Academic journal article Social Work

Altering State Policy: Interest Group Effectiveness among State-Level Advocacy Groups

Academic journal article Social Work

Altering State Policy: Interest Group Effectiveness among State-Level Advocacy Groups

Article excerpt

Social welfare policy making at the state level has become more important in recent years. Devolution of important decisions from the national to the state level has occurred in many social programs (for example, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families [TANF]). State legislators, governors, and executive branch officials make more decisions regarding human services programs than at any time since perhaps the early 1960s. As Ezell (2001) wrote:

   Policy change is now closer to home than it
   used to be. More and more policy and funding
   decisions are being devolved to the states. The
   governmental processes to make and change
   policy are more accessible to clients and advocates
   than ever before. (p. 196)

Social work's reaction to this shift in program responsibility includes Influencing State Policy, an organization created to ensure that social workers and social work students understand the importance of state-level advocacy (Schneider, 2002). Another reaction was the editorial decision to include at least one article on state policy in every issue of the Social Policy Journal (Hoefer, 2002a). Manuscripts are being written and published in academic journals relating to state-level human services programs across a wide range of policy arenas.

I developed a model of the effectiveness of human services interest groups and tested the model in four states to better understand how such groups can advocate for their positions. This advocacy may be critical to support existing programs as state governments try to deal with increasing budgetary deficits caused by economic problems.

PROBLEMS FOR EFFECTIVE ADVOCACY IN THE SOCIAL WORK PROFESSION

Despite positive signs that social workers acknowledge and understand the importance of state-level policy making, many problems remain for the profession. First, although social workers are experts in their jobs, few are expert in the political process. Despite the mandate to be active in political processes (NASW, 2000), many BSW and MSW students graduate without understanding how government works. Even when the information is available, students may not see the relevance of the subject to themselves, or they may avoid the political arena because of beliefs such as "politics is dirty" or "all politicians are crooks." Countless practitioners may feel that they have too many day-to-day obligations to add something else to their schedules, especially if they have not received training in the political process. Finally, few human services organizations can afford to hire full-time lobbyists, and coalition efforts to affect policy may be coordinated by committed but time-stretched volunteers and staff with other responsibilities.

Practical issues may get in the way of state--or national-level advocacy by many social workers. Long distances to the state capital and costs of travel to lobby are barriers even for social workers who advocate at the local level. An erroneous belief that government or nonprofit organization employees should not lobby is a serious disincentive to engage in political action (Smucker, 1999).

Another problem is that most social work literature on advocacy emphasizes motivating individuals to become involved (Amidei 1987). Less attention is paid to the importance of an organizational base to focus advocacy energy (Mahaffey, 1972). Social workers active in legislative advocacy generally have a limited theoretical approach to advocacy and government affairs. Although practice wisdom is important, understanding research information and theory related to effecting change is useful. This type of information is rare in social work literature (two important exceptions are Haynes & Mickelson, 2000, and Jansson, 2003).

WHAT LEADS TO EFFECTIVE ADVOCACY?

Research regarding effective advocacy has been primarily at the national level. Hoefer (2000a, 2001, 2002b) explored the effectiveness of human services interest groups at the national level. …

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