Chapter 18 POLICY, POLITICS, AND HUMAN SERVICES: AN ADDRESS GIVEN TO MEMBERS OF THE NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR HUMAN SERVICE EDUCATION, ON OCTOBER 9, 1992
HAROLD L. McPHEETERS
I wish to begin with a few words of special appreciation for Dr. Ron Feinstein of your organization. Dr. Feinstein was one of the pioneers of the human service education movement. I have been privileged to have been with him in perhaps two dozen meetings as we forged some of the concepts and directions for the movement. I always found him to be knowledgeable, critical, analytic, and positively involved. It was a pleasure to have known him and worked with him, but I especially want to mention his leadership here because he was one of our most active human service educators in the area of public policy development and political action. A few months ago he died from a heart affliction while in the office of a Pennsylvania state senator on such a mission. We shall miss him.
In modern times the primary sanction and funding for both human service delivery programs and human service educational programs is government. The days when churches or private charitable organizations provided the major impetus for health and welfare services and funding have long receded despite some nostalgic urgings that somehow a “thousand points of light” might assume this responsibility. There are still many private and charitable groups involved in human service delivery, but most of them receive both their sanction and much of their funding from federal, state, or county governments. By sanction, I mean their charters and licenses for the programs and their staffs, required standards of operation, tax exemption, liability, and often public oversight. Funding may be provided through direct government grants or contracts or the fees from programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Virtually all human service educational programs are located either in public institutions or in institutions that receive much of their funding from government sources.
Thus, for self-interest alone, human service educators must be involved in public policy and politics related to human services. In addition, human service educators, with their depth of understanding of human service needs and programs, should be involved in helping key government officials make better policy decisions for the human services. It is sometimes sad to see educators from the human service education programs turn away from involvement in policy development and politics or, worse yet, to constantly criticize and express contempt for public officials and politicians. Such an attitude helps no one, least of all one’s own program and its graduates. Many of the most effective human service educators are active in public policy developments and find that their programs and graduates are more frequently requested and better regarded as a consequence.
The two areas of public policy and politics are closely related.
Public policy development is the process of helping national, state, and local governments and professional and voluntary associations decide what laws, regulations, programs, philosophies, and values are to be implemented and how. It also involves deciding how to obtain the funds and other necessary resources for the programs.
Politics is the process of nominating and electing officials to legislative and top executive positions in local, state, and federal governments (and sometimes judges) and drafting and enacting legislation to implement major policy directions.
It is generally in the area of public policy development that human service professionals can have their greatest impact, but it is also the area in which they are least involved—at least as organized groups. This is probably because public policy development is not as well defined or as well publicized as politics. In fact, many times elected and appointed officials of government seem to have no particular interest in policy development—they have no vision of where they want their agency to be or how to get there. This is no different from private corporations or voluntary organizations that have no policy or planning mechanism for the future but simply keep on doing what they have always done despite changing times and needs.
There seem to be cycles in our society when we expect our institutions to behave in progressive and purposeful ways, while at other times in the cycle there is a trend to be preoccupied with the immediate bottom line. Such conservative thinking discourages policy development and planning; planning staff and research and development personnel are let go as “unnecessary middle-level managers.” The disadvantages soon become evident, and then the cycle changes. As a nation we have been through a twelve-year cycle of conservatism, but now the tide appears to be turning. Unfortunately, the excesses of the recent past have left huge deficits and debts that will impede our nation and our institutions for some time to come.
But that is all the more reason for careful policy development, and it is likely that we shall see much more of it in the future. However, governments and all our agencies and institutions, primarily as a result of litigation and court orders, have recently begun to establish mechanisms for more sharply defining their policies and procedures, and those mechanisms provide the route for our inputs into the policy-making process. Among them are the following:
1. Regulation writing. Legislation is generally very broad in scope and leaves to the operating agencies the responsibility for developing the necessary policies, procedures, regulations, and so on. This is the process called “administrative law.” Thirty years ago, this was likely to be a haphazard process that too frequently was never formally done or committed to writing. However, as a result of lawsuits from clients, families, staff, and so on, governments have instituted a whole set of legally mandated procedures for “administrative rule making.” The procedures almost always provide for public hearings and comments and suggestions from interested individuals and organizations. This is where the inputs of human service educators should be made through the following steps:
a. Learn the legal requirements and procedures of the administrative rule-making process for the relevant units of government and get on their mailing lists to receive notices of public hearings, dates, names of responsible official persons to receive comments, and so on for the writing of specific regulations.
b. Participate in public hearings. This may require making appointments to appear on the program and preparing written statements for the hearings. It is generally desirable to participate in hearings as an organization rather than as an individual, but either is generally acceptable. Presentations at hearings should be documented as much as possible and be cognizant of the realities of budgets, geographic realities, and so on facing the agency.
c. Send in written comments to preliminary drafts of regulations if one is unable to be present at the hearing. This is an entirely acceptable forum for letters from individuals. It is always best to make specific and well-documented suggestions rather than simple statements that the drafts are unacceptable or one-sided statements with no documentation or with biased documentation.
