Four Models of Policy Practice: Local, State, and National Arenas

Bruce Jansson, David Dempsey, Jacquelyn McCroskey, Robert Schneider. The Handbook of Community Practice. Editor: Marie Weil. Sage Publications, 2005.

It was axiomatic to Jane Addams and many other founders of the social work profession that its members would prioritize policy-changing work, whether by electing progressive candidates, lobbying legislators, monitoring the implementation of existing policies, or obtaining data about social problems (Schneider & Netting, 1999; Wenocur & Reisch, 1989). Yet many social workers have not—and do not—follow Addams’s vision, preferring Mary Richmond’s emphasis on services to individuals. Nor have agencies and universities that employ social work practitioners and academics consistently supported policy-reforming work. Some social workers have believed, moreover, that it is unethical for professionals to participate in the political process. Even on the so-called macro side of the profession, many policy theorists have emphasized analytic, historical, and philosophical themes with scant reference to politics, power, policy implementation, lobbying, interest groups, or campaigns (see, for example, Weissman, 1959).

Considerable progress has been made during the past three decades, however, toward reconceptualizing policy as an interventive discipline under the rubric of policy practice, a term that first appeared in policy literature in 1984. Policy practice draws on the work of many theorists, including those who discuss ways in which social workers can influence legislation or participate in political campaigns (Dear & Patti, 1981; Haynes & Mikelson, 2003; Mahaffey & Hanks, 1982); strategies for changing agency policies (Brager & Holloway, 1978); and skills, styles, and tasks that are needed in policy reform work (Flynn, 1985; Jansson, 1997, 2000, 2003; Pierce, 1984).

Several developments in the profession have provided a favorable context for policy practice. In 1975, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) established Political Action for Candidate Election, thus committing itself to social reforms within the political process. Robert Schneider organized the formation of Influencing State Policy, a national organization developed in 1997 to foster involvement by social work educators and students in the legislative process (Influencing State Policy, n.d.). The Social Welfare Policy and Policy Practice Group, which was formed in 1993 to place policy-practice papers on programs of annual meetings of the Council on Social Work Education, developed the idea to provide an academic forum for policy-practice theory and research. Policy practice includes efforts to

  • Analyze social problems, fashion policy proposals, place policies on decision makers’ agendas, enact (or block) policies, shape implementation of policies, and evaluate policies;
  • Change the cast of decision makers who make policies in the first instance;
  • Influence how resources are allocated in the human services;
  • Change formal (written) policies such as legislation, court rulings, administrative regulations, mission statements, and budgets; and
  • Change informal (unwritten) policies that influence policy formulation and implementation, including the beliefs, prejudices, definitions, and perceptions of decision makers and policy implementers. Examples include legislators’ or administrators’ negative stereotypes of welfare recipients, views of line staff that make them insensitive to specific populations, and administrators’ proclivity to create turf boundaries when clients need coordinated services.

Policy practitioners work in many arenas, including national, state, and local legislatures; public (service-delivery) agencies; public planning agencies; public administrative or oversight agencies (such as a state’s department of children’s services); nongovernmental agencies (both nonprofit and for-profit); think tanks; special boards or commissions appointed by public officials; and academic settings. They engage in policy practice as solo advocates, members of a group of advocates (such as children’s advocates in a specific jurisdiction), members or staff of a community-based group or agency, members or staff of a time-limited or longstanding coalition, staff or volunteers for a political campaign, or participants in such legal actions as class-action suits. (Policy practitioners typically work closely with organizations, advocacy groups, or coalitions as staff or volunteers because these organizations provide resources, clout, and ideas not available to a freelance advocate.) They can engage in time-limited projects, such as a campaign to enact a specific law, or they can engage in long-term undertakings, such as advocating for children’s issues over a period of many years in a specific jurisdiction. They can work on issues that affect the entire population—or they can focus on issues particularly germane to low-income or oppressed populations, which Jansson (2003) called “policy advocacy.”

Policy practitioners need an array of skills (Jansson, 2003; McInnis-Dittrich, 1994; Pierce, 1984, 2000; Schneider & Lester, 2001). They need to be able to develop and use power, develop political strategy, and manage conflict, because policy reform and implementation can be associated with conflict between or among contending factions, particularly when the factions possess divergent values and interests. They need to be able to make effective presentations, work with task-focused groups, analyze problems and issues, develop proposals, collect data, identify policy alternatives, and foster collaboration and compromise. Policy practice links concepts and skills drawn from community organization, policy analysis, administration, political science or applied politics, and program evaluation and research.

Four Models of Policy Practice

We discuss four models of policy practice in this chapter: ballot-based advocacy, legislative advocacy, analytic-based advocacy, and implementation advocacy models (see Table 17.1).

