How Advocacy Influences Policy in Washington, D.C.
Lobbyists, think tanks, activists, diplomats, international organizations, and the media all have an influence on policy in Washington, D.C. A lone citizen picking up the telephone can impact policy, as can the largest corporations and their legions of professional lobbyists and lawyers.
Together, the diverse players interested in influencing policy all participate in the policymaking process through advocacy, which is a critical element in the government decision-making process. Advocacy is employed to influence any and all decisions by policymakers, as diverse as spending money on new infrastructure, banning certain food additives, and pressing a foreign government on a particular issue of concern.
Advocacy means taking steps to influence policy. It can be broad-based and focused on changing public opinion on a given issue, or it can be extremely specific and focused on changing the opinion of a single legislator or regulator. Most advocacy falls somewhere between these two extremes.
In the United States, advocacy from interested parties has become part and parcel of how the government makes informed decisions. In fact, our government views input from outside sources and stakeholders as essential and has established formal rulemaking processes for obtaining stakeholder views in a systematic manner.
Integrating the viewpoints and expertise of all stakeholders on a given issue helps to ensure that the outcome — whether legislation, administrative rules and regulations, or policy — is well balanced.
Is there any difference between advocacy and lobbying? The answer, like much of what occurs in Washington, is complicated. Advocacy is generally considered to encompass a broader array of policy activities than lobbying. Numerous interests actively advocate, including individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), business groups, academic and research institutions, key opinion leaders, foreign governments, and international organizations.
Advocacy can be conducted by a third party expressing support for, or opposition to, an issue or by a direct representative of a particular interest or cause.
Legally, lobbying seems to have a more specific definition, but that doesn’t mean the definition isn’t still the subject of debate. The Lobbying Disclosure Act contains specific rules that describe when an individual is required to register publicly as a lobbyist.
The Internal Revenue Service defines lobbying as activities that influence legislation — not activities that influence decisions by executive officials or general advocacy activities in the public policy arena. (The IRS gets involved in the definition business because it limits the amount of lobbying done by nonprofits that wish to qualify for tax-exempt status.)
While some Washingtonians could write you a dissertation on how advocacy differs from lobbying, others use the terms interchangeably. The ultimate aim of both activities is the same: to influence policy. Don’t get hung up on the semantic differences here. Just keep in mind that some people can’t say the word lobbying without spitting in contempt, so to be safe, you can use the word advocacy as a catchall euphemism.