Dodging Bullets and Stall Tactics: Defensive Policy Advocacy

I don’t know that I have ever been this glad to see a Kansas legislative session end.

And, given some of the sessions I’ve endured over the past 9 years, that’s saying a lot.

But this one was particularly rough.

Much of that is due to the November 2010 elections; the Kansas House, in particular, has many new faces, many of whom we’ve learned, the hard way, are not super interested in forging compromises in pursuit of good governance. Ahem.

And some of it is attributable to the budget, which is, by any account, pretty dreadful.

But what made this session particularly unsatisfying for me was that my time was ALL occupied with defense–trying to stop bad things from happening. That’s why I’m so exhausted. And why I was so glad that they went home.

Because, really, I got into policy advocacy because I wanted to make the world a better place. I get a kick out of working with dedicated elected officials, affected constituencies, and other allies to forge new public policy solutions that take us towards a vision of economic and social justice, not because I like throwing up roadblocks and exploiting procedural maneuvers to stall for time.

And yet.

With the thought that perhaps many social work advocates had sessions that looked not unlike mine, I’ve done some reflecting about why this session (and these defensive tactics) were so hard for me, and how I can reconcile myself to this kind of advocacy as part of my quest for justice. I don’t have any magic secrets; in fact, I’d love to hear from others about what this session has looked like for you, and what you learned that has helped prepare you for next year, defensive or not. But I’ve found that sharing our disappointments and frustrations, and even our heartaches, makes these sessions (how can 4 months feel like an eternity?) more bearable. And, sometimes, sustaining ourselves to fight another day is an important part of our overall strategy. And, sometimes, it’s the best we can do.

  • Remember that stopping bad policy IS promoting social justice–the fewer steps we take backwards, the less we’ll have to walk. Sometimes I get really down about having to defend against bad policy because, as I said above, that’s not why I decided to become a policy advocate. It helps me, at least in a small way, to remember that sometimes standing still is progress, or at least the foundation of it. Holding the line can keep people’s lives from getting seriously worse.
  • Build a coalition in support of your vision, not just in opposition to someone else’s. It’s relatively easy to get people fired up about a horrible, immediate threat: we had more than 60 people show up at a meeting, called at the last minute, to oppose Kansas’ effort at passing an Arizona-style anti-immigrant bill. But we have to build that effort around principles that articulate WHY we oppose that bill, so that we can use those same principles to advance legislation that takes us forward.
  • Process always matters–sometimes, the how is more important than the what. There are always ways to kill things quietly–finding ways to run out the clock, getting a friendly committee chair to bottle up a bill, generating serious doubt about a fiscal note’s validity. And, this year, we needed to use all of those “tricks” in Kansas. But, if you can, it’s often better for your movement to kill things loudly and emphatically. Lining a bill up for a vocal chorus of “no”s does much more for your momentum, and your constituents’ sense of power, than a promise from the Senate President to make something go away (even though, we promise, we appreciate those promises, Mr. President). If your eyes are always on the goal of building a movement that can win affirmative victories, not just making the “bad guys” lose, then you’ll look for opportunities to salvage a bigger win by opting for a different process, even if the outcome is the same.
  • Celebrate those victories, and those allies, even in a losing battle. I received more heartfelt appreciation from the 50 representatives I personally thanked for standing with Kansas’ instate tuition policy for immigrant students than I ever did when we were on the winning side. Our elected official allies, or at least many of them, feel as bewildered and thwarted as we do, and they need us more than ever. I built some new relationships this year, including with people I’ve somewhat known for a long time, that I believe will serve us well in the future, especially when (is it 2012 yet?) they have more allies with whom to vote in the future.
  • Don’t write anyone off, but don’t be afraid to draw lines in the sand, either. We picked up support on immigrant rights issues from a couple of new legislators in western Kansas who others thought we’d never get. In part, it’s because these are folks who see the future in their communities and want to work with it, not cling to a racially-idealized past. I love that about western Kansas. And, in part, it’s because they are thoughtful people who appreciated not being taken for granted and responded well to our efforts to reach out. That taught me a lesson I should have never forgotten: there are potential allies everywhere. At the same time, when a new Kansas legislator said that she could tell someone was an illegal immigrant because of her “olive complexion”, it’s not the time to fear burning bridges. Uproar about the revelation of the obviously racist underpinnings of the attacks on immigrants helped to galvanize our allies, both within and outside the statehouse.

