Are You a One-Man-Band?

If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it dozens and dozens of times:  Organizations with limited resources getting involved in too many public policy issues at the same time.

I call it the “one-man-band” approach to advocacy.

I saw it again this week when I was asked to help develop a proposal for a Washington, DC-based health care trade association.  Despite very limited resources they had no fewer than 8 public policy goals.  They wanted to change how the government pays for Rx medicine, expand coverage for Medicaid and make changes to SCHIP among other things.

Any one of these issues would be extremely tough to tackle.  But they insistedon working on them all at the same time.  What gives?

Many groups have internal constituents whose “pet projects” must be addressed; dropping an issue would send a message that it’s “not important” to the organization.  I think many groups are also under the mistaken impression that you become “a player” in Washington (or in your state capital) by being involved in every issue relating to your mission (and boy does that mean a lot of meetings).

The results are, sadly, predictable.  Let’s go back to the health care trade association.  One of their policy recommendations, if enacted, could save $2 billion a year while improving access to medications (yes, you read that correctly).  But their legislation is languishing in Congress with fewer than 25 cosponsors (9 Senators and 13 Representatives).

If they’d simply spent the last year building support for these bills, and stopped getting involved in every issue under the sun, they’d be well-positioned for the upcoming health care reform debate.  Instead, like many other groups in town, they are still fighting to get the attention of policymakers.

What happens when an organization brings a laser-like focus to issues?  In the 1990s, the charitable health organization where I was employed made a strategic decision to “get focused.”  During a 7-year period, with just 4 staff, we improved Medicare coverage, enacted 40 state laws, ended a discriminatory FAA policy and significantly increased funding for research and programs.  We worked on one issue at a time and moved on to a new only only after we achieved success.

Here’s my advice: (1) Take a hard look at what you want to achieve, (2) Develop one policy objective that you realistically think can actually accomplish, (3) Develop and implement a campaign to achieve that single objective and, most importantly, (4) Make sure your members are involved every step of the way.

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