thinking about policy from the individual up. Together with policymakers, we acted out the observed challenges and constructed archetypes: composites of individual lives that are representative of a larger group. Archetypes put a name and face to the challenges of parents and children in RAAN. Policymakers told us that this process encouraged them to connect the stories of others to their own lives. The process helped them think through programmatic interventions in the context of challenges they now understood on a far deeper level.

An Approach to be Further Explored

Our work in RAAN was a first step toward an approach to policymaking that channels user research and individual empathy into contextualized policy interventions backed by political investment. But the process illuminated key challenges that will require further exploration to develop this approach.

First, how can an empathy-based policymaking approach be made more accessible and less overwhelming? This approach can be time- and effort-intensive.

Policymakers are often pegged as “being behind the curve.” But what if they just don’t have the tools, resources, or expertise?

Partnerships have the potential to ease the burden, but significant iteration will be required to determine the sweet spot for cooperation and stakeholder involvement depending on the environment and political interests.

Second, how can the results of empathy-building user research be channeled into sound policy?

There is no “off-the-shelf” formula to pull from here. Policymaking is, ultimately, a political activity and greater empathy is not necessarily a guarantee for more politically palatable solutions. In RAAN, this approach cultivated a shared experience for institutional factions with contentious histories, allowing them to work productively together. But this might not have been the case in another context.

With this in mind, the challenge is now to further explore the strong potential of greater empathy in policymaking to help manage and channel political interests in regions worldwide, while serving those whose needs are being overlooked. If we are able to continue working toward a more sophisticated approach to policymaking in different contexts, we will succeed in truly valuing those for whom these policies are built.

Above Photo: A RAAN policymaker builds the story of community member archetype the research group created. Archetypes helped to put a human face on research findings during Reboot’s recent work in Nicaragua.

Futher reading.