Of course, the four models overlap. Political candidates often seek to reform the implementation of specific programs such as early childhood education. People who try to change legislation often support candidates for office who favor specific legislative proposals. Policy practitioners who aim to reform the implementation of specific policies sometimes seek changes in budgets or legislation—or support political candidates who agree with their perspectives.

Ballot-Based Advocacy

Governments are a powerful source of a large number and array of policies. Legislative branches, whether they are city or county councils, state legislatures, or the U.S. Congress, can originate, modify, or revise policies at will. Government officials can implement policies or regulate how policies are enforced, whether they are civil servants, mayors, county executives, governors, or presidents. Judges and courts have the authority to enforce, sanction, or nullify policies in all courts.

A distinction between electoral politics and government relations is useful. Electoral politics are the formal and informal systems by which citizens and groups in a democracy contest for the power to run government (Plano & Greenburg, 1989). Government relations (called the legislative advocacy model in this chapter) are the active interventions of citizens and groups to influence the formal decision making of government officials (Ornstein & Elder, 1978).

When a policy practitioner decides that legislative advocacy is futile without people with different perspectives to occupy the executive or legislative offices or be appointed to specific administrative departments, then electoral politics offers a way out of an impasse. It is axiomatic that to change a policy, you sometimes must change who runs a government. When this moment of recognition occurs, policy practitioners can turn to electoral politics.

Table 17.1 Four Models of Policy Practice Four Models of Policy Practice

Variable Ballot-Based Advocacy Legislative Advocacy Analytic Advocacy Implementation Advocacy
Goal To change the composition of governments To secure enactment of or to block specific legislative proposals To make policy choices that are based on hard data and structured analysis. To increase effectiveness of operating programs and ensure integration among local jurisdictions
Pivotal organizations to which policy practitioners are linked Campaign organizations, political action committees, electoral coalitions, and political parties Interest groups, community-based organizations, and professional associations Think tanks, academic centers, government agencies, and funders Planning groups required for specific programs, planning groups that mix insiders with outsiders, legal teams concerned with monitoring programs for compliance, and consumer-based organizations and community groups
Levels of conflict High conflict between contending campaigns and candidates in win-lose contests Variable conflict, but usually moderate to high conflict Conflict between stakeholders about technical issues and interpretive issues Conflict often moderated by desire to develop collaborative solutions to implementation problems and issues
Pivotal skills of policy practitioners Performing force-field analysis, developing campaign organizations, raising funds, developing presentations, developing media relations, developing grassroots support, researching issues, conducting and using polls, surveys, and focus groups Performing policy analysis, developing strategy and tactics during an extended campaign for legislative proposals, developing coalitions inside and outside the legislative arena, and deciding when to compromise Research and analytic skills, obtaining and processing data, and making technical presentations Obtaining data for planning and performance measurement, monitoring compliance, trouble shooting operating programs, developing collaborative solutions, developing consensus between program insiders and outsiders, and engaging community groups in government processes

Electoral politics is a ubiquitous, accessible, and durable tool that social workers often neglect and ignore or misunderstand and fear. Social workers frequently approach electoral politics with great caution because of its potential for divisiveness. The major cause for division occurs around the concepts of partisanship and political parties. Political parties are voluntary groups of voters with some shared ideology who organize to try to win elections, control government, and influence public policy. (A person who holds firmly to a party or its cause is a partisan, hence the term partisan politics.) American politics are partisan and focused on candidates. Parties and candidates dominate ballots, but ballots sometimes contain initiatives (proposed legislation or constitutional amendments placed on a ballot by petitions signed by a required number of voters), a referendum that allows voters to “veto” a bill passed by the legislature, or a recall that provides voters an opportunity to oust a public official from office (Plano & Greenberg, 1989). Social workers can move adeptly between politics and government. The ability to perform in each realm boosts a practitioner’s credibility in both places. Social workers can navigate the shoals of partisan electoral politics in constructive and civil ways. Partisan politics need not necessarily alienate powerful people. Once people demonstrate political power, they establish themselves as a force to contend with, either to cultivate or counter.

Transition refers to the time between election to an office and the assumption of the office. Although legislative and executive transitions differ, policy practitioners should strive to be members of transition groups or teams, because these groups make important decisions about staffing, budgets, appointments, and policies. Being included on a transition team is clear acknowledgment that a policy practitioner’s campaign activities were visible and valuable to a candidate. Participation on a transition team amplifies a group’s political influence in both politics and government.

