What is your style in advocacy? Are you a rational owl, an activist elephant, a barking watchdog, or a sly old fox? This article will help you to navigate the zoo.
Advocacy is the art of changing public policies. Just like there are several models and styles of decision making, there are different forms and approaches to advocacy.
Let’s see first the basic models of policy making!
One is the RATIONAL MODEL, which considers policy making as a rational decision making process where decisions are based on the best available evidence. New evidence generated by policy monitoring and evaluation is automatically built into the next decision making cycle. Effectiveness and efficiency are the key words for policy makers.
Another model is the BYZANTINE MODEL, in which decisions are the results of the power game among stakeholders and elite groups, an art of making compromises behind the doors, which is immune to scientific evidence. Pragmatism and diplomacy are the key.
The synthesis of the two is the PARTICIPATORY MODEL, in which the decision-maker recognises the various perspectives of different pressure groups, the existence and value of sometimes contradicting evidence, and attempts to make a decision by creating an inclusive dialogue. Consensus building and participation are the key.
Just like there are different models of decision making, we see different, sometimes contradictory models of advocacy to change public policies. These are the main species you can see at the zoo of advocacy:
OWLS: They are wise, rational, and progressive animals, who believe in the strength of scientific evidence and the culture of evaluation. They are good at advising decision makers. Therefore they put a lot of effort into generating and collecting evidence about what works and what does not work in public policies, as well as documenting and presenting evidence on how policies violate human rights and other basic principles of modern democratic societies.
ELEPHANTS: They are noble animals with high ethical standards and a strong sense of community. They are activists who are not so obsessed with science and abstract ideals, but focus more on emotions and look for consensus. They believe in the power of the heart and of the herd: they keep together and protect each other.
DOGS: They are watchdogs who are barking at decision makers whenever they make a mistake. They love transparency and accountability, they despise special deals made behind the scenes but require solidarity and joint action. They love publicity, open debate, and confrontation.
FOXES: The sly old foxes are irritated by the perceived naiveté of both owls and elephants. They also dislike the confrontational tactics of the dogs. They are pragmatic and flexible, like to work behind the scenes, are good at direct lobbying, building personal relationships and partnerships, making favours and receiving them.
Of course just like with decision making, these advocacy models never manifest in a 100% pure form but in a mixture. In reality nobody is only an elephant or a fox, but a combination of the four, in different proportions. Sometimes the tactics and approach can even change within the same group or the same person, depending on special circumstances. People who are known to be foxes can suddenly choose to become dogs when the political context or their interests change. But we can often observe and identify these four types of approaches if we spend some time in policy making or advocacy. Especially if you have attended a consultation meeting organised by the government, involving a broad spectrum of NGOs.
These approaches are doomed to confrontation from time to time. In the NGO world, we often hear people complaining about other NGOs who are too confrontational or too opportunist, too rational or too emotional. There are heated debates about when and how the healthy search for compromise and effectiveness goes into collaboration and legitimises unethical decisions. Long friendships and partnerships can be broken when an organisation decides to confront the power, protecting their principles – whilst the other chooses to cooperate with it, for short term gains. While some advocates spend most of their time producing high-quality reports or legal cases, others spend their days with community organising or media communication.
The question naturally arises as to which of these is the most effective to change public policies. I don’t want to decide this debate. I think it often depends on the special circumstances and the way that decision making works in a given country or institution. Foxes can definitely work better with byzantine, owls with rational, elephants and dogs with participatory decision makers. But smooth cooperation between advocates and decision makers is not the goal of advocacy. Advocates are not there to please decision makers but to achieve their goals.
Pursuing your goals in the same way, without taking into consideration the changing context is a mistake. But to lose sight of your principles and mission can be an even bigger mistake. Sometimes confrontational tactics and publicity can backfire and are even not necessary: you can reach your goal without making the decision maker your enemy. But you should recognise when the moment comes for joint action and don’t let the decision maker play the fool – or make you a fool. First you should always seek consensus and compromise, only when it becomes impossible should you step on the accelerator. Making a secret pact behind the scenes or simply shying away from action in solidarity with others may seem a wise decision in the short term, but it can prove to be a fatal mistake in the long term.