To ensure a good "fit" between policy option and community needs, consider the following:
- Choose a policy that addresses your problem(s).
- Make sure your decisions are informed by all the data.
- Consider the potential ramifications of different policy options.
- Map out how your system works.
- Assess your capacity to implement different policy options.
- Test the waters.
Choose a policy that addresses your problem(s)
Review your logic model and think about what you hope to accomplish through policy change. For example, if your problem is high rates of alcohol-related driving fatalities, what do you think is causing the problem? If you've identified easy social access to alcohol as the cause, then strengthening legislation around social host liability is likely to yield good results. By comparison, creating zoning laws that require bars to close by 2 a.m. is less likely to produce the kinds of change you're hoping for.
To make a difference, the strategies you select must match both the problems and causes. Consider this example logic model:
The strategies--not serving intoxicated patrons and instituting sobriety checkpoints-are suitable ways to address issues of availability and lack of enforcement of drinking laws. Because they are a good match, there is a greater likelihood that they will provide the outcomes you're looking for (in this case, fewer motor vehicle crashes). Now consider this example:
This example illustrates what happens when strategies and causal factors don't match. In this case, a community may want its middle school curriculum funded even though it has nothing to do with alcohol availability or enforcement of drinking/driving laws. Similarly, there is little chance that a mentoring program--however beloved--will have any effect on crashes. Implementing a citywide middle school curriculum may be the right strategy for a different problem, but not for the ones identified in this community.
The idea of having a "good match" is quintessentially SPF. You need to look at the data, and have the data drive which strategies you select, to ultimately change the problem.
Make sure your decisions are informed by all the data
These should include both assessment data specific to your community and data that support the efficacy of effective policies and practices--keeping in mind that these data may not always point you in the same direction. For example, local data may reveal that community members are more likely to support policies that target underage buyers over ones that target merchants who might make illegal sales. Yet, research also tells us that programs focusing on merchants tend to be more effective and have a broader impact than those that target young people. So, despite the fact that your community wants to target the buyer, you may nonetheless decide to target the merchants-basing your decision on the data of effective practice. However, if you decide to go this route, you will also need to educate the public on why this is a better approach, so that you have the support you need to ensure that the policy is effective. (Interestingly, police forces tend to support policies that focus on merchants: Merchant "sting" operations are more cost-effective and pose fewer security risks to officers than so-called "cops-in-shops" programs, which require officers to pose as merchants in order to catch young people attempting to purchase alcohol.)
Consider the potential ramifications of different policy options.
Sometimes policy change yields unexpected results-not all of which are positive. For example, think about what might happen if you tried to restrict alcohol use--let's say, by working with the zoning board to reduce outlet density--in a tourist community. One likely consequence might be organized resistance from local merchants. Another might be an increase in the use of other types of drugs that don't lend themselves as easily to policy control. A third might be that youth begin driving to neighboring towns to purchase their alcohol, thus increasing the risk of alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes.
The best way to anticipate the effects of a given policy strategy is to see it in action. For example:
- Identify other communities similar to your own that have used it. Find out what happened.
- Speak with members of the appropriate alcohol boards, enforcement agencies, and coalitions.
- Review the literature to see what may have been reported.
Most effects are likely to be minor and easy to address. For example, you may find out that efforts to reduce the use of false IDs tend to produce an increase in third-party sales. To minimize this effect, you might launch an educational campaign that highlights the penalties associated with purchasing alcohol for minors.
Other effects are more serious and may cause you to choose another, more appropriate, strategy-given your current circumstances. For example, if you anticipate strong resistance from the business community around density regulation, you may instead decide to partner with your police force and licensing board to limit sales to underage patrons. Controlling density may be a long-term goal, but not one you want to tackle before garnering the necessary support.
Map out how your system works.
Find out who sets alcohol-related policy in your community and how decisions are made. In most communities, there are three organizations responsible for developing policy: the local boards of health, the local city/town council or alderman, and the Alcohol Licensing Board or Commission. Yet the extent to which these agencies are involved in setting alcohol policy varies considerably by state and town.
For example, in Massachusetts, tobacco use is regulated by local boards of health. These entities have the power to establish policy around smoking. They cannot, however, regulate alcohol use, which falls under the jurisdiction of the state's Alcohol Beverage Control Commission. On the local level, alcohol use is controlled by the licensing board (the ones responsible for compliance checks). The licensing board could make regulations, but in many communities, don't. Instead, alcohol policy in Massachusetts is set by city council ordinances.
Also, find out how local and state laws interrelate. States typically set the bar for acceptable behavior (e.g., restricting smoking in public places). Local jurisdictions can't undermine state laws, but they often have the freedom to strengthen them (e.g., by banning smoking in all restaurants and bars.) It is important to understand what's happening at the state level so that you understand the extent of your local power.
Finally, try to assess the extent to which a given policy approach will be enforced. For example, if you are considering an ordinance to strengthen an existing social host law, you will want to make sure that your DA will prosecute related cases aggressively. Not all DAs are willing to do so. Your town solicitor (a.k.a. town lawyer, town counselor) can be a good source of much of this information. Their job is to interpret town laws and regulations, so take advantage of his or her expertise!
Assess your capacity to implement different policy options.
As you think about whether you have the resourcesÑon the community, organizational, and individual levelsÑto move policy forward, here are some questions to consider:
- What will the community bear? Knowing what you do about existing norms and readiness, what levels of support and resistance can you expect? For example, if you're considering an ordinance to reduce the density of alcohol outlets in a particular neighborhood, what do you know about the community climate? Is there support for fewer establishments, or a huge constituency that supports the status quo? As we mentioned earlier, it is rare for a policy that does not enjoy community support to succeed. If you feel this may not be the case, then you must consider the degree to which you can work to create a set of community norms that do support your efforts.
- Do you have the necessary political connections to move an initiative forward? If you have a strong ally on the licensing board, but no connections within your town council, you may want to select an approach that involves the licensing board (e.g., compliance checks) over one that relies on the support of the town council (e.g., banning drinking at community events).
- Do you have the commitment of your organization/coalition to support the initiative? Is the leadership behind it? Are they willing to make a public statement of support? Do you have the widespread support of your membership and/or do you foresee being able to build it, over time? Are there individuals among you with the knowledge, skills, and experience to move a policy initiative forward?
- What other program elements are currently in place, or will need to be developed, to complement your policy? For example, for a policy to eliminate drinking in public areas to have a meaningful impact, you must be sure that the local police and other key agencies are onboard with this idea and stand ready to enforce it. Further, you must be prepared to build public support for the idea using public education and other related communications strategies. Finally, you will need to identify appropriate referral services for those individuals whose violation of this policy leads to a determination that they are in fact problem drinkers and in need of counseling and other related health and social services.
Test the waters
Present your ideas to key stakeholders and local officials. Conduct key informant interviews. Meet with city council members (the tough ones) to find out where they're coming from. Your goal for these meetings should be two-fold: to test your ideas and identify political allies. An elected official or well-placed administrator who supports your initiative can be an invaluable resource for moving your policy initiative forward. Assuming your ideas are well-received, you can begin turning them into actions!