Sound electoral strategies depend mainly on what kind of power a group or groups can muster to compete in campaigns and elections (DiClerico, 2000; Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1997; Thompson & Moncrief, 1998). The most important components of power are people and money (Dempsey, 1998). Massive amounts of money are unnecessary but it is very difficult to achieve electoral success with only person power. Modern mass communication techniques, including print and electronic media as well as direct mail, phone banking, polling, and focus groups, cost money. They also improve a candidate’s or party’s chance of winning. Although campaigns and elections remain more art than science, political professionals (often called consultants) are knowledgeable about their craft and can provide valuable strategic advice, but their services, too, cost money (Thurber, Nelson, & Dulio, 2000).

The executive and legislative branches of government, from local to federal, provide many opportunities for change. American elections are frequent and regular, allowing time for planning, gathering resources, building coalitions, educating voters, and mobilizing supporters. The most promising position to campaign for is what is called an “open seat,” that is, a legislative or executive position for which no incumbent officeholder is seeking re-election. Because incumbency is normally a big advantage, challengers should look for open-seat opportunities, which are more competitive and require fewer resources (DiClerico, 2000). The best prospects for challenging incumbents normally occur in primary elections, which usually take place within a political party and with a smaller voter turnout than in general elections, where greater resources are needed by candidates (Jacobson, 1997).

One can develop many strategies to try to change a legislative body, depending on one’s objective. In a state legislature, one aim might be to work in an election to defeat a difficult committee chair. This is a high-stakes, high-risk strategy that sends a powerful message, if successful, but which can carry a devastating price if unsuccessful. Or, policy practitioners may try to switch control of a legislative chamber from one party to another by defeating large numbers of incumbents with suitable challenger candidates. This is a desirable strategy in situations in which a chamber is almost equally divided along partisan lines.

Social workers can work with other groups to build electoral coalitions to elect desirable candidates (Scher, 1997). Coalitions are an effective way to share information and resources. Electoral coalitions mobilize the community to vote for specific candidates. Potential election coalition partners can include organizations from the civil and women’s rights movements, as well as those advocating for fair labor practices, sound environmental policy, consumer protection, and welfare reform. Some groups also marry community organization to electoral politics, particularly at local levels (Kahn, 1991; Bobo, Kendall, & Max, 1991). Such successful candidates as the late Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) have skillfully linked their statewide campaigns with grassroots organizations.

Social workers make wonderful political candidates and elected officials. (People often move between elective office and governmental positions.) The NASW Web site (2003) identifies almost 170 social workers serving in offices from school board to U.S. Congress, including 4 social workers in the House, 2 in the Senate, and more than 60 in state legislatures. Fourteen social workers sought national Congressional seats in 2000, 12 in the House and 2 in the Senate (“Social workers out to expand,” 2000).

Ballot-based advocacy can be used by social workers to achieve their social justice goals as well as their professional needs. The profession champions a long list of social justice policies, from child welfare, civil and human rights, economic security, and education issues, to protection for victims of HIV/AIDS, better physical and mental health care for the poor, reproductive rights, and welfare reform, that often are vital issues in campaigns and elections. A clear perspective on how electoral politics affect social work’s professional interests has been offered by U.S. Representative Debbie Stabenow, who has a master’s of social work (D-Mich.):

Many social work jobs are publicly funded, and the fate of those jobs is decided by people like me—elected officials. It is easier to spend a few months and some money electing the right people than to spend years and a lot of money trying to get the wrong people to do the right things. (Hiratsuka, 1992)

At the same time, however, the election process is not always responsive to social needs, because poor people tend not to vote (Piven & Cloward, 2000) and because corporate political action committees and wealthy individuals possess greater resources than reform groups (Biersack, Herrnson, & Wilcox, 1999).

In coming years, the Internet will allow new electoral strategies (Davis, 1999). Campaigns will make even greater use of Web sites to communicate with voters, to disseminate information to specific groups, to conduct polls, to find volunteers, and to raise funds.

The Legislative Advocacy Model

The NASW (1996) Code of Ethics states that “social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet human needs and promote social justice” ([604][a]). Social workers who are policy practitioners are prepared to represent their clients and causes in the legislative arenas and to influence the decision makers who formulate policies and laws at the local, state, and federal levels (Dluhy, 1981). Some social work advocates empower their clients to plead their own cases and stand up effectively for their rights (Butler, 2002; Schneider & Lester, 2001; Schneider & Netting, 1999).

State legislatures, municipal and county governments, and Congress are forums in which laws are proposed and passed. (See the Web site of the Influencing State Policy organization at for advocacy and legislative resources.) These laws affect all citizens and social work clients because they stipulate what benefits are provided by law, who is eligible, how much money will be spent, and who will provide the services. To change laws or to introduce new ones, social workers must organize clients and allies. It must be noted, however, that there is not an equal playing field in legislative deliberations, as some lobbyists possess extraordinary resources and connections that allow them to wine and dine legislators, to make large campaign contributions, and to fund expensive media projects to put public pressure on legislators (Birnbaum, 2000; West & Loomis, 1999).

