Pivotal

Author

Ellen L Finlay

Ellen L Finlay

Published

I’m going against all the wisdom of great orators—they say not to start with your credentials when writing or giving a speech. But the thing is, I’m forever going against the tide, or at least that’s how it’s felt since I can remember.

I was appointed as a Commissioner at the Equality Commission back in 2022. So, why did I start with that fact? Well, it’s to share my journey. I grew up in a loyalist household in Tiger’s Bay, amid poverty and chaos. My father was involved in a paramilitary organisation and served time in prison. Our family was no stranger to hardship and turmoil.

I’m what they call someone with ‘lived experience’. If all that qualifies as lived experience, then I’m your girl, alright!

Now, you might be wondering what all this has to do with policy. I promise I’m getting there. I share this personal story to illustrate that you never truly know what people have endured or are currently enduring. This is why I established “Policy 360: Unplugged,” a podcast where I chat with policymakers who share their insights on the ‘how’ of influencing policy so organisations can better influence the policy agenda for those they represent.

Growing up in Tiger’s Bay, no one ever asked us what we needed or how we would like to see things improve. I firmly believe that everyone has a solution to the issues they face—they just don’t know how to navigate the process of influencing the relevant policy.

Today, I see many people still not being consulted or asked for their opinions. Policy is often imposed on them rather than developed collaboratively with them. I’m talking about people from places like Tiger’s Bay or the New Lodge, just a stone’s throw across the interface of Duncairn Gardens.

To make meaningful policies, we need to involve people in the process. This means meeting them where they are at—both physically and metaphorically—engaging with them in their communities, and understanding their lived realities. It’s about breaking down the barriers that prevent people from participating in policy discussions. Too often, consultations are done through impersonal methods like online questionnaires, which many find inaccessible or uninviting.

To illustrate my point, I will refer to a survey conducted by Her Loyal Voice in 2022, involving 532 loyalist women. When asked if their opinion had been sought on issues of concern over the past 12 months, 67% reported they had never been asked for their opinion. An additional 16% said they had been asked occasionally, and 17% some of the time. This clearly demonstrates that a significant majority feel overlooked and unheard.

The survey also revealed important insights into how these women perceive their power to influence change. Sixty–six per cent believed they could not influence change if decisions were made that they didn’t agree with, 23% said they could influence change but with a great deal of difficulty, and only 11% felt they could do so with a little difficulty. This data underscores the necessity of creating effective channels for marginalised voices to be heard.

If policy is meant to improve people’s lives, then all people need a say in it —not just those who are already interested in policy or those who happen to see a social media post about filling out a survey. The individuals tasked with gathering responses to policy consultations or obtaining views on a co–design basis cannot and should not do it alone. It takes blooming hard work. It’s about breaking down barriers, bridging gaps, and ensuring that no one is left behind. Because at the end of the day, the best policies are those shaped by the very people they aim to serve.

We all have a part to play to ensure that the voices of those who are often overlooked or ignored are heard. This involves actively reaching out to marginalised communities and involving them in the decision–making process from the very beginning. It’s not just about asking for their opinions; it’s about valuing their input and making them feel like an integral part of the process.

Creating meaningful change requires dedication and a willingness to engage directly with communities. It’s about building trust and establishing genuine connections. Policymakers must be proactive in seeking out the perspectives of those who are often unheard.

By embracing these principles, we can move towards a more inclusive and equitable society, where policies are crafted with a deep understanding of the diverse experiences and needs of all individuals. This is not just a moral imperative but a practical necessity for creating sustainable and effective policies that benefit everyone.

Ellen L Finlay has worked in policy advocacy within the community and voluntary sector for over 25 years, spanning the women’s, children’s, and mental health sectors. She is the founder of Policy360: Unplugged, a podcast where she interviews politicians and policymakers on the best ways to influence policy. 

Ellen was also appointed as a Commissioner at the Equality Commission for NI in 2022. She has been instrumental in securing several key pieces of legislation. Her passion for creating impactful policy change and collaborating with diverse stakeholders has been the cornerstone of her career, enabling her to influence policy and advocate for a more equitable and just society.

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