2. Advisory Bodies to Public and Voluntary Agencies. At still another level, public and voluntary agencies increasingly make use of citizen boards, advisory groups, and private consultants. Human service educators should be represented on such citizen bodies. Their organizations should take the initiative to suggest names of their members who will serve on those bodies, especially at the national and state levels, but there is nothing wrong with the educators suggesting their own names and their willingness to serve, especially to local agencies. Here, too, the persons who serve in such capacities should expect to represent the best interests of the total agency but also speak to the interests of the human service profession and its educational programs. This implies that the person becomes knowledgeable about the broadest issues affecting the agency and its operations.
3. Special Task Groups and Studies. Public and voluntary agencies and legislative research bodies frequently find themselves faced with the need for special studies of problems and the development of recommendations for addressing them. These special studies range from clinical issues such as how to best manage the problems of AIDS patients in the prisons or mental hospitals to organizational issues, such as how to best relate the state institutions organizationally and financially to local public and voluntary programs. Here again, human service educators should be represented on at least some of these citizen study bodies or as consultants to them.
4. Networking with Other Organizations. Many professional and advocacy organizations are also interested in public policy and will be using some of these same strategies to influence it. Human service educators should join with them. Most educators come from one of the traditional professions of social work, psychology, counseling, and so on. Join those professional organizations as well as advocacy organizations, such as mental health associations, associations for retarded citizens, and public welfare associations, and become active in their affairs so that you multiply your impact on the public policy process.
5. Participation in Media Activities. Another way of participating in the public policy debate, especially at the local level, is to take part in media activities, such as writing letters to editors, writing special articles for newspapers and magazines, and appearing on media panels and radio talk shows. These activities require some special talent at being brief and to-the-point with a special sensitivity to the perspective of the general public.
6. Inviting Agency Officials and Policy Makers to Participate in Your Programs. Many human service educators have found it useful to invite key persons from human service agencies and local policy makers to participate in their educational programs as speakers, panelists, or advisory committee members. In that way they come to know you and your program, so that they are likely to call on you when they face policy questions that they feel you may be able to answer. In any case, such persons should be invited to participate in such activities and kept on the mailing list to receive reports, newsletters, and so on from your program.
Participation in the political process is a more directed, promotional, and often adversarial process of working for the election of specific candidates or the enactment of specific pieces of legislation by the legislative body and then getting the responsible executive officer to sign the legislation. This process is better known, and it is the one that human service educators are more likely to use. However, because of the nature of the democratic process of our governments, it is also one in which there is a strong possibility of being on the losing side. This may be no problem unless it means that your candidate and all that he or she stands for is defeated and everyone in a responsible position is replaced.
The processes of working for the election of candidates and working for legislation are somewhat different although related. It should be clear to human service educators, as it is to members of Political Action Committees (PACs), that an elected official is much more likely to be responsive to someone who has worked actively in the election campaign than to a complete stranger.
How to Elect Candidates Supportive of Human Services
The general process of electing candidates to office is familiar to each of you, but there are a few specific pointers to keep in mind.
Register and Vote.
This seems obvious, but it is astounding that so few eligible voters bother to get themselves registered or vote, and I am regularly surprised to discover that some of those non-voters are persons who have very significant stakes in the election. In most jurisdictions it is better to register in a specific political party rather than as an independent. In many places “independents” are not allowed to vote in primary elections, where some of the most critical decisions are made.
Learn About the Candidates and Help Them Take Stands on Issues.
Meet the candidates or learn about them and their positions on human service issues. At local and state levels it is not difficult to attend programs and events where the candidates are in attendance and discuss human service issues with them. At congressional and presidential levels this becomes more difficult and is best done through established organizations. If it is not possible to reach the candidates themselves, talk with their campaign staff persons, but the most effective personal contacts will be made before the heat of campaigning consumes all the candidate’s time. Send letters to candidates and ask for their response and commitments. Most candidates are eager to reply to such letters of concern.
Make Financial Contributions to Candidates and Parties.
Political campaigns cost money, and many a campaign has been lost because money ran out too soon. This has been a special problem for women candidates. The political parties do not provide much financial support for candidates until the later stages of the campaign. At the early stages, especially at the level of the primaries, the candidates are on their own to finance their campaigns, and it is at this stage that individual contributions are especially welcomed. It is at this stage that candidates learn whether there is real public interest in their candidacies or whether it is just the special interests. Such early contributions are especially likely to be remembered.
EMILY’s (Early Money Is Like Yeast) List is an organized effort to help with the early financing of the campaigns of Democratic women who support free choice, but the individual supporters from EMILY’s List are sure to be remembered.
The two major sources of funds for political campaigns are (1) individual contributions and (2) contributions from PACS or private organizations with vested interests in the outcome of the election. Later contributions to political campaigns are important, be they from individuals or organizations, but they are likely to be more substantial and memorable when they come from groups that can pool their contributions as PACS do. Be careful not to violate the ethics rules for political contributions. Do notlarge contributions in cash; use a check and note that it is a campaign contribution.
Join Political Parties and Work in Campaigns.