Policy practitioners should plan their strategies and tactics before taking action (Ezell, 2001; Schneider & Lester, 2001). Decisions about an overall plan or a broad blueprint (strategy) must be debated, followed by the selection of the day-to-day, nitty-gritty actions (tactics) that are designed to carry out the strategy. Choosing a strategy is based on assumptions about human behavior and why people actually modify or change their minds on an issue. This requires community practitioners to learn what legislators who may oppose their legislative proposal are like. Are they hostile, indifferent, friendly, favorable, or ignorant toward a proposed change in a law? The crucial decision for the policy practitioner is analyzing the opposition and determining an approach that will have the best chance of persuading them to change their opinions. The following are three strategies and accompanying tactics that form an action framework for community social workers to use in attempting to influence legislative decision makers. Before proceeding further, however, it is important to note that one must first determine what one’s opponents are like, because the choice of strategy depends largely on this judgment.

Analysis of the mindsets of possible opponents, as well as their resources and skills, is particularly important. If likely opponents are highly motivated and well organized, for example, proponents must invest considerable resources in their attempt to soften or allay their opposition and to mobilize allies into an effective group. Advocates usually need to organize a coalition or work with an established advocacy group that possesses leadership, resources, and sophisticated strategy (Berry, 1977; Hula, 1999).

Policy practitioners need knowledge of the procedures and protocols of legislative bodies. They must be aware of the likely route that their proposal will follow in the legislative body, as well as key influential persons who preside over committees and deliberations at pivotal points (Oleszek, 2001). They need to be familiar with time constraints and other complications—realizing, for example, that they must get hearings on a legislative proposal relatively early in a session to be successful (DeKieffer, 1997). They must understand how legislative offices are organized and how policy practitioners gain access to legislators (DeKieffer, 1997).

The Internet will assume an increasing role in lobbying in coming decades (Davis, 1999). Advocates use the Web to locate information about pending legislation and to track it through the legislative process, to convey constituents’ views to legislators, and to attract support for legislative measures from citizens.

1. Collaborative Strategies and Tactics

When a legislator is perceived to share many of the basic values of the advocate and has cooperated previously on similar issues, but seems to be uninformed or simply need more information, a collaborative strategy is usually appropriate. The policy practitioner must remember to provide an adequate rationale and political cover for the legislator in seeking his or her support of the proposed bill. A collaborative strategy can be carried out by using the following tactics.

Meet with legislator and staff. Personal meetings with a legislator and staff are common practice for advocacy groups (Rickards, 1992). These meetings should be well planned and viewed as a means of presenting information to the legislator or staff member. Policy practitioners should identify themselves as constituents whenever possible and politely present a position on an issue with accompanying personal or client anecdotes. The meeting should be brief, concise, friendly, and informative. Leave a fact sheet and business card, and send a thank-you note.

Provide information. Legislators are faced with hundreds, even thousands, of complicated bills and gain a substantial understanding of only a few of them. They are forced to rely on staff, colleagues, and advocates for information. Lack of information is often an obstacle that can be overcome by providing facts and researching issues for legislators. Smith (1979) noted that the most important factor determining a group’s influence was the capacity of the group to provide lawmakers with technical and political information. This information should be timely and available when it is needed; it should be balanced and credible, aimed at solving problems, and not propagandistic and narrow; and it should provide the basis for alternative proposals and feasible options (Patti & Dear, 1975).

Provide fiscal impact data. Perhaps the most significant information advocates can provide to decision makers is cost-related. Legislators will want to know how much a new or modified policy will cost, pure and simple. Careful fiscal analysis by the advocates is required, including startup costs, first-year costs, and ongoing costs such as staff, overhead, or special equipment. Human costs can also be calculated, including what it would cost if the proposed bill were not passed or how much human suffering would continue (Haynes & Mickelson, 2003).

Use a supportive legislator to introduce a bill. It is important to obtain as many sponsors of proposed legislation as possible because it will increase the likelihood of passage. Knowledge of the interests, values, and voting records of legislators will help advocates determine who to ask to introduce a bill and lead the fight during the legislative session. In addition to sympathetic legislators, advocates should also try to enlist bipartisan support, leaders of the majority party, and key powerful legislators who are respected among their colleagues (Kirst-Ashman & Hull, 1993).

Draft legislation jointly. The most hazardous segment of the policy process is often the most overlooked. Drafting a bill means choosing the language and inserting the dimensions of the solution that translate the policy practitioner’s preferences into tangible and verbal form (Jansson, 2003; Martineau, 1991). This is a very important task, and advocates should attempt to participate fully in finalizing the wording of the proposed legislation.

