Steps in the Advocacy Process
Understand the Issue
What's the problem?
You may find that the issue is part of a complex system, with many contributing factors. For example, water quality in a river can altered as a result of stormwater runoff from local development, fertilizer runoff from agricultural fields, illegal dumping, or climate change. It can be difficult to pinpoint the root of the issue, but the more precisely you diagnose the problem, the more effective you'll be at finding a solution.
Why is it important?
If you care about this issue, you’re probably not alone. Think of how to word the problem so that you can convey to others how the issue affects them. For example, a polluted river inhibits recreation for families, hurts the outdoor industry, degrades wildlife habitat, and can endanger public health. Think about who you’d like to attract to your cause (residents, media, legislators, others), and why they might care about this.
What specifically do you want to see changed?
Once you understand what is causing the problem, you can decide what you want to see changed. You might not be able to tackle zoning, agricultural practices, pollution enforcement, and climate change all at once, but you can pick one of those factors you deem most significant and pursue change in that arena.
Use simple, non-technical language so everyone can understand. You may be an expert, but other potential supporters may not be. Legislators, in particular, tend to be generalists - they know a little about a lot of subjects, but may not be deeply familiar with your issue.
People are going to have questions! Try to find some answers in advance.
How long has this been going on?
How widespread is it?
What are the environmental impacts?
What are the social impacts?
What are the economic impacts?
Who is impacted?
Is this a social justice issue - do the impacts fall unequally on some communities?
Which laws or regulations allow this to happen? What is preventing the outcome you want? Is it because someone isn’t doing their job? A lack of resources? Inadequate funding? Lack of enforcement of existing laws and regulations? Or is it because the law or regulations need strengthening?
How much will it cost to fix the problem and and who will be expected to pay this cost?
State and federal governmental agencies, such as the...
...and others collect data on environmental problems and monitor conditions such as water quality, streamflow, groundwater levels, and drought.
Some of this information is available on agency websites; in other cases, you may need to dig a little deeper and contact agency staff for the information you want. In addition to looking for data, ask agency staff why they think the problem hasn’t been solved and what they think would help.
Define Your Ask
Be as specific as possible.
A specific solution is easier to pitch and often easier to understand.
Show how your solution benefits the public.
Issue: Our river is polluted!
Vague Ask: Improve the River!
With data, you find that the pollution is from salt, bacteria, and nutrients that are carried into the river by stormwater (rain running over pavement). Since the town approves zoning and development (which areas get paved), you direct your efforts at municipal leadership.
Specific Ask: Change town bylaws to require more vegetated areas wherever development occurs.
Determine Who is Responsible for the Issue
Determine who is Responsible for this Issue Area
The responsibility for safeguarding a particular area or resource may fall on a private landowner, the municipality, the state, the federal government, or some combination of these.
Water quality, for example, is regulated primarily by the federal government (EPA) in Massachusetts, but the state is responsible for setting water quality standards and monitoring water quality, and municipalities and other polluters are responsible for complying with requirements set forth in permits issued by the EPA.
On the other hand, MassDEP, a state agency, has primary responsibility for safeguarding water quantity. This agency controls how much water can be withdrawn around the state for water supplies, and what conditions, if any, can be included in those withdrawals.
Municipalities are tasked with implementing the state’s Wetland Protection law, which controls, among other things, how close a new development can come to a wetland or river.
If you are not sure which level of government is responsible for solving the problem you’ve identified and internet research doesn’t help, check with your local legislator, watershed association or land trust, or Mass Rivers.
What kind of actions are you asking for? Here are the most common possibilities:
If the existing laws are inadequate to solve your problem, you can ask the legislature to pass a new law.
You should contact your legislators.
In some cases, the most effective strategy is a permit appeal, legal petition, lawsuit, or other legal action. While that is not the focus of this guide, we encourage you to include this strategy in your toolkit, as it can be extremely effective.
You may discover that the laws and regulations are fine, but that the problem stems from a lack of compliance with the laws, and that the laws/regulations are not well-enforced by the appropriate state or federal agency. This could be due to lack of funding, or a lack of political will.
Strategies can include working with the legislature to increase funding, working with media to draw attention to the problem, and/or litigation.
The Conservation Law Foundation offers excellent legal services to New England’s environmental community, and in Massachusetts, the Boston Bar Association can also help you find pro bono legal advice.
You may discover that there is an agency or program that is supposed to address this program, but that they don’t have the resources to do so. In this case, you can ask legislators to increase the relevant budget.
You should contact your legislators.
Find them here
New or Updated Regulations
You should contact the regulatory agency.
If the law appears to be adequate, but the agency’s interpretation of the law appears to be lacking, you can ask the implementing agency to strengthen its regulations.
Funding for an unfunded or underfunded government department or program
Communicate with Officials
Once you’ve determined if it is a local, state, or federal issue, and you think you have identified an action that needs to happen, contact who has the power to make change.
Using all the data you’ve learned so far, establish relationships with officials and their staff. Get to know them, make sure they know you/your organization. It is also extremely helpful to get to know the local, state, or federal agency staff who work on the issue.
Spread the Word
There is power in numbers, and numbers grow when people know there’s an issue that affects them! Take advantage of the many free tools available to help get the word out. Good relationships are crucial here as well.
and last but not least...
Most laws and regulations take time, sometimes years, to change. Increasing budgets and working through the legal system can also be slow. Don't give up - and remember to celebrate small victories. We’re in this for the long game!