Chapter 1

Theories of change: Government policy v wider change

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There are two main routes to achieve change and your vision for a better world. The first is through government policy, which can be influenced through advocacy and representation. The second is through wider cultural change. Both use different theories of change to transform society. 

Changing Government policy 

Campaigning to change government policy is a way of planning and implementing work that can lead to changes in laws, institutions and governance at a local, national or European level. This theory of change works with the mechanisms of state or political institutions – including politicians and government officials – to achieve positive changes for society. It is commonly known as an insider approach to change.

I.e: Through ongoing collective action, women’s movements in Europe worked with the state and political institutions to achieve their right to vote. While there are women who still don’t enjoy this right in Europe, including migrant and undocumented women, overall this is a policy that has been achieved by women’s movements through an insider approach. 


Individual citizens and organised civil society can express their needs and preferences to policy makers. By giving governments information on our situation and by suggesting policies that can solve their problems, we can influence decisions.


Ensuring minorities and disadvantaged groups are represented in institutional decision-making bodies is very important. Minority voices can speak on behalf of their population and ensure issues impacting on that group are heard and taken seriously. For young people, representation in legislative bodies (e.g. younger Members of Parliaments) or mechanisms of co-decision (e.g. the advisory council on youth of the Council of Europe, where a panel of young people participates in decision-making in youth policy) are very important.

Changing culture  

The world is a complicated mechanism. It is governed by the state and political institutions. But it is also powered by people making their own choices outside these official structures. 

Taking action for change at the cultural level involves building the power of people to raise the standards of what we believe is possible – not through formal structures like the law, but through our own personal choices and the changes we can make in our collective consciousness. This is commonly known as an outsider approach.

I.e: If we look at the history of the women’s movements again, we will find that before voting became a right legislated by governments, women’s movements popularised the idea and vision of an equal society where everyone could take part in the government of their country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Women’s right to vote has not only been legislated for but, it is understood as a moral obligation by most people in society. 

Most often, achieving our visions for a transformed society involves taking a combination of insider and outsider approaches. If you do not have much power to make a change when you begin your campaigning, you need to build your power first. This is the stage when you take an outsider approach to win hearts and minds to your cause and change the discourse on the issue you’re fighting for. 

When you have enough power, you can take an insider approach to influence government policy knowing you have built enough collective power to hold the decision-makers account and ensure the legislation has the effect you are looking for. Over time, movements alternate between these approaches to make progress. 

Some questions for reflection:
  • Think about the changes that have happened in the past on your issue. What have been the role of insider and outsider approaches in making those changes? You may need to do some research!
  • What approach do you think is needed now to make progress on your issue?
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