One of the questions that I frequently ask clients of the social service organizations with which I’m working on advocacy is: “What do you wish that policymakers understood about your life?”
I ask something similar of staff, about what they think that policymakers need to understand about the challenges facing their clients, in order to craft effective policy responses.
And, most of the time, I get somewhat vague answers.
Because what clients want, and what staff want for them, is just for those with power over the systems that affect their lives to know what their lives are really like.
Even if they can’t imagine how that would really happen.
They usually say something about wishing that members of Congress just had to live in their shoes for a few days, to see what it’s like to find childcare that fits the work schedule of a single mom on an odd shift, or to live in a nursing home just because you can’t find affordable housing with services to meet your mental health needs, or to ride the bus in the snow home from the grocery store with 2 kids in strollers and a 2-bag limit (really).
Remember the mental health center client who made the connection to her time as a production supervisor, and how she never could have overseen the factory operations if she wasn’t spending time on the floor?
In Creating Room to Read, I learned a new phrase for this: ‘going to the genba‘ (sometimes seen as ‘gemba’–sources are contradictory). It’s a concept from manufacturing, fittingly enough, and it means ‘the real place’–the idea that problems are visible, when we connect at the place where they happen. It captures this idea, translated in policy terms, that policymakers need to really see and live the situations in which social problems exist, if we are to have our best chance of solving them (131).
And, yet, that kind of authentic interaction is elusive, especially when we’re talking about powerful political actors and some of the most marginalized populations in our society.
Even when we bring policymakers to our organizations to talk with clients, the conversations are stilted, even scripted, and there’s certainly no true parallel to the grinding pressures of living in deprivation day in and day out, without an escape hatch.
At best, there are a few new insights, and some greater mutual understanding, and maybe some concrete ideas about ways that policies need to be changed, for them to really work on the ground.
At worst, clients feel ‘on display’, as though policymakers are using them to pretend that they are ‘close to the people’, before they go back to their comfortable lives.
So, I’m thinking, maybe we’re thinking about the wrong feet walking in the wrong shoes.
Maybe the people who need to get to the source of the problem aren’t the policymakers coming to glean wisdom from clients, in their world, but the other way around.
Maybe what we need is to help clients build the kind of power that would give them greater access to policymaking worlds, a chance to walk in those shoes for awhile, and the opportunity to see the ‘factory floor’ of policymaking and where the processes are breaking down there.
If these ‘gemba walks’ are about actually seeing the process, asking questions, and understanding the work, maybe the work that needs to be observed is that of crafting the constraints that either hinder or facilitate people’s success, not the more obvious truth: being poor, or mentally ill, or without health insurance is…hard.
Maybe instead of asking what policymakers need to understand about the lives of our clients, we should be asking what clients need to understand about policymaking, in order to shape it.
To fit their own shoes.