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Policy Wins for the Long Haul

For decades, policy advocacy organizations have operated in America on behalf of workers, immigrants, families, and the environment, to name a small subset. Now that we have reached the 2020s, and a time of transformational social and policy change, the policy and advocacy campaigns of these groups are more important than ever. Increasingly, funders are coming to TCC Group to provide additional guidance for evaluations and learning of advocacy through focused field research. Their goal is to better understand trends and assess existing evidence of funders more effectively respond to these trends.

In 2021, we conducted a research study on behalf of the Walton Family Foundation (Walton). The focus of the study was policy durability—or how policies last and effect change for long periods of time. The premise of the study was, if funders and advocates are going to put great effort into policy change, they want to maximize the likelihood the change lasts long enough to get results. For example, once a given policy is signed into law, it may be watered down, made irrelevant, or simply repealed. Therefore, creating a tally of policy wins in the moment is an important but insufficient gauge of effective policy advocacy. Instead, a policy should be measured by its ability to create positive change, which often is only seen over the long term. The research study uncovered elements that contribute to durability occurring before, during, and after what is normally considered the active advocacy period.

Four key findings from the study are:

  1. Policy durability isn’t necessarily a good thing on its own. At first glance, it seems a given that policy durability would be considered a positive characteristic. If you are a policy advocate, you want to see your hard work come to fruition, stick around, and improve lives into the future. If you are a constituent, you want to see the policy benefit the world around you. But for nearly every policy advocated, there is some type of policy precedent that it is looking to overturn, clarify, or supersede. The fact that advocates are deliberately trying to shift existing policy is one indicator that policy durability is not, de facto, a good thing. Therefore, policy durability must be paired with three important components. It must be effective, demonstrating positive impact. It must be just, treating constituents equitably and solving a problem in an equitable way. And it must be flexible, adjusting to changing constituents and changing circumstances.
  2. Durable policies front load community benefits. Advocacy for durable policy requires attention to several points in time. The first point in that timeline is the policy design stage, where the content of a policy is conceptualized and drafted. The policy durability study was able to pinpoint multiple characteristics in policy design that led to durability. One characteristic that requires work from advocates in the design phase is the front-loading of community benefits. That is, policy should be designed with mechanisms geared to maximize at least some benefits very early in the process, even if the most important outcomes may come later. For example, a durable water conservation policy would include mechanisms that would immediately deliver clean drinking water to at least a few neighborhoods even if it was going to take longer to clean up the whole system. Constituents would thus have a greater likelihood of connecting their understanding of the policy to their improved quality of life.
  3. Emphasize principles and values as the core policy framing. The next point in the policy timeline is pre-passage advocacy, the time when advocates are educating policymakers and others about a policy. The research suggested that messaging emphasizing the values inherent in the policy had greater durability influence than messages that focused on policy specifics. For example, if someone were advocating a bill for clean water, rather than a focus on reducing pollution, a preferable message that is based in core values might be, “We should all have access to clean water.”
  4. Don’t take your foot off the gas after a policy has passed. A durable policy is one that is effectively implemented, and that requires post-passage advocacy, the final point in the policy timeline. One opportunity to increase durability is to provide technical assistance to policy implementers. Because many of the details of a policy are worked out during the rules and regulations implementation process, focusing support at this phase is critical to ensuring that the policy will be implemented in the way that advocates envisioned. One strategy for advocacy groups to effectively support implementers is fostering relationships with senior, career agency officials. Career officials, rather than political appointees, are often less influenced by political winds and more likely to remain engaged with the policy over time.

Policy and the policy context are constantly changing, so there are no guarantees about policy durability. However, this report provides some potential interim indicators and goals to inform advocates on whether they are likely on the right path. The full report includes a number of findings for each of the three broad policy phases described above. We would be happy to discuss them further with your team.

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