Conduct a legislative workshop. Advocates heighten awareness, educate participants, and decide on future actions by bringing together various groups, legislators, experts, community leaders, clients, and constituents. Advocates may want to organize a workshop around their highest-priority issue and devote time to discussing and analyzing it to learn which proposal or option would be likely to pass. Supporters of a bill can also be identified based on their participation in the workshop.

2. Campaign Strategies and Tactics

When a legislator is perceived to be neutral, indifferent, or apathetic about a proposed initiative, policy practitioners can consider a campaign strategy. These legislators share fewer values, have different attitudes than social policy advocates, and have little invested in the outcome of the legislation. The legislators’ behavior toward social workers may be cool and distant, especially if this encounter marks the first time they have worked side by side with social work advocates. The legislator may have a “show-me” attitude, compelling the advocate to use persuasive skills effectively. A campaign strategy can be carried out by using the following tactics.

Lobby legislators one-on-one. Smith (1979) cited studies pointing to the importance of interaction between legislators and advocates, indicating that greater frequency of contact between them led to more change in the legislators’ opinions. Richan (1996) and Melton (1983) stated that the most direct way of influencing a legislator is by talking with him or her in person. Lobbying can also be thought of as an exchange in which the policy practitioner wants action on a bill and the legislator wants to be re-elected (Richan, 1996).

Educate the public. It is not at all surprising that citizens are often unaware of complex policy and political issues, because even lobbyists find it difficult to keep up on proposed bills or amendments. Advocates must try to demonstrate to potentially supportive groups and to the general public how their own interests are tied to the well-being of often marginal groups.

Use the media. Elected officials pay attention to media coverage and respond to the views of the general public (Morgan, 1983). Advocates gain power by having access to the media (Amidei, 1982; Segal & Brzruzy, 1998). Dorn, Teitelbaum, and Cortez (1998) recommended integrating a media plan with lobbying efforts.

The aim is to raise the visibility of an issue and help shape the terms of the debate. Among the media methods are press releases to local, daily, and weekly newspapers and TV and radio news programs; letters to the editor and op-ed pieces; fliers, handouts, and posters; newsletters; interviews on the radio and TV; postings on online news message boards; news conferences; solicitation of coverage by well-known columnists; pitching of feature stories with a human interest focus; publication of articles in journals and magazines; and paid advertisements. The media must, of course, be used with care to be certain that coverage emphasizes themes and arguments that help the advocates’ cause. The timing of coverage must be integrated, as well, with advocates’ strategy so that it comes at critical junctures.

Organize letter-writing campaigns and phone calls. A 1977 study by Jeffrey Berry discovered that nearly half of responding lobbyists perceived letter-writing campaigns as effective. Segal and Brzruzy (1998) stated that congressional staff listed spontaneous constituent mail as important. The most effective letters are clear, personal, hand-written, and not mass produced. Letters should be no longer than one page, be positive and courteous, be explicit about the issue, offer personal points of view, be factual, and provide alternatives. Request a written response and include your name and address. The same guidelines apply to making a telephone call or sending an e-mail message.

Use “power people.” Affiliation with people within the “establishment” or power structures of a state or community can increase the leverage that policy practitioners can apply. These individuals usually know legislators and the legislative process, and their opinions are typically respected (Segal & Brzruzy, 1998). Policy advocates must carefully determine how best to interest these influential citizens in a specific campaign, such as by finding people who can best approach them and by developing effective arguments. Power people can be engaged in behind-the-scenes advocacy, or they can make public presentations to the media and to legislative committees. Such leaders must be recruited with care, however, because they need to agree with the basic goals and values of persons who are organizing a campaign.

Refer to precedents. Decision makers often are willing to support a policy if it has been tried before (Eriksen, 1997). Initiating a brand new, never-been-tried-before idea is something that makes many legislators nervous. Hence, advocates should strive to illustrate how the policy has worked elsewhere, what the cost savings have been, what outcomes and impact there were, and how it will assist a given client group now.

Take the high moral ground. To overcome apathy or indifference among legislators, advocates can often take the high moral ground. It places the decision makers in a moral context that is usually had to reject or dismiss (Kaminski & Walmsley, 1995). Legislators will need to declare their positions on an issue of justice, poverty, or fairness to ensure they will not appear too detached from citizens’ lives and problems. By framing proposals as measures that will advance equity, fairness, and equality and will redress important social problems, advocates may make it more difficult for legislators to oppose them (Kaminski & Walmsley, 1995).

Monitor the legislative process carefully. To keep track of the progress of a bill and to prevent obstacles from developing, advocates frequently use individuals to monitor a piece of legislation on a regular basis at legislative meetings, hearings, and floor debates. These people must be patient, often wait long hours, and keep records of voting patterns. A monitor will also be able to alert others to crises, get help in responding to word changes or amendments, note absent committee members, provide information, and alert the media to key developments.

