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Advocacy Isn’t Just Arm-Twisting

As part of the AdvocacyLabs initiative, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee talks with Beth Leech, professor of political science and vice chair of graduate studies at Rutgers University, about successful policy advocacy. Leech is the author of the 2013 book Lobbyists at Work and co-author of the 2009 book Lobbying and Policy Change.

Porter Magee: You have done some of the most in-depth research on the sources of success in the advocacy world. What do most people not understand about how change actually happens?

Leech: There are two things that I think people often forget. One is that it's way easier to stop a change than it is to affect change. And big change takes a long time.

When you hear someone say: “The NRA is always winning,” it is worth pausing to think about what we mean by winning. The most important question in any advocacy effort is: Who owns the status quo? Because those are the people who have all the advantages on their side.

That’s true of the NRA, which is mostly focused on stopping change not securing change, but that is also true of supporters of the American Disabilities Act, who secured a huge victory way back in 1990 and mostly focus now on making sure it doesn’t get rolled back. And it is true of corporations because they are on the side of protecting a status quo that already benefits them. Does that mean that corporations as a group are stronger advocates for their cause? Well, maybe they are. But seeing them win when they're protecting the status quo doesn't demonstrate that.

[Read More: The Science of Advocacy: A Little Opposition is a Good Thing]

The other thing I would say is that you have to be persistent. For the book Lobbying and Policy Change, I interviewed a group of civil rights organizations in 2000 who were working on criminal justice reform, and they were not getting anywhere, to the point that there was no proposal before Congress, even a proposal that was going to fail. They were so disadvantaged that they didn't even have anyone organizing to fight against them. I asked them whether they thought they had any chance of success and the reply was "God no, this is not happening this year but we have to start somewhere." People don't realize how long change takes. You note when the final fight comes forward and whether you won or lost. But that fight had been building for decades.

There is something encouraging about knowing that sticking with a cause over decades is sometimes the path to victory.

Especially when the win you're looking for is big. You think about the decades of work that went into the Civil Rights Movement. Few big changes happen overnight.

When you are in these long-running fights, is it worth exploring different approaches to securing your goal if you keep hitting roadblocks?

For the book Lobbying and Policy Change, I interviewed advocates working for banks and advocates working for the credit union industry. In Congress, credit unions have a huge advantage over banks, and banks hate this. But who wants to harm the cute little credit union? Credit unions are nice, they give people low-interest loans and they have low fees. Even Congress has its own credit union. So if the banks can’t win on something in Congress, they switch venues. They go the Supreme Court and get a favorable ruling on a law. And then the credit unions go back to Congress and get another law passed. And back and forth it goes between these venues.

Another example is the efforts of the union that represented healthcare workers wanting to require safer needles. This was a law that would require everyone, all hospitals, all doctor's offices, to use safe needles so the healthcare worker wouldn't be accidentally pricked by a needle that might give them HIV or hepatitis or another disease. Republicans were against it because they saw it as one more case of over-regulation. So the union changed venues and took the fight to the states and succeeded in getting a few big states, including California, to adopt this law. As a result, the needle manufacturers decided it would be too complicated to make needles for all these different specifications, so they ended up lobbying Congress alongside the healthcare union on behalf of the original bill.

One theme that came through in your work is this idea that maybe effective lobbying doesn't look like what we might see on cable news or in the movies.

Sometimes I'm at a party and I mention that I study lobbying and people are like, "Oh, that must be so depressing," because they think it's all about corruption. But it really is about information.

The most effective lobbyists are great at providing elected officials with the information they need to act on the lobbyists’ behalf. That means making sure that they know what the counter-arguments are, making sure they know how to counter the counter-arguments, getting information about what people in their district might think, knowing the technical details of all the procedure and process to helping a bill become a law.

Great lobbyists know a lot about procedure and process. They know powerful people too, but those connections can fade whereas knowledge about process can be incredibly helpful no matter who is in power.

So, it’s not about who is better at shouting behind closed doors and who is the more effective arm-twister?

It is much more about who is better at helping. Who is better at making it easier for a particular member of Congress to advance a bill. That means building allies within Congress, creating a supportive argument and organizing a coalition.

What does the current political polarization mean for advocates?

Well, people may not realize it, but the advocacy community has an important role play in helping tamp down the increased partisanship we are seeing. For most advocates, it's not to their advantage to have their issue become too partisan. If that happens, then they can only win when Democrats control everything or if Republicans control everything.

So you can't just go with one party or the other, you have to have some bipartisan support for your issue. I'm currently working on a project that's cross-national, we're looking at lobbying in four countries. And I found in the U.S. data that most of the issues that interest groups work on are not described as extremely partisan, they are either nonpartisan or only a little bit partisan, and they're actively working to secure support from both sides. So in this world of extreme partisanship, I think it's helpful that you've got this big advocacy community that finds it in its best interest to pursue things that both sides can agree on.

[Read More Advocacy Labs Q & As]