    Today, I’m mourning some of what could have been this session, and I’m very worried about the implications of some of the budget cuts and other policy decisions from this year. I’m also very aware that it could have been much worse, and that our defensive work did make a difference. And I’m committed to campaigning for the senators who stood between us and destruction, because we can’t take for granted that they’ll still be there if we don’t.

    Did you play defense this year? Did you win? What did you learn? And how will it feed your offensive goals for next year, and the years to come?

  • 13 responses to “Dodging Bullets and Stall Tactics: Defensive Policy Advocacy

    1. I enjoy that this post was written in 2011 and yet I feel the same way about the 2016 session. As I’ve discussed before, my practicum agency was playing defense against a bill this year. Constantly feeling like our work was being attacked as “warehousing kids” and that we’re not only not doing good, but actively harming our youth was a real energy drainer for the staff morale. It was mentioned a few times that we would just have to sit back and wait for the legislature to realize that they had done the wrong thing, at the expense of the same kids they proclaimed they were protecting. It was awful. And in the end, all it came to was a cap of 50 YRC II beds instead of taking them out all together. This is still a victory, but our agency alone has 60 beds so we’ll have to play defense some more to get a share of the pie. Offensive goals seem like a lofty dream when so much time is spent just trying to stop the bad things from happening.

    2. That’s so discouraging, Emily. Stop action can be really useful for grassroots organizing–it’s easier to get people to come together against an identified ‘ill’ than around a vague ‘good’–but, when what’s at stake is an organization’s survival, I can imagine that it’s incredibly disheartening. What are your thoughts, at this point, about future advocacy on your issues? Has there been a post-mortem, yet, to identify what needs to be done in order to shift the conversation to such a point that you can have authentic victories, instead of these hollow ‘wins’?

    3. “Stopping bad policy is promoting social justice.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, it falls in line with another SW quote from another class, “Inaction is an action.” At first glance these statements seem counter-intuitive but when the mind plays out a few scenarios which follow along the lines, they are powerful and helpful when one gets discouraged.

      Kansas legislature and the capital scene in general is something to behold, thats for sure. From desecration of a historical painting, to the Ponzi-scheme that is KPERS, I cannot wait to see what happens next.

    4. Oh, I can wait! It ceases to be entertaining, to me, when people’s real lives are at stake. As a parent raising 4 children in this state, I’m truly alarmed by where we’re headed. My kids will never get these years back, and it pains me to think of how generations may be affected by our policy decisions today.

    5. I also found it interesting that this was written in 2011 and in 2017 many of the same issues are present in Kansas. Overall, this is great wisdom and motivation for my future work in policy. I know perseverance is key to achieving any goal. I really enjoyed the lesson you shared that “there are potential allies everywhere”. I will hold on to this piece of advice and ensure that I maintain relationships with the people I meet throughout my career.

    6. Oh I KNOW, Darcy! I just read it again too, and it makes me a little bit die inside, that we’re still fighting so many of the same fights, but then I think about the tacks we’re putting in the road that are slowing down the Trump Administration, or the way that we have held onto things we really thought we were going to lose in KS (instate tuition, the Children’s Initiative Fund)…and that makes playing defense seem like a worthwhile endeavor, indeed.

    7. Celebrating victories, even in losing, is an important lesson. You are right about the relationships you can build when you lose a battle. To watch something you’ve fought so hard for slip away is painful! But it does do a lot to build strong and lasting friendships and allies that will be just as passionate the next time around – and towards other issues. I remember fighting hard with CCO in 2014 for MO to expand Medicaid, and when it was defeated it was terrible… and continues to be terrible! To put faces to all the people I talk to door to door that would benefit is difficult. But I also know there is are passionate people and groups out there, who I’ve built relationships with, who are relentlessly unifying under this cause. This gives me hope and keeps me fired up.

      • There is something that can be particularly galvanizing about coming through a hard defeat together. That said, I love winning, and those defeats are hard. How do you help others deal with what can quickly become hopelessness? What have you found helpful for helping others dig down to motivation to keep going?

    8. Ashley Sloop

      I liked your mention of not writing anyone off. This can seem particularly difficult to think about, especially how sides and issues seem so polarized, but I think it is important to reflect on. I have listened to speakers in our classes and also doing research on bills and representatives saying that though someone may disagree with you on a lot of issues, it doesn’t mean they disagree with you on everything. Just taking the time to reach out and have a civil conversation may go miles toward your intended goal.