3. Contest Strategies and Tactics

When a legislator is perceived to be hostile to the policy advocacy group’s position, be unwilling to listen, be unsupportive of a bill, and share few, if any values, in common with them, policy practitioners usually can employ a contest strategy. There may be open conflict between the advocate and the legislator. Distrust is high, as is disagreement about the importance of outcomes of the legislation. Here, advocates might be lucky to change behaviors, but not beliefs or values. The question of degree of conflict is important to consider because advocates must weigh carefully whether to burn bridges and heighten conflict to intense levels. Today’s opponents could be tomorrow’s allies. There undoubtedly will be more issues in the future, and alienation of legislators is a risk that must be weighed very carefully.

Different confrontational tactics exist. Advocates may mobilize pressure against opponents, such as bombarding them with mail and seeking media coverage that highlights their opposition. They can threaten to target opponents in forthcoming elections, or they can develop protests and demonstrations in strategic locations such as outside a legislative hearing or a legislative chamber.

In such situations, policy practitioners must carefully weigh their options. They can employ highly confrontational tactics, but such tactics may antagonize legislators who might otherwise support the policy practitioner’s legislative proposals in future years. Even when engaging in confrontational tactics, policy practitioners should focus on substantive issues rather than personal matters, and they should never engage in behavior that is contrary to the NASW Code of Ethics.

Schlozman and Tierney (1986) found that legislative advocacy groups ranked protests and demonstrations as the lowest means of influence. Patti and Dear (1975) advised advocates to realize that, under most circumstances, heavy-handed, coercive, and confrontational tactics are usually counterproductive. Advocates must try not to tarnish the public image of the legislator unnecessarily. Making a legislator look bad is risky, as it may undermine his or her image with constituents back home. Using threats is also risky because it creates antagonism and removes policy advocates’ future access to the legislator involved. In fact, a demonstration may well mobilize the opposition into devoting even greater resources to defeating a measure—or will harden them so that they will not support even a diluted legislative proposal.

If advocates have already tried a collaborative or campaign approach as described previously and made little or no progress, they can consider a contest strategy. Jansson (2003) and Melton (1983) suggested that protests or demonstrations can be used when a group does not have access to decision makers, an issue or bill has not reached a significant level of public consciousness, considerable conflict is necessary to secure enactment of a controversial bill, or legislators continue to ignore an important issue. In these circumstances, to advance a proposed bill or issue, advocates need to organize their actions carefully to maximize effect and minimize alienation or loss of goodwill from supporters.

Legislative advocates who lead demonstrations must cope with these tensions simultaneously by nurturing and sustaining their own organization, choosing tactics that maximize exposure to the media, influencing legislators capable of approving a bill, and influencing others with greater resources and influence to team up with them (Lipsky, 1969). A protest can also motivate members, attract new members, increase solidarity, and gain credibility for a group (Eriksen, 1997). However, long-term success nearly always includes other policy strategies in addition to protest activities.

The Analytic-Based Advocacy Model

Policy selection lies at the heart of the policy-making process. Policy practitioners often must identify policy alternatives and then select a preferred one, often in a deliberative process that makes extensive use of research and data. This rational approach to policy analysis came of age in the 1960s as economists and systems analysts assumed major roles in policy selection and finds expression in the research and data often collected and analyzed in think tanks and academic settings (Jansson, 2000).

An extensive body of literature discusses various research and data analysis tools relied on by many policy analysts (Patton & Sawicki, 1993; Weimer & Vinning, 1992). Other policy analysts discuss analysis as an art rather than a science, noting that value assumptions, power realities, and other irrational considerations often intrude (Bardach, 1996; Heineman, Bluhm, Peterson, & Kearny, 1997). A vast research literature now exists on virtually any social problem or issue that can be accessed from governmental and academic sources.

Analysis-based advocacy seeks data that support the need for social reforms. It includes data about the extent and distribution of social problems like poverty, mental illness, and malnutrition. It includes information about the effectiveness of alternative remedies to specific social problems, such as different approaches to getting people who are eligible for food stamps to actually receive them. It includes data about demonstration or pilot projects that offer promising policy options. It includes outcome studies, such as ones that examine the effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, and cost-benefit of specific policy options.

Policy analysis is often coupled with other models of policy practice. People engaged in legislative advocacy often engage in policy analysis before and during their advocacy so that legislators will take their recommendations seriously. Ballot-based advocates often seek data that support specific positions that candidates take, as well as data that demonstrate that political opponents have made ill-considered policy choices.

Because policy analysis has been discussed at considerable length in a companion publication to this Handbook of Community Practice, we refer readers to it (Jansson, 2000).

