Is your advocacy mission your mission or your distractions?

Congress just passed a big tax bill ending the Affordable Care Act individual mandate beginning 2019.  Next up was a budget bill to keep Uncle Sam running for a month three months late. An extension and financing mechanism for the children’s health insurance program remains undone. And, and, and.

Meanwhile Twitter is aflame. Tweet right and the tax bill is a big, beautiful Christmas present. Tweet left and the same bill is a scam, a disaster.

Everything is piled up to the last minute. Everything is weaponized hyper-partisanship.

What’s an organization to do to advance its stakeholders’ goals in policy? Especially policy that can last beyond the next election when the electorate shifts, present majorities become minorities – and then flips back two years later?

Begin, plan, work, evaluate and end with strategy

Commonly mission statements envision a grand future state. Beginning with the end in mind is a fine start.

And then the questions begin. Handle them honestly and harshly for yourself because no matter how wonderful and right you are, your opponents will.

For example, what obstacles lie between you and your goal? Who will plan to overcome them and how? What evidence backs your prescription? What questions it?[1] Who shares your views? Who opposes them and why? Who is responsible to carry out the plan, including marshaling resources? Who makes decisions? Who evaluates and reports progress that constituents value against waypoints one can measure?

And in this hyper-partisan time, is your issue something only one political party should carry? How do you protect and advance it when the next election waves the other party in?

A sound strategic approach is the most important thing. Use it to make, execute, evaluate and course-correct your plan.

Know, too, that strategy is also the first thing run over by the distraction truck. Choose whether your mission is your mission or your distractions.

Consider your environment

Funny thing about policy. It depends on people who are not you to carry it through. They may be legislators, regulators, executive branch officials, staff and stakeholders. Why should they do it?

And then how will you educate them? Policymakers favor their constituents, whomever they may be. They also favor language and approaches sensitive to their specific roles, objectives and administrative processes.

An idea that makes perfect sense to an advocate is in no way guaranteed to persuade a policymaker. If you are positive you are right, take off the blinders: someone disagrees with you. Knowing and making their case better than your opponent makes you and your case stronger and more effective. The exercise might even reveal points of agreement that strengthen your prospects.

Nurture your process for relationships

Policymakers are people. (Notwithstanding what you read on Twitter.) They also turn over and move about more quickly than people think. More than half of the U.S. House joined Congress since 2011. Today a third of U.S. senators are serving their first six-year term. Many state governments have even less institutional experience. Senior regulators may be reassigned with new incoming administrations or more frequently. Everybody wants their attention.

Why should your issue rise to the top of the stack? One hint: Lawmakers want to hear from people they have reason to trust. The list leads with constituents and supporters, colleagues, experts and other validators, and lobbyists with expertise. Far down the legislator persuasion chain is the social media feed. Social is more a tool for finding and signaling coalition allies and opponents than for direct contact with legislators.

Know your key relationships. And know that there is nothing of great value that is not also high-maintenance.

So, invest in your strategy. Keep your head up. Value your relationships. Your habits and your signals to your constituencies will build trust and value inside and outside your organization, and support a friendlier policy environment that touches the bottom line – or not.

If you like Frank talk, contact me here.


[1] For an outstanding construct for evidence-based policymaking in health care, see Baicker K and Chandra A. Evidence-based health policy. N Engl J Med 2017; 377:2413-2415, Dec. 21, 2017., retrieved 12/21/2017.

Frank PurcellComment