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How to Effectively Advocate in Washington, D.C.

The aim of advocacy is to influence policy in Washington, D.C. There are several keys to building an effective advocacy message for your organization or cause:

  • The advocate should be able to speak authoritatively about all aspects of the organization he represents. Advocates are expected to be knowledgeable about how their organization has an impact on the specific issue in question.

    Integrating these facts into letters, requests for meetings, and meeting talking points helps to build the rationale for why the organization is an important stakeholder on the issue and why its voice should be heard.

  • The advocate should be well versed on the overall issue. This person must know not only the perspective he is representing but also the counterarguments and similar perspectives of other stakeholders advocating on the same issue.

  • The advocate should research the policymakers he hopes to approach. This step may involve assessing the policymakers’ overall understanding of the issue, as well as their interests and constraints.

  • The advocate should customize the message to the particular policymakers being contacted. Based on his research, he should tailor his pitch by keeping the policymakers’ specific interests and constraints in mind.

Determining how to deliver the advocacy message is just as critical as crafting the message itself. Deciding who will convey the message is very important. Sometimes stakeholders with similar concerns and perspectives may choose to join voices in a coalition to approach a government entity.

Often, the collective voice is more powerful than a single entity in attracting visibility to an issue. In other instances, an individual organization may choose to approach the government entity on its own in order to differentiate its voice from the pack.

Smart advocates are also careful in selecting which officials they approach. In most cases, more than one agency, office, or official is responsible for the same issue. Obtaining a strong understanding of which entities have the influence to affect the outcome of a specific issue ensures that time and resources are not wasted chasing rabbit trails that lead nowhere.

Finally, smart advocates also carefully gauge timing and sequencing, knowing that when and in what order to approach a decision maker is just as important as what is said. Sometimes taking the lead on an emerging issue necessitates early engagement with multiple players. Other times, waiting for further clarification from the government or until a broad-based coalition can be built is more effective.

Civil servants at the bureaucratic level are often the real issue experts in Washington, D.C., having devoted much of their careers to studying and following a particular policy area. They have the institutional memory on policies, knowing all the twists and turns that have occurred in formulating a particular policy across past administrations.

As a result, they can advise advocates regarding what arguments will or won’t work best in the current policy environment in Washington. Therefore, cultivating good relationships with knowledgeable civil servants can save advocates considerable time, money, and effort in pushing for particular approaches.

In Washington, the same (or similar) ideas often come around time and time again, and many civil servants have been through one or more iterations.

If you plan to be an advocate, civil servants can help you by pointing out the mistakes of the past so that you avoid committing them again, as well as teaching you what to do right this time so that your policy effort succeeds in the current environment.

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