The Implementation Advocacy Model

When social workers try to change rules, procedures, program strategies, budgets, informal belief systems, and interorganizational relations that guide the implementation of policies, they engage in policy practice (Nakamura & Smallwood, 1980). As with other kinds of policy practice, social workers seek to influence implementation processes to improve the well-being of consumers of service, whose needs and interests often are not adequately addressed by existing social programs or by those charged with implementing new programs.

We live in an “administrative state” in which “administrative regulations and administrative adjudications dwarf, both in number and in practical effect, the legislative output of the Congress and the decisions of the courts” (Mashaw, 1997, p. 106). Because implementation decisions are made at many levels, policy practitioners correspondingly must work at each of these levels, including in federal, state, county, and city governments; school districts; local communities; and other specialized agencies. Depending on the issue, work may focus on one or many of these levels. Indeed, policy practitioners often determine where to focus their energies by analyzing the flow of money and policy through the implementation system. For example, Head Start advocates focus most of their activity at the federal level because Head Start money flows directly from the federal government to local grantees. However, this process may be converted to state grants by the incumbent federal administration. If this change is made, Head Start advocates will have to compete for funds with many other state and local early education programs. Money for child welfare services flows from federal to state governments, and in some states from state to county governments, an arrangement that requires coordinated action and monitoring at multiple levels. Funding for some services (such as education or juvenile justice) comes primarily from local revenues. Many nonprofit agencies raise much of their operating revenue locally through charitable donations, participation as a member agency in United Way, or from government grants and contracts.

Many approaches to policy practice exist when using the implementation model. Sometimes, organizations led by clients and their community-based advocates seek specific changes in specific programs, as was illustrated by the work of the local chapters of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s and 1970s. Others, such as the Western Center on Law and Poverty initiate class action or other suits to promote compliance with enacted policies or with legal principles (Mashaw, 1997). Some social workers engage in policy practice “from the trenches,” that is, from line and supervisory positions where they advocate for their clients, aiming to improve implementation processes from the inside out (Scheirer, 1981). Still others influence policy from positions in unions of human services workers. Some policy practitioners aim to change administrative regulations established by agencies in the executive branches of state and federal governments (Mashaw, 1997). Or they may focus on budget-making processes of governments to modify public priorities (Wildavsky, 1988).

The Los Angeles Roundtable for Children and the Children’s Planning Council

This discussion of the implementation advocacy model focuses on the role of policy practitioners at the local level, because that is where most social programs are implemented. To illustrate the multiple strategies that are used by policy practitioners, we highlight the work of the Los Angeles Roundtable for Children and the work of a group of advocates dedicated to improving the lives of children and families in Los Angeles County over the past 20 years.

Budget Analysis

The Los Angeles Roundtable for Children began an intensive 2-year study of county expenditures on behalf of children and families in 1984. The roundtable, a volunteer organization founded by Celeste Kaplan (a social worker who had recently retired as executive director of a local nonprofit agency), included key leaders from public and private agencies, universities, and civic groups concerned about children. Its 1986 report, which analyzed cross-departmental expenditures for children, documented that about one third of the county’s budget ($1.5 of $4 billion in 1980-1981) was spent on services for children and families provided by 90 programs in 17 county departments. A 1999 update documented an increase to about 200 such programs in 24 departments that expend $3.8 of the county’s total budget of $14 billion (McCroskey & Yoo, 1999). The genesis of the roundtable’s work on the children’s budget was recognition of the need for more information about the distribution of funds, the sources of these funds, and changes in funding patterns over time:

The Roundtable believes that a crucial step in improving County government’s service provision capabilities is the development of widespread understanding of the fiscal realities which constrain and enable county decision-makers. Effective collaboration for children requires the talents of budget and program experts, public and private agencies, professionals and civic leaders. (Los Angeles Roundtable for Children, 1986, pp. i-ii)

Collaborative Planning

The County Board of Supervisors accepted the roundtable’s report and ordered its chief administrative officer (CAO) to work with the group to improve cross-departmental coordination, improve budget practices, and develop a “practical mechanism” for planning across public and private sectors. These efforts eventually led to the formation in 1991 of the Los Angeles County Children’s Planning Council (CPC). The CPC, created by the board to serve as its principal planning body for children and families, works to improve conditions and services through integration, coordination, and increased community access to health and human services. Its primary task is to develop and periodically refine a strategic plan that could end the unfocused use of resources. Without better planning, coordination, and tracking, the board recognized that county efforts had little promise of improving results for disadvantaged children and their families.