    9. Perhaps previous responses have already indicated as such, but I find it notable this post is still relevant in 2019. Maybe things will change with the ten-year anniversary of the original post rapidly approaching, but I have a feeling defensive policy advocacy, even if discussed with less fervor than its offensive counterpart, will always be a relevant topic. Regarding legislation pertaining to the aging population, I find myself wondering how pertinent defensive advocacy can be considering the relative lack of policy being geared towards the aging population in general. A (semi-) recent proposal to amend the Older American’s Act to add official protections against elder abuse was promising, yes, however the legislation clearly lacked important elements necessary to discern feasibility (as of April 18, 2019 there still have not been any cost estimates created, and the bill was introduced last September!!). The element of this post discussing building a stop-action-minded coalition, then, seems especially relevant towards aging-population-focused advocacy. With acknowledging elder abuse itself to be the primary concern needing to be addressed in some capacity, rallying advocates to not only address intervening against elder abuse but forcing legislative action would be of paramount importance for elevating the issue. I would argue that plenty of people would agree that something needs to be done about elder abuse; I would also argue using that fervor to influence exceedingly basic elements of legislative action (again, a single cost estimate seems like an obvious element to include with a proposal) to be a prudent action as ambivalence is largely the culprit for ongoing insufficient elder abuse interventional strategies

      Everything said however, considering the scant nature of the previously discussed amendment, perhaps it would be best to admit the policy, in its current state, is bad policy, or at least an inefficient policy. I believe if elder abuse is going to be elevated as a social issue, an important element needing to be addressed is getting various organizations on the same page with basic processes (such as implementing a standardized reporting procedure for reporting suspected abuse across multiple agencies). If the current proposal is unable to suggest who will be responsible for overseeing the elder abuse protections as proposed or what funding will support implementation of the new processes, I believe it will only perpetuate a the previously mentioned ambivalence towards elder abuse at best or completely drain already insufficient resources at worst. Perhaps this proposal is not a ‘horrible, immediate threat’ like the examples discussed in the blog post, but I also believe in its current, vague state, this proposal would be a step backwards. Personally, considering many states already have the framework for reporting suspected elder abuse in place, I believe a smart course of action would be implementing a simplistic training regime to illustrate to professionals (primarily, though certainly not only, of health departments) the reporting process, ensuring the knowledge is effectively disseminated and documentation proving as such exists. I cannot imagine a training regime of this scope would be too costly (though admittedly I cannot say this with any degree of certainty based on current knowledge) and ideally bringing numerous stakeholders together in this manner would present opportunities to form (or reinforce) aforementioned coalitions to begin truly elevating the issue of elder abuse and push for further legislative action.

      • I wonder about ways to leverage the power of stop action for an issue with relatively little traction…what I’m wondering is if there have been any examples of trying to use high-profile (or could-be high profile) incidents of elder abuse to galvanize more public will around the issue? You still obviously have a mostly affirmative ‘end game’, but the effect of getting people to rally against an ‘enemy’ could still be potent here, I think. There are issues to consider re: agency, retraumatization, and empowering processes, but I’d be interested to see if any states have, for example, made progress on elder abuse legislation after a catalyzing moment like that.

    10. Jorden Matney-McCorkle

      It’s interesting to read your reaction to the political climate in 2011. I’m sure many people feel very similar in our current political climate. Maybe not towards the Kansas legislator, with the recent changes, but towards national politics. I personally feel that social welfare advocates are in constant defense mode in regards to national policy. I have experienced this in my own advocacy work this year with my practicum agency and as an agency we are constantly receiving information about constant threats to immigrants and how our agency can work to support the cause. I understand how even though it may not feel as if we are gaining ground in a significant way, we are working to prevent harmful legislation from being passed. I think that the use of these strategies and stop action need to be thought just as much as the strategies for community organizing. The need to defend against harmful policy will always be needed. Accepting that there will be times where the legislature will try to undo and create policy that is harmful will help to better prepare advocates in the long run.

      • I’m not totally sure what you mean about the current KS legislature? This legislative session has been almost exclusively defensive, as I anticipated after the way the 2018 election went at the statehouse level, which is why I chose this post for this semester. The Governor has struggled to advance an assertive agenda, with so many ‘fires’ to put out. Certainly that’s also true at the federal level. What have you experienced in doing defensive work on immigrant rights that can provide lessons for how to wage these defensive battles with an eye toward the future? Where have you been able to see forward progress, even as you’re trying to stave off bad things?

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