What Makes for Effective Advocacy?

Almost everyone wishes the world were different in one way or another. But creating that difference requires effective action, which comes in different forms.   For example, advocacy, the type of work done by LivableStreets Alliance, differs from both protest and lobbying.  

Protest – either done personally or through mass mobilization, whether a single event of a sustained campaign – attempts to create a bump in the on-going flow of the status quo in order to prompt the reversal of some decision made by those with more direct power over the situation.  Protest is a reactive move, a response to a situation.  It is usually an outsiders’ strategy, an attempt by the less powerful to exercise their only real veto power over elite control by disrupting “business as usual” in some major or minor way.

Lobbying works by providing a decision-maker with something of value – new information, supportive constituencies, money – that convinces them to agree with your beliefs or to serve your interests in order to serve the public good or simply for their personal profit.  Lobbying is an inside game, a strategy of those who already have and want more.  To be a successful lobbyist, you have to have something to give in exchange for the decision-maker’s support.

Advocacy combines elements of both protest and lobbying, but with a slight twist.  From my experience, the most effective advocacy has the following strategic ingredients:

Clear Vision: You need to know what you are working toward and the values you are trying to embody. For example, the term “livable streets” expresses our belief that the public rights-of-way, and the transportation systems that use it, are not ends in themselves but simply methods of creating more culturally rich, socially satisfying, healthy, safe, productive, and friendly communities in which all kinds of people can live, work, play, shop, raise families, and grow old. This vision leads us to work for a better balance among walking, transit, bicycling, rail, and cars – and to remember that street space can be used for a lot of important purposes besides transportation.

Solid Engineering: A castle in the air may be an inspiring vision, but it makes for bad infrastructure. We believe that advocates need to have solid foundations for their proposals, so that their ideas can not be simply ignored on technical grounds. This requires drawing on specialized expertise – one of the reasons that LivableStreets Alliance sees itself as a network of people with a broad range of interests and skills even more than it is an organization. Being “realistic” doesn’t mean abandoning the transformative nature of our vision; we believe in taking advantage of every opportunity to jump forward as far as possible. But our commitment to “principled opportunism” also means that even bold ideas need solid technical underpinnings if they are to succeed.

Respecting Process: Bureaucracy, even at its Kafkaesque worst, has procedures and schedules. It isn’t always possible to submit a proposal at the right time to the right group, or to navigate the sometimes endless series of steps that our decentralized governing system seems to need.  But the odds of getting official action improve when you know how to play the system by its own rules – even when they are stacked against you.

Inside Allies: In almost every agency or business there are potential friends – people who share some of your vision or values and would love to do more but are constrained by their own organizational context. LivableStreets always tries to work with those people, to help them make the “official” proposal as progressive as possible and make their organizations as responsive as possible to unofficial proposals that push for more. Staying connected with insiders also helps keep advocates from ending up on the irrelevant sidelines of policy-making.  There are a lot of hard-working, dedicated public servants out there – we need to help them succeed.

Broad Coalitions:  Inertia rules – nothing moves unless it is pushed. Because of the breath of our vision, LivableStreets Alliance has been able to work with people and groups coming from many directions even beyond the transportation-related issues of walking, bicycling, public transportation. Our network also includes public health, environmental protection, climate change, smart growth, economic development, air pollution, obesity, and more. We’ve found that all these issues share a common core that allows for united effort, mutual support, respectful collaboration, and shared learning. These coalitions help us remember that although we believe we bring unique insights and skills to our partnerships, our vision will only succeed if there is a larger movement capable of mobilizing to push through the limits of business as usual.

Patience: Change comes in slow waves. Success is most likely when lots of different forces and trends come together. And even then, things seldom move quickly – until the moment of opportunity arrives and it all happens overnight. It is important to know when to go “all in” and when to “call,” or even to “fold” and wait for the next round. But even in the deadest of times, it is important to find ways to keep the vision alive, find allies, build coalitions, and celebrate the victories we have won no matter how small.

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