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 Public Policy Making and the Grass Roots

I believe that effective public policy must include meaningful input from the people who are affected by those policies.  I also think that for the most part, our public institutions don't do a very good job of getting that input.  Grass-roots community groups can play a very important role in correcting this shortcoming and, in the process, can be more effective in working on behalf of the policies they advocate.  Grass-roots involvement is particularly important for people with disabilities, who far too often must try to cope with government programs and other public policies that don't reflect the realities of their lives. 

I created this web page in hopes of helping advocates come together in an effective way on public policy issues.  My intention is to show how grass-roots advocates can play a role not only in lobbying for change but also in helping to set the direction of those changes. These recommendations and suggestions are based on my own experiences doing public policy analysis and advocacy work, but this page certainly is not exhaustive. (This material is based on a panel presentation I made at the 2002 Workforce Inclusion Conference in Los Angeles, CA.)

First, a few words about the nature of public policy and advocacy.  Public policy is basically the legal framework within which society operates.  A key starting point for any organization working on public policy is to develop a set of goals or principles that members hope to achieve.  Once you have agreed on that, the policy principles become your test for specific proposals.  For example, if your organization's principles call for better support for independent living, and you learn of a bill that would make it easier for people with disabilities to obtain assistive technology (AT), you may want to support that bill because it would improve opportunities for independent living.

Unfortunately, when you get to the point of looking at specific proposals, things get a little more complicated.  Sometimes, the idea behind a proposal may sound right, but the specifics may cause some problems.  For instance, the AT bill might require a very high co-payment, or may have a "means" test with a very low threshold, thereby penalizing people with disabilities who want to work.  So before you dive into your advocacy work, you need to analyze the bill.  You may find that it would be better to seek changes in a bill than to simply support or oppose it.

Complicating matters further is the fact that there are two kinds of public policy analysis.

  • Qualitative analysis looks at the issue from a conceptual standpoint, considering relationships between and among various public policy decisions or potential decisions, interactions between the public and private sector, and much more. (This is primarily the kind of public policy analysis that I do.)
  • Quantitative analysis, on the other hand, is concerned with numbers.  This kind of policy analysis often is critical in turning a public policy idea into law.
But the fact is that a good quantitative analysis must be based on a good qualitative analysis.  Otherwise, as the old saying goes, Garbage In, Garbage Out: The conclusions of the quantitative analysis will be inaccurate.
REMEMBER: Good quantitative analysis depends on good qualitative analysis!  Understanding this can provide important ammunition in your advocacy efforts.

The community can, and I think should, play a significant role in setting public policy goals and in advocating for them.  But it will be most effective if there is some structure—even if it's informal—to define lines of communication and responsibility. 

Since not every grass-roots advocate will be comfortable (or effective) dealing with the nitty-gritty of policy details, I recommend that advocacy groups identify one or two individuals to act as liaison between the community and policy makers.  This could be someone who already understands public policy issues and the legislative process, or it could be someone who is willing and able to learn.  These public policy contacts would have the job of reporting and explaining relevant regulatory and legislative proposals to the community and of translating grass-roots/community views and experiences into terms that public officials can understand.

Meanwhile, community people (i.e., the grass roots) must tell the organization's public policy contacts about their experiences, observations and ideas regarding what works—and what doesn't work.


Effective public policy work is a team effort, not a hierarchy.
Grass-roots advocates must respect the public policy contacts and the important role they play, but the public policy contacts also must respect and recognize the critical role played by grass-roots advocates.

It is very important  that there be no hierarchies. This must be a team effort, and all team members should be recognized and appreciated.  The public policy contacts need to listen—really listen—not only to what community people are saying but also to what they may not be saying.  For example, angry outcry over denial of Medi-Cal coverage for a wheelchair may involve one case or many.  If it's one case, there may be a solution available under current law.  But if there is a systemic problem, it may require a change in public policy.  Unfortunately, identifying the solution may not be as easy as identifying the problem. That's where good public policy analysis comes in.


Those who analyze public policy proposals for advocacy groups must somehow try to separate their personal biases from their analytical efforts.  If your qualitative analysis is very much at odds with an official quantitative analysis, you need to ask two questions:

  1. Did I make unwarranted, inaccurate or biased assumptions when I analyzed this proposal?
  2. Did the quantitative analysis use unrealistic, inaccurate or biased assumptions?
If you are sure that your qualitative analysis reflects the real world that you are trying to affect through public policy, then look very carefully at the assumptions in the quantitative analysis.  If you can show that the underlying assumptions are flawed, you may be able to overcome quantitative analyses that are harmful to your cause.  Ideally, you can help shape the quantitative analysis by sharing your qualitative analysis with the agency or firm that is running the numbers, so that the resulting numbers provide accurate information that can be used to effect positive policy changes.

Unfortunately, the need for public policy analysis sometimes can become an excuse for inaction.  What I try to keep in mind is that analysis without action becomes self-indulgent, but action without analysis is foolhardy.  Effective public policy advocacy will strike a balance between the two.

Click here to see an organizational chart showing a possible structure for grass-roots public policy advocacy.  This is not a very detailed chart, and though only three boxes say "individual,"  there could of course be many more.  The arrowheads connecting the boxes show that communication should be flowing along these lines.

Copyright 2002 by Laura Remson Mitchell



This page was last revised April 20, 2002.

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