• Opinion
  • November 26, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 2

You won the election. Now, how to go from candidate to policymaker?

Seven Apolitical actions to start delivering on your campaign promises swiftly

This piece was written by Lisa Witter and Lindiwe Mazibuko. Lisa Witter is the co-founder and executive chairman of Apolitical. She has founded numerous political training institutions in the US and around the world. Lindiwe Mazibuko is the former Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament of South Africa. She is the co-founder and executive director of Apolitical Foundation, which supports the next generation of ethical public leaders around the globe.

The midterm elections have seen a record number of women, minority and first-time candidates running for office. With the winners decided, successful candidates must make the difficult shift to being an effective policymaker in order to deliver on their campaign promises.

The key skills necessary to run for elected office — public speaking, press relations, fundraising, coalition building, handling hostility, managing a start-up-style organisation, staff and volunteers, and light policy analysis — are not necessarily the ones that are essential to being an effective policymaker.

Here is a list of seven actions for the winners to consider as they transition, under scrutiny from voters eager to see if they make early progress against promises.

1. Invest in the skills and behaviours that are essential for modern elected leaders to make policy and govern effectively


  • Data-literate and evidence-driven: Ensure that data and evidence guide policymaking decisions, and are not simply an afterthought;
  • User-centric: Design and build public services with real people in mind and involve them in the design and decision-making process;
  • Agile and adaptive: Test new ideas and improve on them incrementally, taking “smart risks”;
  • Build coalitions for change: Be able to articulate to a broad range of stakeholders the value of a given idea or policy initiative and help other leaders see the value of working together across differences. Know how and when to make smart compromises this may require;
  • Tech-savvy: Understand new technology and its potential to improve the lives of constituents and how government functions. Technology is presenting new business models such as sharing and on-demand economies requiring new regulatory approaches. This means using the tech yourself!


  • Resilient: Has the ability to act in alignment with values survive failure and try again;
  • Empathetic: Understands colleagues’ and citizens’ lives and experiences and can apply these to their decision-making;
  • Self-aware: Critically assess their own work and has an awareness of own biases;
  • Smart risk-taker: Is not afraid to deviate from the status quo and understands how to take risks progress ideas without jeopardising careers;
  • Collaborative: Finds common ground, negotiates differences and works with public servants and other policymakers across departments;
  • Humble: Avoids overconfidence in own knowledge; is open to different opinions and ideas.
  • Future-oriented: Deeply curious about the future and explores policies that solve for today and tomorrow’s problems;
  • Connected: Cultivates a deep bench of experienced peers, experts, and advisors who can provide support and help problem-solving.

2. Don’t recreate the wheel

You need to hit the ground running and keep up with trends, innovations and new evidence. You undoubtedly had policy ideas in your campaign and will likely be looking for more now that you are in office. Don’t recreate the wheel. Look first for ideas and advice from other public servants around the world. Having case studies to benchmark against and learn from can de-risk your idea, helping you avoid costly failures. Organisations such as Apolitical, OECD, and Nesta are good first ports-of-call.

3. Master your institution

Obsessively understand the institution that you now a part of. Read every rulebook, founding law and regulatory framework. Understand the history, the rules, the protocols and tricks of the trade. Figure out who’s who including the janitorial and institutional support staff — they often have great political insights and will let you into your offices after hours when you’ve forgotten essential documents on your desk.

4. Hire an experienced policy team

Recruit staff who have the relevant governance expertise and know how the policy process works, this may or may not be your campaign staff.

5. Build a circle of technical advisors

Remember that while a majority from your base or party may have elected you, you are the policy maker for all the constituents. Also, remember that a lot of the policy you will either need to or be asked to work on will not necessarily be “political” in the ideological sense. It’s important to build a network of political and non-political advisors to weigh in on your policy decisions.

6. Decide how to engage citizens

How do you want to engage citizens in your policymaking? Doing so can strengthen democracy, build political buy-in and improve policy outcomes. Study approaches such as consultation by chatbot, citizen juries, digital forums, and old-fashion listening tours to determine what might work best for your policy agenda. Here are 100 places governments are using tech to crowd-source policy.

7. Befriend the bureaucracy

A lack of trust and collaboration between elected and unelected officials often undermines effective policymaking: build bridges with the bureaucrats, who bring deep institutional knowledge.

First-time policymakers can add much-needed new perspectives to areas of policy and government

First-time policymakers can add much-needed new perspectives to areas of policy and government. They have a historic opportunity to preside over a wave of innovation and renewal in public leadership and following these seven tips can jump-start their impact. — Lisa Witter & Lindiwe Mazibuko

(Picture credit: Flickr/OECD)


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