Ours is an industry of both service and action. While we are developing programs and products to support older people and their caregivers, we also know there are issues affecting aging Americans—for instance elder abuse and age discrimination—that demand an advocacy campaign at the highest levels of government.
For many of us, it isn’t always clear how those issues rise to the top of the priority list or what’s being done to fight them. The truth is, an advocacy campaign is developed through extensive grassroots research, networking, voicing and monitoring. And often the most successful efforts are backed by a unified front in the field.
Here’s a look at how the longevity market engages government to drive policy changes for the good of our aging society.
Identifying issues happens in many ways, from direct conversations with constituents, to letters to Congress, to trends uncovered by think-tank organizations through discussion and research. According to Bob Blancato, National Coordinator of the bipartisan 3,000-member Elder Justice Coalition, identifying a policy issue is like finding the “white space” that no one else is talking about. Some issues, such as in increase in the prevalence of grandparents raising grandchildren or the rise of Millennial caretakers—may even come as a surprise to those in the industry.
Much more goes into policy selection than need. It involves knowing Washington politics and where your efforts will be most effective. “The more sophisticated organizations will do a landscape check before launching an advocacy campaign,” says Blancato, who has more than 20 years of experience working the Congressional and Executive branches on behalf of older Americans. “You need to look at the economics, the political environment, and where your issue currently stands before you embark on a project that will take an immense amount of time and energy. If you don’t know the environment you’re working in, you will have a wasted effort.”
Once an issue is identified and deemed potentially actionable, the question then becomes: What do we do about it? Relevant organizations begin a deep-dive into research. They gather information on the issue, its impact on the lives of older people and their caregivers, and the necessity of elevating it to the national policy level. Depending on the issue, relevant organizations may work together to create their wish list of how solutions.
The resulting policy stance allows the organization to present a clear and consistent objective. This clarity is essential to getting legislation passed. For instance, LeadingAge’s 2018 policy priorities outline clear, targeted goals for their work.
Still, Blancato warns against holding on to the “wish-list” for too long. “In Washington and Congress, you start with perfect and move to the possible—and eventually, the passable,” he says. “If you stay in the perfect world too long, you’ll watch the train go by. It’s all about holding on to what you can between possible and passable.”
Once a policy statement is developed, the actual advocacy can begin. This boots-on-the-ground legwork puts pressure on our government to listen and—hopefully—act on our policy recommendations.
Most of us are familiar with this stage of the process. Organizations make congressional visits, write letters, organize protests or marches, post yard signs and encourage constituents to make phone calls to their representatives. Policy staff begin networking with other organizations to get buy-in, and with members of Congress to garner support.
It’s about making noise in a way government officials will listen—with carefully executed research and policy requests.
Getting the bill passed is only the first step of an advocacy win. Advocates need to monitor Congress long after a bill is passed or a policy is adopted.
“A signing ceremony in the rose garden doesn’t mean the campaign is over,” Blancato says. “People think when you pass a bill and the press release goes out, it’s passed. Yes, the bill is passed. But it still needs to pass through the appropriations process, and the funds still need to get distributed.”
And, he notes, the wheels can fall off the wagon at any point in that process. The same rigor required for passing a bill needed to implement it.
The process can take months or even years. Throughout that period, representatives of advocacy organizations must stay involved to ensure constituents’ needs are not cut out in the process.
Many of us don’t think of our work as being relevant to legislation and regulation. But we can play a role in supporting strong policy initiatives—especially when they have a critical impact on the older people we serve.