ADVOCATING FROM WITHIN: Ally, Champion, Leader

Working from within provides experience, expertise, and legitimacy.  People whose career moved in professional or managerial paths have a vital role in advocacy.  This includes people with a variety of roles: appointed or elected leaders, professional staff, even consultants, advisors, or “special commission” members.

There are many ways in which an inside-outside Advocacy partnership is the strategic route to success.  The initial protest stages of an Advocacy campaign is almost always started by outsiders critical of what a public agency or private corporation is doing.  Similarly, building the political will to force an organization to change its policy and mission often must be via an end-run around a particularly resistant agency’s staff or political leadership.  Even at these times, however, internal friends can help open doors by insisting that “they’ve got a point; maybe we can lower the temperature by talking.”

It is also enormously helpful, even in those early stages, to have inside allies who can feed information or sometimes even make public statements validating the protestor’s claims.  And once the campaign moves into pushing -- negotiating for specific policy, programmatic, or operational changes -- having an internal champion can make the process much more productive.  Outside pressure can raise the visibility and priority of changes that inside reformers would, themselves, like to implement.  Should the campaign succeed in triggering actual implementation, inside leadership is a necessity.

But there is also a role for internal activists even during quiet periods of business-as-usual.  At a minimum, people on the inside can help their organizations do better by serving as a bridge to outside perspectives.   At a maximum, they can push for improvements even in the absence of outside pressure.




A growing number of studies suggest that diversity at the board, managerial, marketing, and technical levels all lead to more productive problem-solving around customer needs, especially when the user base is diverse.  This is also associated with reduced missteps and  market and legal risks.  While it’s true that diversity can require greater effort at building workplace social connections, it can also provide greater interpersonal and cultural rewards.  At the least, being – and being known as – a welcoming firm makes it easier to reach out to and learn from a wider range of potential customers and clients as well as to attract top-level employees.

But these profit- and productivity-enhancing realities are seldom enough to make organizations move beyond the most symbolic levels of integration.  As we’ve learned over the years, even legal anti-discrimination requirements are not enough (especially given the weakness of our laws and enforcement) to force organizations to implement a meaningful level of affirmative diversity-creating action.  This should not be surprising given the incredibly deep structural, institutional, and cultural historic and current presence of group hierarchies in our world – as expressed in racism, gender discrimination, the difficulties of lower-income families to provide gate-opening education or connections for their children, and other forms of population tracking.  Progress also requires internal advocates, if not committed champions, to keep raising the issue, pushing for action, and calling for evaluation of progress.

These days, most public agencies and even many private for-profit firms have policies not only forbidding individual discrimination but also promoting diversity – although not many places make these values explicit and measurable at the program or project level much less the output and impact levels.  And these all focus on the narrow boundaries of the organization’s own actions, leading many hiring programs into the dead end of “not being able to find” enough qualified people of non-white, non-male, or otherwise non-typical backgrounds.  It takes a wise internal leader to call for reaching further out, further upstream, to begin investing in the programs and people who will later be desirable hires.  If this is too big or expensive a project for an individual firm, it can be done by an industry association or in partnership with community groups or schools.  But, again, this will not happen – and not be kept going long enough to have results – without internal champions.

Perhaps the subtlest internal fight around openness relates to the need to struggle against professionalism.  Having professional training, skills, and credentials is one of our society’s markers of status and achievement.  It also provides a vital method for employers to screen job candidates and ensure that work is done to appropriate standards.  But professionalism can also lead to a feeling of superiority and arrogance.

When dealing with social issues and programs or anything that affects public living standards, the professionals are not the only “experts” whose insights and suggestions need to be heeded.  The people affected by the policy or activity bring what may be the most important perspective, even if they don’t know the words or measurements professionals use.  In many fields, the slow expansion of “public input” processes are supposed to create opportunities for this “bottom-up” input.  However, really listening to the public, sorting through the often conflicting opinions, and then finding ways to integrate that feedback into policy and action – that takes someone on the inside.



The first rule of project and program operations is to stay focused; keep it simple; avoid mission creep.  Projects are much easier to manage, and it is easier to hold project managers accountable, if there is a single and explicit goal.  Transparency is vital to maintain public trust in government, and it is best accomplished when the line from spending to result is clear and straightforward. Profit-seeking businesses have an inherent need to externalize costs and ignore negative impacts or else their products would be a lot more expensive and their owners a lot less wealthy.  But even non-profits and government agencies can easily become seduced by the same quest to keep costs low.

However, everything has “side issues” – which are likely to turn into unintended and perhaps societally damaging consequences if left unexamined.  This is why so many large projects are now required to do environmental impact assessments or explain how they fit into regional/municipal Master Plans.  It often requires extra paperwork, research, time, and money.  And neither the process nor the requirements always straightforwardly lead to the desired harm-reduction goals. But they are society’s way of acknowledging that nothing stands alone.  For example, the recent effort to push for “health in all policies” is utilizing the new idea of Health Impact Assessments (HIA) to expose ways that a project or policy – in any field – might influence public health and then suggest ways to deal with any negative effects.

