Lobbyists should act more like advocates (and vice versa)

Lobbyists should act more like advocates (and vice versa)
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Advocacy plays a powerful role in American political discourse. The #MeToo movement and  related groundswell of vocal advocacy for gender equality are clear recent examples of how passion and activism can fuel tangible changes in the political realm.

Establishment politicians increasingly are being held accountable for improper behavior directed at colleagues, staff and members of the political community, forcing some to resign or retire early in response to public pressure. Advocates who opposed the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court forced a highly visible national conversation about sexual assault and the imbalance of power between men and women in politics. And perhaps most importantly, there has been a significant increase in the number of female candidates (in both parties) running for elected office in recent years.


While this type of organic grassroots advocacy is powerful and far-reaching, it is often difficult to organize and even more difficult to replicate. But many full-time political lobbyists sure would like to try.

To successfully reinvent itself, the lobbying industry must address its image problem. A few bad actors have tarnished the profession, overshadowing those who hope to advocate for positive social change.

Few people know this better than former lobbyist and Capitol Hill insider Jack Abramoff. Since his release from prison in 2010, Abramoff has spoken about the need to reform the industry. He argues that, although lobbying indeed can be susceptible to corruption, it nevertheless plays an integral role in the democratic process.

“Lobbying is not a bad thing,” Abramoff said in 2011. “It’s in the Constitution, and it’s something that should be honorable and good.”

Lobbyists willing to serve as positive examples may be the industry’s best hope for progressive transformation. To make meaningful progress toward this goal, lobbyists could benefit from acting more like advocates. The reverse also is true.

Lobbyists v. advocates

President Ulysses S. Grant had a habit of strolling from the White House across Pennsylvania Avenue to the Willard Hotel on most evenings. His routine became well known, and citizens soon began to wait for him in the hotel lobby to discuss matters of personal importance. These individuals came to be known as lobbyists.

Lobbyists and advocates are not synonymous: all lobbyists are advocates, but not all advocates are lobbyists. Although lobbying might involve some degree of long-term strategy and a pursuit of holistic goals, much of the work is largely short-term and transactional. Complex public policies are boiled down to singular proposals, or bills, upon which lobbyists focus intensely.

For example, administrators of a group of community clinics might realize that a change in local or state law would enable them to serve a larger population. They might seek a lobbyist’s assistance to develop a proposed bill, convince decision-makers of its importance, and strategically shepherd it through the legislative process. In many cases, the lobbyist’s work is complete upon final signature into law. Implementation, regulatory processes and other concerns often fall outside of the lobbyist’s scope of work.

Advocates, on the other hand, typically seek change in a larger arena. Whereas our community clinics may seek to expand their network of patients, a health care advocate may seek to change the way health care is administered altogether. Because a progressive ideology of this nature requires much more than a single lobbyist, advocates must develop a more comprehensive strategy that accounts for implementation standards and other future steps to ensure the success of their policy objectives.

At its purest form, advocacy is a collective, holistic engagement of decision-making bodies. Stakeholders who support a shared objective might activate a grassroots coalition of organizations with similar interests. Advocacy can ripple out to the individual level, such as when concerned citizens mobilize to engage their elected officials.

Tailoring the message

Advocates and lobbyists alike often neglect the need to understand the institutions they seek to influence. Instead, they tend to focus on proposed policy initiatives in a vacuum, allowing the ideology of “this is the right thing to do” or “they’ll see” to dominate strategy development. This counterproductive mindset can devolve into inaction.

Separating emotion from the term “advocate” is an improbable task. Far too many advocates rely upon what they know from their constituencies, or their emotional base. To be successful, advocates must see beyond their policy objectives and think in terms of strategic navigation. They can achieve this by appealing to the unique personalities and idiosyncrasies of the institutions they seek to influence.

An advocacy group that hopes to advance affordable housing bills through the state legislatures of California and West Virginia, for example, would need to account for stark differences in political leanings, legislative priorities, and even geography. Advocates might discuss property tax revenues when communicating with Republicans, and approach Democrats by focusing on the need to stabilize disenfranchised communities. Thus, they advance the same policy with distinct messages that align with each decision-maker’s political desires.

Meet you in the lobby

Today’s lobbyists navigate far more complex policy agendas than those endorsed by the citizen advocates who met President Grant in the Willard Hotel. They must account for every factor that lies between ideology and implementation, and their messaging must be distinctive.

Lobbyists can become more effective agents of positive change by taking cues from advocates outside the Beltway. Specifically, they could benefit from acting less out of self-interest and by taking a broader, longer-term view of policies they hope to advance.

Non-lobbyist advocates should acknowledge that K Street runs both ways. To more successfully influence policymakers, advocacy groups should emulate the lobbying sector’s structure and institutional awareness.

By adopting each other’s best qualities, lobbyists and advocates can deliver better results for constituents while wielding their influence more constructively and responsibly.

Matthew Wheeler is an assistant professor at Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, where he instructs an advocacy course. A former lobbyist, his career in public policy began as legislative staff member in California. He is founder and CEO of a consulting firm, the Wheeler Company.