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Volume XIII, Number 1&2, Spring 2007
Issue Topic: Advocacy and Policy Change
Questions & Answers
Kay Monaco was executive director through January 2007 of New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonpartisan child advocacy organization that provides evidence-based policy recommendations for state-level policymakers and other opinion leaders. She has a law degree and, prior to joining New Mexico Voices for Children, spent 16 years working on criminal justice reform initiatives throughout the country, including in New York City and the District of Columbia. She is an expert on prison and jail operations and conditions of confinement and has advised numerous judges and the U.S. Department of Justice. Her work with the criminal justice system led her to a career in child advocacy by reinforcing her belief that earlier and greater investment in children would result in less crime and less incarceration, both of which have enormous fiscal and social costs.
What advocacy approach does New Mexico Voices for Children use?
At New Mexico Voices for Children, we ground our policy work in good, solid research. This means we use an evidence-based approach when looking at how we can change systems to improve the health and well-being of New Mexico's children, particularly children from low-income families. In New Mexico, children in low-income families are predominantly children of color, and an increasing number are Hispanic. The core of our work revolves around poverty and economic-justice issues and the kinds of policies and strategies that can truly change families' economic status and impact child outcomes. The government can spend money indefinitely at the programmatic level, but we believe that if we don't change the system—the way taxes are collected and spent, for example—circumstances for these families will not change.
Our advocacy approach is to work from the top down. We engage community members at the grassroots level and community leaders, policymakers and other opinion shapers at the top. We inform them with our research and analysis. If we do that successfully, policy change can occur.
Do you feel increasing pressure to show that your advocacy efforts make a difference?
We are finding that funders are concentrating more on how to evaluate their advocacy investments. They understand that advocacy efforts often involve 5- to 10-year campaigns and that, as a result, we need to look at incremental policy changes over time, until we have a big win. This requires funders to be patient and can make it difficult to raise money.
It is much easier to get funding for a concrete program. For example, the city of Albuquerque has a safe house for abused children—a place where children who are removed from abusive households can stay for 2 or 3 days while the state locates a more permanent placement. This is an incredibly important safety valve for our children and is a tangible program that funders and donors can visit to see its effects.
Our role, by contrast, is fixing the child welfare system so that fewer children face abuse and neglect in the first place. When funders ask how we will change that system, we respond with a whole series of policy and social changes that need to be rolled out over the next 15 years. Because we are proposing a long-term process instead of a concrete program, some funders are less interested.
I think that we can address this problem by better educating funders. Direct service providers and policy advocates both work toward the same outcome—a better world for everyone. The difference is that service providers meet immediate needs, like food and housing crises, while policy advocates look at long-term solutions that will, hopefully, lessen the prevalence of such crises. We're really two halves of the same whole, both of us doing our part to promote change and both parts equally crucial.
How do you evaluate your advocacy work to show that it makes a difference?
We approach evaluation by examining our theory of change, which we developed several years ago. Because of its shape, we call our schematic the “blowfish theory of change” (see the figure below).
First, community input helps us identify the problems or issues that we need to focus on. We then use credible and reliable research and data to bring attention to those problems as well as to ways in which they can be addressed. Then, we look at how our work informed any intermediate outcomes by examining our success in engaging our audiences. We include measures like the number of businesses engaged in an issue, the number of legislative presentations we are asked to make, and the number of media hits we get.
Take our messaging work as an example. We examine how messages change over time and use that as a measure of our influence, and we look at whether the media and others echo our messages. For example, several years ago, we advocated for continued Medicaid funding. At the time, there was a national trend to cut Medicaid funding because state budgets were in trouble and Medicaid consumed a large proportion of those budgets. In response to that trend, we started a campaign that characterized Medicaid as an “economic engine.” Our analyses showed that Medicaid dollars were creating jobs—many in the private health care sector-and acting as an economic stimulus with huge benefits for the state.
When we first started describing Medicaid as an economic engine, we received tremendous pushback from government officials, legislators, and the business community for applying a business concept to social justice issue. Over time, however, the legislature and press started talking about Medicaid's economic impact in our state. We considered this an advocacy success; our message was picked up and used by others as if it was their own. In turn, the message helped change legislators' minds about cutting Medicaid.
It can be difficult to explain to foundations that simply preventing budget cuts is an enormous win. In this case, we showed that the phrase “economic engine” was never in the Medicaid lexicon until we started making our point. We also showed that our ally organizations began calling Medicaid an economic engine. In fact, one organization sent a postcard with a train engine on it to all of the state's legislators. We really used our message to convince legislators that Medicaid funding is important to our state's economy and has an enormous impact on the whole health infrastructure.
Ultimately, while many states around the country cut their Medicaid budgets, New Mexico did not. In fact, our Medicaid budget grew during those years. Our measures—especially the media-related measures—helped us build a credible and defensible case about our contribution to that outcome.
How do you define long-term success, and how do you measure your part in it?
Ultimate success for us will mean that, in New Mexico, poverty decreases and child well-being increases. While it is difficult to make a causal link between those changes and our efforts, again, we can build a case about our contribution to these impacts in various ways. One way is by looking at what other states or countries have accomplished with the same kinds of policy changes that we advocate for. For example, we recently examined our state's poverty level compared to several years ago and saw it had decreased somewhat. While I would never claim that we did this on our own, we were able to show that the same constellation of policy changes on which we worked in New Mexico also had impacts on poverty in Great Britain. We compared our experiences and data patterns to Great Britain's to show that we were on the right track.
How do you learn from and use evaluation data?
We want to succeed in changing policies, but we also want to make sure those policies have real impacts. Our theory of change has a feedback loop that goes from policy change back to the beginning step of problem definition. After a policy changes, we ask: When the policy was implemented, did it actually impact people's lives? We then use data to find the answer.
For example, when we started working on unemployment insurance reform, we tested different theories about how to help families bridge the gap between jobs. We came out with several policy recommendations for increasing unemployment insurance. Once those policies were adopted, we looked at the benefits actually paid to families, along with other data, to examine if our theories were right. In fact, the data showed that we were partly right. Now, we have to ask ourselves if we need to go back and advocate for more policy changes.
What do you want to look at with evaluation that you aren't already tracking?
I wish that we could visually map the players, both pro and con, on any single policy initiative and place ourselves on that map. We are only one of many pushes and pulls in the policy process, and we are often not the most influential or powerful players. Mapping all of the players would allow us to put our work in context. Sometimes, we have a small win, but the opposition was formidable—better resourced and with greater leverage. We'd like to capture that information. We would like the time and resources to step back and see how our work fits on the map of a policy initiative. If we could do this more often, I think we could better maximize our connections with other players and make our work even more effective.
For more information about New Mexico Voices for Children, contact current executive director Catherine Direen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Mexico Voices for Children: The “Blowfish” Theory of Change
Policy change occurs when community leaders receive credible and reliable data and research AND community members provide personal stories and advocate for change.
Abby Weiss, Project Manager, HFRP