Social workers are often guilty of believing that what we think is critically important is, therefore, necessarily foremost in the minds of the general public. When we see lack of the kind of action we view as essential, then, we may assume that this ‘apathy’ is the result of heartlessness, faulty media coverage, or some other flaw in the political process. In reality, what is often the case is that our issues are not even on the radar of most Americans and that, in fact, when people are informed about the true nature of the social problems that occupy social workers’ attention, they are often quite appropriately alarmed and relatively easy to move to action.
The initial challenge for social work advocates, then, is to diagnose this nebulous ‘agenda’, figure out how we can insert our priorities in a meaningful way, and then operate within this ‘softened context’ where we are much more likely to find a receptive audience for our policy proposals. Far from implying passivity in the face of indifference, this suggests that social work advocates need to work actively, before even explicitly launching a campaign, to create a policy agenda that reflects their concerns. Such organizing, done effectively, can generate the climate of inevitability that is golden for policy practitioners. Bruce Jansson’s textbook Becoming an Effective Policy Advocate includes some good content on this task of agenda building; what follows is a modified lecture that I present to my fall class, which builds on his work with some practical applications taken from my advocacy experience.
I start this conversation by asking my students what, in their opinion is on ‘the agenda’ today? Obviously, in May 2009, the economy looms large. Think about this in even recent history–last summer, gas prices were high, and that’s what everyone was talking about. The war in Iraq, so dominant for several years, began to recede late last summer as economic woes mounted. There are social problems that persist that no one really talks about too much, like HIV/AIDS, and things that are not really even considered social problems at all (but rather just accepted conditions), like income inequality. And there are things on the agenda that aren’t necessarily problems but which have been construed to be so–the ‘tax burden’ is a classic example. Considering this list, it becomes obvious that the agenda is shaped both by objective conditions and by the social and political contexts–policy agendas look different in different places, at different times, and from different perspectives.
Jansson describes the agenda-building process as a funnel, where many issues are dumped in, but only a few will emerge to really take on life politically. This is not to suggest, as the examples above might lead one to conclude, that there is only room for one social problem at a time. Indeed, while there are usually one or two dominant issues on the agenda, social work advocates can use to their advantage the openings on the margins of an agenda, where issues might not be as highly scrutinized but where there is still enough momentum to propel change.
First, social work advocates must diagnose the context
• Understand the fads/trends in this area (what else is being done?)
• What are the viewpoints of influential leaders?
• Where does public opinion stand? Where is the diversity in this opinion? How does it seem to be trending?
• What is the media slant, or likelihood of favorable coverage? What does the coverage look like from recent months? To what extent are the media driving public opinion on this issue, and vice versa?
• To what degree is this issue politicized? Social work advocates should not shy away from politicized issues, but you will need stronger momentum in order to push through an issue that is likely to attract intense opposition.
• What is the magnitude of change sought? Again, when you want major changes, you need to be more prominent on the agenda, and you need a firm sense of how your issue might splinter into smaller ones if total change is not possible.
Next, you soften the context–your task here is to convince policymakers that the problem is serious enough to warrant attention without making them think that it’s hopeless. Social work advocates do well to consider the strengths perspective here. Rosemary Chapin has discussed at some length the strengths perspective as applied to policy practice; here, our interest is in how we can harness the potential for change within those impacted by the social problem as a way of mobilizing progress. To soften the context and increase the likelihood of victory, advocates harness their allies, take advantage of critical events, and pay attention to frames. We might pursue endorsements, use strategic media coverage, craft concrete proposals (which can make change look more certain), and/or highlight powerful stories.
This process of inserting our issues on the agenda is, in general, more challenging at the federal level because the competition for ideas is so much more intense, but this is also a larger space with more room for issues, so social work advocates need to be prepared to pivot rather rapidly and seize opportunities as they develop.
What’s not on the agenda that should be? Where do you see the agenda headed in the next 2-3 years? How can you frame your social problem of interest so that it fits?