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.
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