Why is advocacy important?
In today’s highly politicized atmosphere, we are hearing more about advocacy than ever before. For this reason, it is important that we take the time to understand what the term means and why it is important. First, advocacy can be defined as any activity by an individual or group that aims to influence political, economic, social and institutional decisions.i Another definition describes advocacy as the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending.ii Clearly, this term can encompass many activities that occur daily, which leads to the question of, ‘why is advocacy important?’ In a democratic society, advocacy is incredibly important for various reasons.
Improving public services
Government-based advocacy is the most common type of advocacy encountered, followed by judicial. Lobbying is the traditional type of advocacy one thinks of in which a direct approach is made to legislators concerning an issue and an appeal is made to them, however advocacy can take other forms, such as media campaigns, public speaking, commissioning and publishing research and even conducting exit polls.iii One of the most widespread aims of advocacy is to improve social justice and one component of that is the improvement of public services. In this type of advocacy (as in most governmental advocacy), it is a system that is being challenged or advocated for-rather than an individual. In this type of challenge, the goal is to change policy and practice at a certain governmental level, whether local, national or international. When a system change is enacted, it changes the situation for an entire group of individuals, which is what distinguishes it from advocacy for an individual that would only change the situation for one person. When advocating on a system level, the desired result of many grassroots efforts is to improve public services and or improve existing legislation to benefit an individual.iv
Holding elected officials to greater accountability
Advocacy is also important because of its ability to draw attention to issues. Many laypersons do not have the time or access to the information necessary to understand all the aspects of any issue and any legislation that might affect it. When there are dedicated advocates who take the time to fully understand the issues, they are able to then inform the public through media channels. With this information, the public is ideally able to make informed decisions and communicate their views to their elected representatives, who are obligated to represent their constituents. If this is not happening as it should in a healthy democracy, the advocates are one segment that can call attention to the phenomenon and reveal it to the public. They also usually play a role when there is a call for leadership change if a representative is caught in a scandal or has been otherwise proven to act unethically. This results in the development of accountability and transparency in government as well as in public services and many other institutions.v
To mobilize communities for a cause
Mobilization means the inclusion of others in to the advocacy efforts in a way that they support the struggle for change and take actions toward a common goal. This is one of the most important functions of advocacy simply because one person’s opinion may not count for much when a representative hears from hundreds daily, but if a large group is mobilized to action and they are presenting a united message to the public and to policymakers, it is a much better indication that this may be a broader public opinion. Mobilization works by expanding the base of support beyond those who may be directly impacted by convincing others that the issue affects them as well. The rise in public awareness of a particular issue that may be promoted through advocacy is what can eventually lead to a change in public opinion that results in social change. This function is critical in the democratic process and the ability of advocates to mobilize a group is often an indication of how quickly that social change will be achieved.vi
To give a voice to those who cannot protect themselves
Most advocacy refers to the governmental level of advocacy, which is commonly referred to as lobbying, however, there is another form. Individual advocacy, sometimes referred to as judicial advocacy, is a function in which one person (an advocate) works as a person who pleads on behalf of another. One example would be a social worker, in which the role is a crucial part of their job. They work to ensure that the needs of the child or adult are put first and ultimately, the decisions made speak to that goal.vii In situations where there is an advocate for an individual, and the goal is to protect their rights, there may be legal challenges. In rare cases, this can lead to a sweeping change of law that may affect a group of individuals, but in most cases, individual advocacy works to solely seek an outcome that is in the best interest of one person. In addition to children in the foster care system or otherwise in need of a social worker, other groups that would typically use and advocate are those who may not be able to speak for themselves, including those with mental illness and some forms of disability. In many instances, the advocate will have specific knowledge and resources that will help to determine the best way to move forward, even in cases that do not require judicial review.viii