Government policy in a nutshell
The term ‘government policy’ can be used to describe any course of action which intends to change a certain situation. Think of policies as a starting point for government to take a course of action that makes a real life change.
Government uses policy to tackle a wide range of issues. In fact, it can make policies that could change how much tax you pay, parking fines, immigration laws and pensions.
Law can also be changed by government, so when they create a policy it can be made to affect specific groups of people or everyone in society.
Government departments (such as education or finance), agencies (like Land and Property Services or the Housing Executive) and councils all make policies that affect daily lives.
Northern Ireland can also be affected by policies which come from the United Kingdom government and the European Union. Take for example the way UK policy has changed anti-terrorism laws across the whole country or how the European Union sets targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Government departments, agencies and councils take into account Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which lists nine key groups that must be given consideration before any decisions are made. They are:
- people with different religious belief
- people of political opinion
- people of different racial groups
- people of different ages
- people of different marital status
- people of different sexual orientation
- men and women generally
- people with a disability and people without
- people with dependants and people without
Section 75 also promotes ‘equality of opportunity’ which means that everyone in society should be able to compete on equal terms. All government departments, agencies and councils must also give the nine key groups consideration when creating a policy.
They do this by screening their policies to see which ones will have a negative effect on a particular group or sector of society.
However, as long as they can justify that any negative effects are necessary (with evidence) then the policy can still be implemented. This is where the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland comes in. The Equality Commission has the power to look into policy decisions with consideration to the nine key groups identified above.
Of course, if there are lots of people complaining about the same issue then there is a far better chance of getting the policy changed. It is always best to approach official channels as a group rather than an individual.
At the start, you should talk to the relevant department or council and try to fix the problem informally. If you still do not agree with the decision, you can then use the Equality Commission to look at the matter in depth.
You need to bear in mind that any complaint can take several months to resolve. If you need information about your rights or you think you have been discriminated against on the grounds of:
- marital status
- sexual orientation
- political opinion
You can then contact the Equality Commission to get free confidential advice. On a separate note, the Commission also tries to influence policy. It focuses on how the public sector and government deliver its functions and services to make sure equality of opportunity and good relations are recognised as relevant and integral to the development process.
Policy making is the process of changing an idea into an action. These ‘ideas’ can come from many different places, for example:
- civil servants
- voluntary organisations
- community groups
- trade unions
- professionals, such as doctors and academics
- public opinion
- people like you
The list of people involved in shaping policy ideas is almost endless, but unless you start taking part, your views will never make a difference.
One of the best ways to be heard is by responding to a formal public consultation. Consultation is a great way for everyone to have a direct say in the policy making process.
The devolved government of Northern Ireland is also part of a much larger group, which includes both the United Kingdom and European Union. This means that several different avenues are available to you for the purposes of influencing policies that can change your life or community for the better.
Getting support for your ideas
If you think something is wrong or needs done in your area then it's likely that other people may feel the same. To promote a cause, no matter how great or small, you need to convince people that your ideas will work.
Talking to government and politicians
You need to communicate with the people who make government policy. It is still possible to approach a minister directly, though usually by sending a formal letter in the first instance. However, you can always contact a specific government department to find out information about the topic you are interested in.
Civil servants are directly connected with policy creation and may have expert knowledge of the situation you are trying to change. Ask for information from civil servants in the specific department to which your issue relates. If they cannot help directly then they can point you in the right direction.
Freedom of Information
The Freedom of Information Act gives you power under law to request information from government. Each department’s website will have more information on how to request this information. The information you want may already be published, so check first.
You should contact your local politicians to let them know about the issue you want to address. It's possible that they may be unaware of the situation.
- MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly)
- Local councils in Northern Ireland
- MPs (Members of Parliament)
- Europe and the rest of the world
A formal public consultation is a great way to tell decision-makers within government of your views on a proposed policy. You can find out when a consultation is happening through nidirect, government department websites, council websites, or through the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA).
Every consultation will have the results published in some form. You need to check with the actual government department or council that arranged the consultation to find out where the results will be published and in which format.
Starting or joining a campaign group
You can start by talking to other people in your area to see what they think. There may be a group that is already trying to do something about your issue. Even if you don’t join another group it’s always best to let them know you exist as they may be able to help.
Joining with others can help to share the time, resources and workload necessary to make your campaign a success. So, talk to as many people as possible, including those with expert knowledge, for example:
- social workers
You can find all sorts of background information in libraries. If you need more help librarians are usually trained researchers and can help you track down what you need to know.
Most local libraries will have a local history archive, which should house:
- local newspapers and journals
- books about the history of the area
- records of societies and businesses
- old maps, photographs and sometimes letters
- the archive should have all the ordnance survey maps ever created for your area
- Archives for family and local history
Qualified researchers can be found through universities or from a community body or voluntary organisation. You may find a sympathetic academic who is willing to help your cause with expert knowledge or research.
Some university departments (particularly those with postgraduate research programmes) run outreach programmes. If you can offer them a suitable topic then students will often carry out the research for free.
- Queen's University
- University of Ulster
- St Mary's University College
- Stranmillis University College
- Open University (OU)
Finding information from regulatory bodies
If you are campaigning about a product or a service, it is a good idea to get in touch with the relevant regulatory body. For example, if you are campaigning against an advertisement, you will need to get in touch with the Advertising Standards Authority to get help.
BSI British Standards has information on the development of standards for all products and services from light bulbs to universities. Its website also includes information on technical handbooks, codes of practice, specifications for products, dimensions, product performance and glossaries.
If you want to find out how public money is being spent then contact the Audit Commission.
Going public with your campaign
To get the public interested in your campaign you need a strong message that is simple and clear . A well-crafted message presented through the media is a great way to highlight your campaign and put pressure on decision-makers within government.
Give some thought and tailor your message to suit the different types of media because each type of media has specific requirements. For example, your message needs to:
- read easily in newspapers and magazines
- be very visual for television
- sound interesting on radio
Find the most suitable reporters, producers or editors that might be interested in your campaign.