Arminé Nalbandian: how to engage government and drive social change

Arminé Nalbandian, CEO of the Centre for Social Impact, explains the key strategies to effectively engage government and generate greater social impact

Established in 2008 with a brief to catalyse positive change in society, the Centre for Social Impact partners with organisations working to address complex social inequities. The for-purpose sector increasingly plays a pivotal role in driving systemic change by engaging with government to drive public policy.

While the policy process can be slow and tedious, the Centre for Social Impact’s collaborative work showcases the potential for positive change by making rigorous research the foundation for engaging with various levels of government and stakeholders.

But navigating the complex world of policymaking requires more than just good intentions. According to Ms Nalbandian, affecting real policy change demands a strategic approach, thoughtful engagement, and deep consideration of multiple factors. 

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“In order to drive long-lasting policy change across systems in Australia, we know that we must engage with government deeply. After all, the government is the adopter of social change at scale,” she said.

“Consequently, government is one of the key partners which the Centre for Social Impact works with, alongside not-for-profit organisations, social enterprises and business leaders to achieve our shared goal of driving positive change.”

Ms Nalbandian has been tasked with broadening and deepening the centre’s footprint as a national leader in social impact. Through its emphasis on evidence-based research undertaken through a partnership approach, the Centre for Social Impact actively collaborates with the government on multiple fronts, utilising research to inform decision-making and foster systemic change

With extensive experience working in government and a deep understanding of the intricacies involved in policymaking, Ms Nalbandian recently discussed the secrets to driving impactful policy change, unveiling the art of building coalitions, the importance of thorough preparation, and the strategic significance of timing.

How to generate good policy

The political landscape is constantly evolving. For organisations looking to engage the government, finding time to craft approaches to policymakers amid competing interests and limited resources is often challenging.

For charities, navigating these complexities is critical to forming strong relationships with the government. Part of the Centre for Social Impact’s work is enabling not-for-profits to work through these challenges, to have the evidence base and understanding to engage with government and have a lasting impact successfully.

So how do you begin to engage with the government and drive policy change? According to Ms Nalbandian, the first step is to build coalitions: identify opportunities for collaboration and work with various groups to build a robust evidence base and policy ask that will be more amenable to government.

“Collaboration is sometimes underestimated, particularly in government funding conversations when there's often not an appetite to go to government with multiple parties,” she explained. “But it’s a highly effective strategy to do the groundwork first – to know who your collaborators are, who your detractors are, and how you might best work with those groups to ensure that the policy that you're seeking is most attractive to the government in terms of the larger stakeholder landscape.”

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The second step is preparation, which Ms Nalbandian identified as an area where many would-be policymakers could improve. It is critical to understand the environment the government is operating in and ensure that understanding informs a real and attractive policy change. 

“Come with a clear ask, but also know how that fits into the broader landscape of the day – what the media landscape is around that particular issue, where is the public on the issue, or more importantly, where does the government think the public is on the issue,” she said. “You might need to do more work to change hearts and minds before you go to the government, or perhaps you need to present compelling data to bring more confidence to the solution you’re proposing for the issue.”

But even with the right preparation and collaboration, Ms Nalbandian says the most effective change often boiled down to timing when it comes to a political context. “Anyone who has been around government and policy for a long time really understands the value of timing. There are windows of opportunities for every idea, and knowing where that window is and when it is open is critical to success,” she said.

Even if there wasn’t appetite for immediate action, Ms Nalbandian emphasised the importance of continuing to build momentum through relationships. “Almost every policy will have its time. Sometimes you can be opportunistic and get policy through a window of opening, and sometimes you need to build up the right level of support, partnerships, and relationships so you're able, prepared, and well-positioned to see change at the right time.”

Levers of change: understanding the stakeholder landscape

A deep understanding of the interplay between economic, social, and political dynamics is critical for organisations wishing to achieve their desired policy outcomes.

According to Ms Nalbandian, by understanding the government’s perspective and identifying the levers for change at their disposal, organisations can effectively develop strategies for success. “The best organisations know where their own North Star is. If you want to see a change, you need to be very clear on what levers the government has to affect change in that particular area, and how you can activate those levers,” she said.

“It’s about pinpointing what change you are seeking and then being able to map where that change sits within the current landscape.”

An important step in that process is to engage with the various stakeholder groups that are relevant to your issue, as many will already have established relationships with government. Stakeholders, such as community organisations, peak bodies and advocacy groups, play a crucial conduit role in policymaking.

“Politics is about the art of the possible, and the science is really in the governing and in the ability to choose a policy on the basis of what is not only best for people, but what is evidence-based,” Ms Nalbandian said. “Stakeholders help translate the thousands of key issues for organisations into a concise ask and work closely alongside government to implement change in an organised and targeted way. And that is a huge asset to the government.”

Ms Nalbandian said the most effective organisations had taken the time to build relationships with the government prior to making any requests for change. “They knew the people who were sitting in front of them and they understood what was driving their decision-making frame, and I think that's a really important factor for success,” she said.

Persistence pays off: forging a career in policymaking

To create lasting change, it helps to be in a position where you can make a difference. For those seeking a career in policymaking, Ms Nalbandian offered several valuable insights. 

First, she said it was important to determine what area and level of government you’re most interested in. Then, it becomes about building relationships. “Students have a fantastic opportunity because everybody wants to see the next generation succeed. And in that is an opportunity to reach out to people in those roles on LinkedIn and ask for conversations just as informational interviews. What does the day-to-day look like? What are the best ways I, as an aspiring policymaker, might be able to make change?” she asked.

And while networking may not be everyone’s strong point, she said persistence, even in the face of receiving a few rejections, is worth it. It’s all part of the process. “In my experience, I’ve always tried to respond whenever a young person has reached out to me with an interest in getting into politics or policy.” she said.

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In an ever-changing world, the power of public policy to drive lasting impact cannot be understated. By embracing the keys to impactful policymaking, such as building coalitions, thorough preparation, and strategic timing, individuals and organisations can navigate the complexities of policymaking and unlock the potential for transformative change.

To those looking to forge a career in public policy, Ms Nalbandian urged them to seize the opportunity to make a difference by building relationships, persistently pursuing their goals, and staying informed about the inner workings of government.


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