The CPC, a public-private partnership of decision makers, includes directors of the six key child-serving county departments and representatives of cities and school districts, business, philanthropy, and the United Way and nonprofit agencies, as well as representatives of the ethnic and geographic communities of Los Angeles county. Its work—carried out primarily by volunteers with funding support from public and private sectors—has laid a shared groundwork for change and has helped steer a culture shift within county government. Through this policy and advocacy work, the county’s service culture has begun to move from a climate of chaos and blame to a shared focus on results and accountability in the design, funding, and implementation of services for children and families in Los Angeles. In addition, the CPC has devised a regional infrastructure that was previously missing due to the sheer size and scope of the largest county in the nation, as well as to the fragmentation of services endemic to the field of child and family services. The geographic service planning areas (SPAs) recommended by the CPC and adopted by the board of supervisors connect countywide and neighborhood planning efforts, helping to engage citizens in planning across the eight large regions and hundreds of smaller geographic and ethnic communities that make up Los Angeles county.

Key accomplishments of the CPC include

  1. Developing and convincing others to adopt a shared vision for children and families,
  2. Developing agreement on five major outcome areas and corresponding indicators to measure results for children and families,
  3. Producing a regular Children’s Score Card for the county in partnership with United Way of Greater Los Angeles,
  4. Developing a widely accepted geographic structure (the eight SPAs and a ninth American Indian Children’s Council [AICC]) for planning and information sharing, and
  5. Developing and nurturing community partnerships throughout this SPA/ AICC structure.

Data-Based Planning and Accountability

One of the continuing key issues for child and family advocates had to do with the lamentable state of knowledge on what was happening to and for children in Los Angeles County. Advocates continue to work on ways to better integrate data from many different data sources to produce timely and strategic information, to support proactive planning for children and families, and to track accountability for outcomes. The concerns raised in a 1988 report from the county’s CAO (written in collaboration with the Roundtable) sound very current:

To begin with, decision makers need to know how many children are being served, for what reason, through what programs and by what funding. They also need to know where there are serious gaps in service as well as where overlap exists. They should have estimates of trends in service needs, as well as the needs that can realistically be met by County departments, and those for which mobilization of additional resources will be needed. Such information would help decision makers prepare for legislative changes or for community-wide resource mobilization. (Children’s Budget Implementation Coordination Committee, 1988, pp. 22-23)

The group that wrote this report in 1988 had just identified 50 different information systems dealing with children’s services in county government (some computerized and some manual). A count of information systems in county government dealing with children’s and family services today would undoubtedly find many more than 50 such systems. The difficulties of integrating information from so many different sources to inform proactive planning continues to be one of the key roadblocks to effective and efficient management of individual programs, integration of services across key institutions (i.e., county, cities, school districts, and nonprofit agencies), and community engagement in local planning process (McCroskey, in press). One of the authors, who has worked on this issue in Los Angeles for the past decade, is now helping to develop a shared countywide information resource, tentatively called the Los Angeles County Data Partnership for Children Center, that may solve some of our most pressing data problems.

The activities of these advocates in Los Angeles fall under the rubric of policy practice—not research, analysis, or organizing—because they were designed to influence elected officials and the administrators of the many hundreds of organizations concerned with children and families in Los Angeles County. Advocates strive to remain focused on results for children, rather than on organizational needs, political rivalries, or funding streams, because they believe that the fragmented, categorical nature of service provision hurts families and children. Improving results for children in any community is a very big job requiring the efforts of many groups, including professional social workers who can assume leadership roles by becoming policy practitioners. Community practitioners who engage in the implementation model of policy practice need organizing skills required to develop and sustain groups with cross-cutting membership, data collection and analysis skills, skills in developing collaborative solutions to implementation problems, negotiating skills, and budgeting skills.


Policy practice is an intervention that seeks to influence and reform policies in electoral, legislative, and implementation venues. It allows social workers to impact the well-being of citizens and consumers of services by influencing not just the rules, regulations, resources, and operating procedures of programs, but the legislative statutes and administrative regulations that establish them in the first place. Moreover, policy practitioners influence the content of these policies by shaping the composition of governments through electoral politics.

Our discussion illustrates that different models of policy practice exist. It also suggests that permutations exist within the four models. Further theoretical and empirical work is needed to validate the models and to analyze different approaches used by policy practitioners within each of them.

Our discussion argues that policy practice should suffuse social work curricula, as well as in-service training of practicing social workers. Policy practitioners need specific skills to implement each of the models effectively. A major challenge confronting the social work profession is not only to familiarize social workers with the four models, but to ground them in the skills needed to implement them, whether in class, field, or continuing education courses. Policy increasingly must be viewed as an intervention that lies at the heart of the mission of social work. Then, and only then, will the cadre of committed policy practitioners expand to include most practicing social workers who will aim to be not merely foot soldiers but shapers of governments, policies, and operating programs (Sunley, 1970).