Join the political parties and work in the campaigns to reach the candidates with your suggestions and influence. It will help the candidate’s campaign to have your organizational work and moral support. Organizational work is frequently crucial to a campaign, especially for a lesser-known candidate. When you work in their campaigns, the candidates get to know you as an individual and are likely to respect your opinions when and if they are elected. This can also be a useful way to get to know some of the other campaign workers who may later become the staff workers for the official if the campaign is successful.
How to Influence Legislation
Influencing legislation is tricky business. It has been said that the public is better off not to see how sausage is made or how bills become laws. There are many considerations.
Learn the Legislative Procedures.
Learn the legislative procedures for how bills may be introduced and by which house, how they are referred to committees, which kinds of bills go to which committees, how they are likely to be amended, how they pass from house to house, and how they go to the executive officer for signature or veto. The procedures vary from place to place and even from time to time. To a considerable extent they depend on unwritten customs and temporary political alliances. Learn about these!
Keep Informed of All Bills of Interest.
Keep on top of bills introduced in your legislative body and get copies of the ones relevant to your interests. There is almost always some kind of published daily record of the bills that have been introduced, to which committees they have been assigned, and their progress through the legislative session. Arrange to subscribe to this legislative journal or examine it regularly in a library that subscribes to it. It is not unusual to find bills that either conflict with ones that you are following or duplicate all or parts of them. Copies of bills are usually available the day following their introduction.
It is also important to keep aware of any amendments made in any of the bills that interest you. Opposition groups may have succeeded in totally reversing the intent of your bill or amending it with completely unacceptable changes. In the political process anything can happen! There is no widely published account of such amendments. It is vital to check with key committee members or staff persons (if there are staff persons).
Attend and Participate in Committee Hearings.
Committee hearings are usually short of time to consider all persons and groups who desire to be heard, so appointments may be required. Also, be brief and to the point with documentation whenever possible. Have your statement written and duplicated for handout. Be aware of the broad implications of your testimony (e.g., its cost implications, its impact on rural areas or minority groups) and be prepared for any kind of question or criticism. It is well to anticipate organized opposition and acknowledge it and any efforts that have been made to work out conflicts. Legislators take a dim view of proposals that draw opposition where there has been no indication of efforts of the opposing parties to negotiate their differences. Such bills very likely will be tabled until the next session when they will have to be reintroduced.
If you cannot arrange to participate in the hearings, try to get a written statement to the committee for its consideration. If the statement comes from an organized group that has documented support from relevant organizations (e.g., public agency administrators, health insurers), so much the better. It is better to get these statements to members of the specific committees that are considering the bills rather than to your personal representative or senator, but send your own representative an informational copy. And be timely with such statements! Be aware of the committee’s schedule for when a vote is likely to be taken, and get statements to them ahead of that time.
Personal calls to committee members are also helpful, especially if they include the logic and reasoning for your position rather than just a message to vote for or against a specific bill. Formal petitions and messages that urge votes for one side or the other are tabulated but play little role in the committee’s decision.
Contact Your Personal Legislators.
Your personal legislator should know what you want done, from either personal contacts or letters or telephone calls. The greater the number of legislators who are approached by different members of a group with a common interest, the better, especially when it comes to the vote, if and when the bill comes to the floor for a full vote. Your personal legislator may be willing and able to negotiate with members of the committee that is considering your bill while the bill is in committee. Be aware, however, that the issue should then probably have to be one with considerable political importance to justify your legislator’s using his or her political capital.
Bills are introduced by individual legislators, but it is usually wise to carefully choose which legislator will make the introduction—usually one with some tenure and reputation for expertise in the area of the bill’s concern. It is necessary to meet with that legislator and present your proposal and follow the legislator’s advice. Keep in mind that bills introduced early in the session have a much better chance of passage than those introduced later.
Model bills will probably have to be rewritten to fit the state or local government’s format. Most states have a bill-drafting unit to do that, but they require time to do this, so the initial contacts for a new bill should be made well ahead of the legislative session. It will definitely help to contact additional legislators who are willing to sign the bill as cosponsors. This shows wider interest.
Build Coalitions with Other Groups.
In the political process it is most important to build coalitions with other interest groups (e.g., other professional groups, public agencies, voluntary agencies), so that they support your bills while you support theirs. Remember, the political process is a democratic process that requires a majority vote. It is most difficult for an isolated group to generate that much clout. This also means that you must be willing and able to negotiate and compromise—sometimes on very short notice. But remain alert to the implications of your negotiations and compromises. Be especially careful of wording. A careless word or phrase can completely change the meaning of your bill!
Working with other groups in the political process will also give you a broader perspective on the community’s or the state’s problems and needs and the concerns of the legislators in addressing them. Legislators appreciate the advice of lobbying groups with broad perspectives because they see so many narrow interest groups who are oblivious to the broader concerns of the society. I recently heard a state legislator say that the most credible lobby group he sees is the medical society because it is prepared to discuss everything from public health and clinical treatment issues (e.g., AIDS, mental health commitment laws) to rehabilitation, licensure of various health professionals, organizational and financial issues such as Medicaid fees, health insurance for state employees, workers’ compensation, and managed care organizations.
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