Public advocacy in policy making is a hallmark of democracy, and the academic literature is replete with its benefits. Normatively, it is prescribed to legitimize the processes of policy making, and enhance public commitment for policy choices. Descriptively, a growing body of empirical research concludes that it produces better policy outcomes, such as wider distributions of benefits and a more responsive government. While these benefits are impressive, they accrue to society and ignore the fact that advocates often engage policy processes to advance their own preferences. What is missing from the academic literature are the advocates’ expected outcomes of their own advocacy efforts.
A simplistic view claims that they expect favorable policy changes. However, if this were the sole measure of success for advocacy efforts, then most could only be called failures. In a pluralistic society, few get exactly what they want in policies, especially in controversial issues that attract deep engagement by many competing groups. Additionally, even when advocates get their preferred policy, attribution of that outcome to their own advocacy efforts is difficult, if not impossible, to establish. Finally, policy change can take decades for some issues, much longer than advocacy organizations’ programmatic cycles. In practice, there are ranges of expected outcomes for advocacy efforts, of which favorable policy change is just one. However, while the practice of advocacy has advanced, its theoretical and empirical groundings have not.
This research significantly fills this gap by addressing two related questions about advocacy: 1) what do policy advocates do to try to affect public policy, and 2) what are their expected outcomes for their efforts? First, we constructed a hypothesized logic model of policy advocacy based upon an extensive review of professional and academic literature in the areas of advocacy and policy studies. The synthesis of these literatures produced five hypothesized strategies of policy advocacy: enhancing civic engagement, building public pressure, lobbying decision makers, direct reform, and changing implementation. For each strategy, categories of activities were linked to specific expected outcomes. Next, we conducted interviews with managers in a purposive sample of nonprofit advocacy organizations spanning varied policy issues including environment, public health, civil rights, youth, and arts. These qualitative data were complemented with Q-sorts to test five hypothesized strategies taken by organizations. Together, the empirical evidence are compared with the theoretically developed hypotheses.
Our findings have both practical and academic significance. Practically, demand for accountability has grown, so policy advocates need to show measurable results of their efforts. Short of favorable policy change, other benchmarks of advocacy efforts must be identified. Establishing acceptable metrics of advocacy is key to organizations’ sustaining their performance through the long processes of policy change. Academically, theories of policy processes may predict the links between types of advocacy activities and specific effects. This research broadens the applicability of existing theories, and guides future research in policy advocacy.