Where is the passion in policy?

How do you make anything “conventional” exciting, let alone policy? Is it possible to make something that has traditionally been characterized by daunting bureaucracy and inaccessible, exclusionary practices more appealing, engaging and effective for everyone who is interested in, or dependent upon, social justice?

Historically, there have been many different policy-making models from the 50s through the 90s, from the rational model to the garbage can model. Some focused on values or human rights while others claimed economic factors are paramount. Most called for rational and systematic approaches to problem analysis and decision-making and most were created by white North American men. Surprised? Me neither. Ultimately, while they may appear different, the underlying narrative is always the same: a select group of people with power and privilege decide what will work for another, much larger and less-privileged group of people who stand to lose far too much if the policies are ineffective or downright harmful. Policy development also doesn’t mean policy implementation. This can be seen in HIV/AIDS harm prevention work that initially produced more research, statistics and reports than it did substantial aid to afflicted countries.

I’m not saying that “conventional” necessarily means “bad”. On the contrary, when tackling a complex social problem like high infant mortality in Macondo, following a set of guidelines is helpful, especially with tight resources and timeframes. This is what Care, one of the largest international humanitarian organizations has done to support their members and build internal capacity for advocating for effective social policies on the ground. Care’s approach to advocacy is a good example of merging objective, methodological approaches with collaborative and flexible ones that include the local communities. Collaboration and community engagement also came up in interviews of 39 non-profit organizations in Saskatchewan as key components for effective advocacy. This is something we don’t see from our municipal government here in Toronto which arbitrarily decides to slash funds to vital social services.

Policies can be effective as a guideline but they shouldn’t be relied on too heavily, and we should always question their makers. Let’s think more outside the box! I’ve had more success engaging my clients when I take risks and use creative ways to connect, which I also believe can lead to better civic participation. When working at a residential mental health program, I facilitated a group discussion for clients to help encourage them to vote. I found that clients were more likely to take interest in social policies if they understood how the policies affect them. They were also able to see how they were part of the bigger picture by getting staff support to exercise their right to vote. And what is voting if not the most basic form of policy advocacy?

So, how do we make policy advocacy more exciting and inviting? We can start with dropping the jargon and the professionalized attitude. No one ever truly mobilizes for “policy analysis,” including social workers. But people understand fighting for their rights and wanting to be heard and validated. Let’s talk their language, and ours.

– Ilaneet Goren

2 thoughts on “Where is the passion in policy?

  1. jesswish January 19, 2013 / 8:52 am

    I was very surprised to read that in the USA a majority of NPOs do not involve their clients in policy initiatives (DeSantis, 2010). How do we change that? I agree with you Ilaneet, that a good way to start is to avoid jargon and professionalized attitudes. I wonder how this translates when dealing with governments. How do we engage in a dialogue that governments will be willing to participate in, without compromising our ideals?

    I was also surprised to read about the lack of governmental agenda to address key principles concerning its relationship with the voluntary sector (Desantis, 2010). I think that this could be a great advocacy issue in and of itself, particularly if its inclusion could provide a tangible reference point for future advocates trying to hold governments to account to address a specific issue of concern. However, as you mention in your post, it is difficult to mobilize around topics that sound neither exciting nor inviting. I think that this is also a reflection of a broader trend in the non-profit sector of reduced funding and increased demand to meet immediate needs, making it difficult to focus on longterm sustainability and general advocacy.

  2. rachaellefebvre January 20, 2013 / 5:37 pm

    I really liked this part of your blog post Ilaneet and wanted to comment on it:

    “Let’s think more outside the box! I’ve had more success engaging my clients when I take risks and use creative ways to connect, which I also believe can lead to better civic participation. When working at a residential mental health program, I facilitated a group discussion for clients to help encourage them to vote. I found that clients were more likely to take interest in social policies if they understood how the policies affect them.”
    Recently at my practicum (a social housing provider for women and families exiting the shelter system), we were able to engage some of our tenants to take part in the social action activities facilitated by OCAP in regards to the cuts to the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB). We were successful in getting tenants on board with this action by communicating to them in very clear ways how the cuts to the CSUMB would directly impact on their future well-being. I think you make an important point Ilaneet when you highlight that “clients were more likely to take interest in social policies if they understood how the policies affect them”. My practicum supervisor outlined to me that in her experience with the organization, she has found the same thing. That was why we made sure to explicitly and clearly outline to our tenants how the Provincial Government’s decision to eliminate the CSUMB would directly affect them before we encouraged them to take part in the CSUMB social action activities.

    Back in September, my practicum supervisor explained to me that “technically speaking” some of the activities she takes part in (e.g., going to rallies with tenants, helping tenants to draft letters/emails to their local MPPs to voice concerns) she isn’t really allowed to do, but she does so anyways and just makes sure she is “creative with the language she uses to describe her activities”. She further outlined that she purposely doesn’t use the word “advocacy” to describe her activities even when that is exactly what she is doing. I didn’t realize until reading DeSantis’ article that registered charitable NPO’s (which my practicum organization is) are actually MANDATED BY LAW (!!!) as to what kinds of advocacy activities they are permitted in engaging in.

    I’m thinking that in our future social work practice, not only will we need to take risks and be creative in the ways we connect with our clients (as Ilaneet mentioned in her post), but given the realities of today’s neoliberal climate (which undermines our ability to engage in advocacy), we will also need to take risks and be creative to be able to take part in advocacy activities in our workplaces!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s