Our Blog

A Little Policy for Not-So-Little Change

By Risa Wilkerson on February 25th, 2015

“Policy change” can seem intimidating and hard to achieve. Some folks feel like policy issues should be left to political officials, administrators or scholars, while others who are seeking change may feel powerless against the challenge of navigating complex systems. But what if we reframe how we think about policy change? “Little p” policy changes, as we like to call them at Active Living By Design, can create quick wins, may lead to larger changes and typically aren’t labor-intensive.

“Little p” policies are usually those within departments or agencies that influence organizational practices, like protocols, funding or informal norms, while “Big P” policies, like city ordinances or comprehensive plans, typically need elected officials’ approval. Most often, we hear about policy changes that receive media attention or take a long time to pass, and overlook “little p” changes that don’t require advocates to sign petitions, present before city council, or hold advanced degrees in order to understand them.

In workplaces, local governments and coalitions across the country, “little p” policies can create not-so-little changes.

Let’s look at a couple of “little” p policy changes and how they are affecting health behaviors.

  • Active Living By Design’s office is located on the second floor of a mixed-use building with two ways to get in: a ground floor front entrance and a back entrance in the parking deck below the building. In both cases, there are stair and elevator options, but the parking-level stairs are locked for safety reasons. After a few conversations with the building owners, ALBD staff received keys to the parking deck stairwell, which gives us an active option that is just as quick, if not quicker, than taking the elevator. What’s even better is that other businesses in our building have asked how they can take the stairs, too. Getting a set of keys may not be an official “policy,” but it has impacted the behavior of the people in our building. Plus, we didn’t have to schedule a council meeting or put our idea to a vote by a governing body.
  • Here’s an example on a larger scale: The City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department, a grantee of the John Rex Endowment’s Healthy Food and Active Living goal, along with many area YMCAs and other municipalities are including the Sport Snack Game Plan brochure within the youth sports programming packets for parents. Created by Advocates for Health in Action, this simple brochure focuses on healthy and cost-efficient snack options. In and of itself, it may not seem ground-breaking. Yet, this modest policy change is shifting the norm among families that bring team snacks, is encouraging coaches to talk about the importance of healthy options with families, and is planting a seed for future long-term behavioral changes.

These types of policy changes are bite-sized and approachable. They impact the people you see on a regular basis, and can be achieved by those very same people! Over the last 12 years, Active Living By Design has seen many “little p” policy changes successfully implemented. Visit our Resources page to check out tools and recommendations of policy changes (both big and little) made by communities we’ve worked with under “Community Tool Examples.” And let us know about unique ways you have helped implement little p policy changes in your own community!


Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.