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From refugee to policymaker: why representation matters

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Case study, PublicPolicyDesign

A photo of people talking about public services.

Policymaking - at its best - delivers meaning outcomes for citizens. But it’s very difficult to achieve that if the evidence base is founded on assumptions about other people's lives.

In my last role, I led a policy research team with the aim of placing the voice of Afghan arrivals and other key stakeholders at the heart of policymaking. I used my own experiences and cultural understanding of Afghanistan to make critically important contributions to the UK government’s migration efforts to resettle Afghan evacuees.

My journey to government

I came to the UK with my family in 1999 – this involved difficult and dangerous ordeals along the way when I was just five years old. It was an arduous 3,509-mile journey from Afghanistan to London. You can read more about my experience of coming to the UK here.

Growing up in a strange country wasn’t easy. My parents experienced stress adapting and integrating, and naturally faced difficulties learning a new language, however, they did not stop pushing themselves and us to succeed. Several years later, I went on to graduate from the University of Cambridge in 2021 with an MPhil in Sociology and from the London School of Economics in 2016 with an MSc in Sociology (Research).  This is something which would never have been possible had we stayed in Afghanistan, in a society that shuns education for girls.

Whilst studying I worked at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association, and I continue to support voluntary and community sector groups now. I am currently a trustee at the Separated Children Foundation.

Late 2020, I joined the Civil Service as a Fast Streamer working as a Social Researcher, providing advice and analysis on policy interventions to help manage the impact of Covid-19, in the Covid and Health Protection Analysis Team at Department of Health and Social Care. I now work as Head of User Centred Design at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Representation matters in policy teams

Representation is key in policy teams. Having a diverse team will not only mean that we are reflective of the communities we service, it also aids our thinking and ensures we present diverse thinking when it comes to policy writing.

For example, Wendy Williams’s Windrush Review found that ‘many individual decision makers had little knowledge of the history of British nationality law, the history of migration or what policies there had been in the past. Furthermore, those developing policy and proposing legislation did not always actively consider these aspects and whether there were groups – in the case of the Windrush generation, specific racial groups with shared history – who would be disadvantaged by proposals’.

This is just one example of how representation is critical in key decision making and also points to the need to look beyond internal teams when working on policies to ensure that there is robust understanding of underlying issues and not just reliance on the information available.

Sharing experience boosts policymaking power

Operation Warm Welcome is a significant cross-government effort. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities set up its Afghan Resettlement Team from the start to play a crucial role within that.

Shortly after joining the Afghan Resettlement Team, I organised a teach-in about Afghan culture which was quite popular and led to a subsequent session on Afghan history and ethnic make-up. Providing contextual information to educate colleagues is very important and enables more thorough policy processes, because it makes sure we minimise the risk of wasting time and money on policies that are not fit for purpose and do not result in equitable outcomes.

On research and observational visits to bridging accommodation, I supported translation and interpretation when speaking to Afghan families. This was really important as it enabled me to have conversations that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. It also gave Afghans the opportunity to come and simply have a conversation with me to express feelings and hear my personal tips for how to get around life in the UK. I was able to use my personal experience to relate to others and act as a role model regarding life in the UK.

This would simply not have been possible if I was not a reflection of the cohort we were serving. The impact of this was greater understanding of the needs of the Afghan cohort as well as more cross departmental engagement to solve issues on the ground. Most other members of the team have since gone on observational visits to get a glimpse of life in hotels and many of them have reported that this has been very useful for their work and wider understanding.

I advised the team on government communications to ensure it is easy to understand and accessible to an Afghan audience. It is important to include relevant contextual information as many of the new arrivals are new to the UK system.

More recently, I set up the Cross Government Afghan Network with the aim of increasing awareness of Afghan and Afghan policy issues within the Civil Service. This enables civil servants working on policy areas relating to Afghanistan to make contacts and collaborate outside organisational boundaries. The network has also become a social space and a place to have career development conservations. Our membership continues to grow and attracts people across professions and departments.

Three ways you can encourage inclusive policymaking

  1. Where possible meet the end users, the insights and learning you can gain from one visit is incredible and can really help you to understand the potential or actual impacts of your policy. In our case, Afghans really appreciated having visits from government officials and were very keen to engage.
  2. Engage with a variety of stakeholders, talk to voluntary sector organisations and other networks to gather local intelligence. They work closely with their beneficiaries, and they offer great levels of expertise which can be very useful to the policy process, offering great value for money.
  3. Write about your experiences and make your work known more widely, this is something that I’ve done both internally through our intranet but also via Civil Service blogs. Inside Policy: Operation Warm Welcome and Growing up in an alien country wasn't easy are two of the latest blogs that I’ve written.

It is not difficult to diversify your team to reflect the people who use the public policies and services that you make. You can take simple, practical steps to embed their experience in your policymaking to dramatically improve certainty they it will work for the communities they target.

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