How Does Policy Change Happen?

Policy change happens in several ways and at all levels of government. 

Statutory or Legislative Advocacy

Legislative policymaking refers to the process by which elected officials (e.g., members of Congress, state legislators, school board officials, etc.) introduce and pass legislation that becomes law. In some instances, legislation directly mandates a rule of law, as in the case of a bill that places a cap on what payday lenders can charge for the loans they make. In other instances, legislation only dictates broad structural parameters, and when this legislation passes, it is up to a governmental agency (or group of agencies) to design and implement the law in a way that is applicable to the constituency of the agency and which abides by the parameters set forth in the legislation. For example, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (often referred to as the ACA or “Obamacare”) gave states the flexibility to expand their Medicaid programs, and while the Act specified particular eligibility requirements, it was up to states to determine how they might expand eligibility and to decide which other strategies they might employ to lower uninsured rates among low-income residents.

To understand legislative advocacy more deeply, take state-level, automatic-enrollment Individual Retirement Account programs, or AutoIRA, as an example. A small handful of states now offer AutoIRA programs, and these programs emerged from legislation that laid the groundwork for large-scale, state-run programs. In most cases, the enacting legislation focused largely on broad structural aspects to create an environment conducive to the success of these programs. At the same time, the enacting legislation established financial boards under state administrative control to work out the precise details of how to establish, launch and administer the AutoIRA programs. Notably, the enacting legislation did not mandate that states create AutoIRA programs, nor did it dictate the specific ways in which AutoIRA programs were to be established and administered.

In this example, advocacy contributed to the creation of AutoIRA programs because:

  • Advocates educated members of Congress during the legislative process—ranging from the introduction of a bill all the way through passage—on the possible impacts of an AutoIRA law and the ways early iterations of the law could be improved to meet its goal.
  • Advocates shared data and stories with elected officials highlighting the implications of the policy to further galvanize their lawmakers’ interest in making retirement savings more accessible. 

Regulatory or Administrative Advocacy

Once a law is passed, the responsible agency, or agencies, develop the rules and regulations to implement and enforce the underlying law. Advocating to inform or influence this process is known as regulatory or administrative advocacy.
For example, The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and tasked it with writing rules to reform the mortgage lending market and protect mortgage borrowers against the practices that led to the financial collapse of 2008-2009. Advocates who educated Bureau staff and shared stories about the importance of mortgage lending reform were engaged in administrative advocacy because they informed the rulemaking process without ever advocating for a piece of legislation to be introduced or passed.

Of course, administrative or regulatory advocacy happens at the state and local levels, too. Often, rulemaking at these levels of government leads to the creation of entirely new state programs. For example, in Nevada, the State Treasurer’s Office used fees collected from 529 college savings plan providers to develop and institute a statewide Children’s Savings Account (CSA) program. In this instance, no piece of legislation demanded that the Treasurer’s Office establish a CSA program or find a use for the fees collected from 529 savings plan participants. Rather, it was the work of advocates interested in creating a college-bound identity among all Nevada students that led to the establishment of the statewide CSA program.

In this instance, advocacy led to the establishment of a statewide CSA program because:

  • Advocates met with federal and state agency officials to educate them on the possible impacts of the CSA law and the ways the law could be improved to meet the goal of making higher education more accessible.
  • Advocates offered public comments—formal, written input on the law—during a period in which state agencies sought to hear from constituents.
  • Even well before the establishment of the law, advocates had spent time building relationships with lawmakers and had cultivated champions who were interested in doubling down on their commitment to making higher education more accessible.

Budgetary Advocacy

Budgetary advocacy refers to the process of informing or influencing decisions about how public money will be allocated. This is an especially important process because in addition to passing broad legislation (legislative policy) and tasking agencies with transforming legislation into applicable rules (regulatory policy), elected officials also make decisions about how much money will be spent on the various programs that are funded by the government. These funding decisions can have big implications for how an agency can write rules, how it can implement its programs and how it can enforce particular laws. 

At the federal level, budgetary decisions get made by appropriations committees, and need to be voted on by Members of Congress. For example, in 2016, Congress approved an additional $3 million in funding for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. While this was the first funding increase for the program since 2010, members of Congress likely would not have appropriated this additional funding had it not been for the years of hard work advocates put into the process of educating appropriators (and the rest of Congress) on VITA’s impact in communities throughout the country.

At the state level, budgets are often introduced by the Governor and approved or voted upon by the state legislature. In these contexts, budgets are frequently used as a means for introducing or enacting new state policies. For example, California was able to enact and fund a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) during its annual budget process. Whereas the establishment of such a program might not have been possible had a member of the state legislature introduced a California EITC bill, the program could successfully be established when considered as a small part of a much broader budget to fund the state’s programs across a wide range of issue areas. 

In this instance, the establishment of a state EITC program in California was possible because:

  • Advocates met with appropriators to make the case for the program and their desired funding level, including sharing stories about what the program would mean for appropriators’ constituents.
  • At the state level, advocates started with agency heads and members of the Governor’s budget staff who, over time, began to see the potential power of the EITC program and could convince their colleagues and other key influencers of the value of the program.

While budgetary advocacy can often be a successful strategy for implementing new policies at the state level, caution should be taken with many budget-enacted policies requiring annual renewals or review, as is the case with California’s EITC.

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