Voice of the People

Published in the Spring 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

by Patti Wolter

Those who probably need to be heard by government the most are usually the least likely to have a voice. People living in poverty have a wide range of needs—many of which are met, however imperfectly, by programs operated or funded by government agencies. Yet the poor and disenfranchised are less likely to vote and often overwhelmed by the demands of poverty, so their input is typically absent when policies are discussed.

Social service agencies, with an intimate knowledge of the lives of their clients and the systems designed to help them, would seem to be a natural candidate to advocate on their behalf to lawmakers and government agencies. But the conventional wisdom has assumed that service providers are too busy and too meek to promote the interests of their clients.

A growing body of research, however, is turning that idea on its head. According to a study by SSA Assistant Professor Jennifer Mosley, social service agencies do advocacy work all the time. Mosley's research began in part to learn how the privatization of social services, growing rapidly since the Reagan era, has impacted the human service organizations that now rely heavily on government contracts. In a large study of Los Angeles County human service nonprofits, she found that about half of the organizations overall did some kind of advocacy work, but that 83 percent of the largest organizations—those with budgets over $5 million—did. She also found that those same large organizations were more likely to receive a higher percentage of their funding from government contracts.

"The assumption has been that government funding would co-opt the human service providers—you don't want to bite the hand that feeds you," Mosley says. "But my research fits in with others' that shows that the more government funding you receive, the more likely you are to advocate. The pressures that increase once an organization receives government funding make it more necessary."

Part of the gap between expectations and Mosley's findings may be due to a misunderstanding of the full definition of advocacy, which goes far beyond just picket lines or lobbying. Activities such as public education, participating on government committees, releasing policy reports, writing letters to the editor, and joining coalitions designed to influence policy can all be considered advocacy work. Human service organizations with more government funding also participate in higher rates of direct, insider tactics, Mosley points out, likely because having a seat at the table gives the organizations more access to policy-makers and rulesetters. These organizations also have a vested interest in speaking up about what policies work, which don't, and what their own organization needs.

At the same time, though, human service organizations may need a hand to be effective advocates. "Clinical workers are often not trained to do advocacy, and executive directors are already busy and over committed," Mosley says. "There is limited time for advocacy despite how important it is."