Why we need rules, and why rules need you

Rules are a pretty big deal around our house.

We don’t really have that many, truly, in part because of my parenting philosophy about letting the kids learn from natural consequences, and part, in truth, because I don’t know that I could be that vigilant in enforcing them all the time (things tend to slide a bit with the 4 kids competing for Mommy’s attention).

But the rules that we have are important, not just to Mom and Dad (because they are things like “no hitting” and “we only throw balls and beanbags”, without which things would get even wilder around here), but also to our kids. In fact, they are the first ones to invoke a broken rule (by their siblings), and they cling to those rules in comfort to provide some boundaries around their world. One of their most sacred is that they do NOT have to share their “nighttime stuff” (special blankets and animals), even if a sibling asks really nicely, even if it’s not being used right now. They’re just off-limits from the normal sharing framework, and they take that very, very seriously.

And so our rules around here have me thinking about rules in a policy context, too, and about just how important they are. I found a quote the other day (I’m sure the origin is appropriately cited on a sticky note somewhere around our house, but I know not where), something like “rules define our civilization.”

And, if you think about it, that’s very true. I mean, our policies are really more about setting our goals, charting our general direction, and expressing our preferences.

The rules, where everything from definitions to allocations to staffing qualifications to eligibility constraints (and on and on) are decided…that’s really where we set out how we intend to go about living together, and working towards those common (or not so common) purposes.

It’s how we make society work, within our families, or in our nation, or in the global community.

Rules are a big deal.

But they’re so hidden, and so opaque, and so seemingly complex, that we often throw up our hands, even as the most committed advocates, and abdicate this whole arena. It’s almost like at my house; I know that if we had many more rules, I’d have to relax on their enforcement, because there’s just only so much mental energy.

And, yet, in the realm of advocacy, just as in parenting, we can’t afford to let rules go unpoliced, or to allow rules to distort the intentions over which we so vigorously battled. We can’t ignore the trees, so to speak, if we want to keep the forest from burning down around us. The details matter.

This month in my Advanced Policy class, then, we focus on administrative advocacy, so that my students (I hope!) are prepared, first, to think about rule-making as an extension of their policy activities, and to bring their considerable skills and talents to this work. We go through the Federal Register and weigh in on rule changes. We identify the state and federal agencies charged with rulemaking and begin to build relationships with those bureaucrats. We explore whether the policy changes they seek alongside those they serve can be accomplished through regulations, and we brainstorm effective ways to engage clients as constituents in the rulemaking process.

Because that last piece is, I admit, more difficult in the administrative advocacy realm even than in legislative work. And yet it’s critical. Just like with my kids, where we have played a critical role in shaping the rules that govern our lives, we are more invested in upholding them (some might say zealous, if they saw my 3 oldest marking their territory).

So, as my students integrate this part of their advocacy repertoire into their work, what are your administrative advocacy tips to share? What lessons have you learned? What victories have you won? What has worked to make these efforts resonate with your organization and your constituency? What are your goals for rulemaking in your core issue areas in the months and years to come?

Because the answer to those questions, really, is the answer to “how do you seek to define our civilization?”

And I’m certain you have some ideas about that.

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