However, these “impact and mitigation” analyses are primarily about identifying and then avoiding negative effects. Good leadership and best practice requires that take these possibilities into account before they turn into crises. 



Even better, it would be even better to raise these “secondary” issues to a more central status; make them co-priorities with explicit and measurable goals. Taking the larger context into account from the beginning probably increases the chances of designing and running programs and projects in ways that provide multiple benefits.  This doesn’t mean creating unfocused and unbounded efforts.  It does require starting from the widest possible perspective and then circling inward to agency-appropriate specific goals and actions rather than seeing the plan as simply a technical problem or building up to it from the limited base of past accomplishments.  All this might make it possible to work towards positive impacts – finding ways to improve conditions rather than merely avoid making them worse.

There are many ways to effectively manage towards multiple goals, even when those goals span several issues or professional fields.  There is, in fact, a whole field of “convergence” that explores this topic, as well as the simple reality that no one person or organization can possibly know everything. 

The simplest method is to start every major project with a series of inter-agency meetings to discuss possible multi-issue implications and complementary actions that each agency can do on its own.  These internal meetings should be complemented by, or even combined with, a series of open-ended discussions with advocates in order to get their perspective on how to maximize public benefits from the effort.  Continuing these conversations through the entire process of conceptualization, creation of evaluative criteria, design, and operation of a program or project would both improve the effort and reduce the potential for public protest.

For example, Massachusetts’ Healthy Transportation Compact, created during Deval Patrick’s governorship, brought together the Departments of Transportation, Health & Human Services, and Environment-Energy – and prompted both MassDOT and the Department of Public Health set up programs (GreenDOT and Mass In Motion, respectively) that incorporated an awareness of the inter-relationship of their fields.  (Both were allowed to wither during the subsequent Baker Administration.)

A more radical approach is to merge agencies or at least bring them under united leadership, as Doug Foy did in Massachusetts with his “super secretariat” back in the early more “liberal” days of Governor Romney’s administration.   And a third way is to create new agencies or organizations, either from scratch or through the full merger of existing ones that brings together complementary expertise for each issue.

It’s true that, politically, expanding the breath of a project’s vision may make it both harder to work out all the needed compromises but easier to build the broad coalitions needed to secure approval and funding.  At an event sponsored by LivableStreets Alliance a couple years ago, Enrique Penálosa, former mayor of Bogotá, said that because US politics are more participatory and democratic than those of his region it takes longer for us to decide to take action around an issue but once the decision is made we are more likely to stay the course.  In any case, it is unlikely that any of these “out of the box” strategies will be adopted without pressure from outside and strong supporters inside – even if the idea is originally proposed people associated with the agency itself.



Even when there are no big plans to develop, internal advocates can push to open the edges of their organizational operations to new voices, particularly including knowledgeable outside advocates.  It might even be possible to include them as non-voting members of key committees.  For example, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has an open attendance policy and speaking “rights” at it’s Road Design Exception Review Committee – which approves (or not) requests to violate the state’s Complete Streets policy design guidelines.  In addition, the proposed Exception Requests are posted on-line and people unable to attend the meetings are also able to send in comments – which are taken into account by the voting staff members.  The result is a much more thorough and creative discussion of options.

Day-to-day interaction with advocates is also an opportunity to help them understand the constraints limiting what the agency can do.  Although it is probably illegal for agency staff to ask for it, smart advocates might decide to put some energy into reducing those barriers, or even to publicly call for things that agency staff can’t talk about such as budget or staff increases as well as new types of authorization.

Inside allies can help legitimize advocate’s effort by acknowledging their contributions and catalytic role.  And smart advocates know to return the favor by making sure their allies have a chance to correct problems before they have to face public criticism or protest actions – and then publicly thanking key agency staff and praising agency programs and projects for doing the right thing.



Corporate lobbyists do much of what has been described as a regular part of their jobs.  At Congressional and state Legislative levels they often have more expertise (and money) than committee staffers, much less the elected.  Even at regulatory agency policy-making processes, they have to resources to present consistent and sophisticated input.  But why should we allow the rich and entrenched to have the only voice?  Advocates within agencies need to push to not merely allow in but to pro-actively pull in the voices of those who will be affected by a policy, program, or action but whose perspectives are so seldom heard.   


Related previous blogs:

> P3 Variations: Public-Private Partnerships

> Follow The Leader: Lessons from NYC’s Janette Sadik-Khan 

> Effective and Democratic City Planning:  Neither Top-down Nor Bottom-up is Enough  

> Improving City Life by Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative:  Quick, Visible, Removable  

> Leveraging Public Spending For Maximum Impact:  Do Multiple Goals make Projects Better or Just Unmanageable? 

> Why the Public Sector Can’t Be “Run Like A Business”   

> Making Government Work (Better)


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