Understanding the Political and Policy Context

Effective budget advocacy rarely looks the same in different countries or in different political systems. The issues that advocacy must address and the strategies for doing so are directly dependent on the political and policy context in which that work is to be done.

  • Is poverty a major concern, or not?
  • Is the challenge to secure needed budget allocations, or to assure that the money allocated is actually spent and spent effectively?
  • Is the budget process open and the information needed easily available, or is first challenge to open up the budget process?
  • Is the government context highly democratic where participation is welcomed, or one where political engagement actually carries substantial risk?

These are just some of the differences that define the environment in which budget advocacy is carried out. Understanding that political and policy context in a clear and realistic way is an essential first step toward developing effective budget advocacy.

Scanning the Political Landscape for Budget Advocacy

Civil society organizations (CSOs) and individuals seeking to influence how the government’s budget addresses a particular issue must have a clear reading on the environment in which they are working, including some very broad factors about the political system in general. Some of the things that budget advocates need to understand include:

Political and System Dynamics

The Institutional Dynamics of the Budget Making Process

What are the institutions within government that most shape budget policy? What are those in the executive branch? And in the legislative branch? What kind of political dance takes place between the two in the budget process?

Access to Information

What budget information is available (proposed budgets during the approval process, reports on actual expenditure afterwards, analyses of budget spending, etc.)? And when is it available?

Access to the Process

What are the formal and informal opportunities for CSOs and citizens to engage in the budget process? Formal opportunities might include testifying before government hearings. Informal openings might include private meetings with key officials.

Power Dynamics between Various Stakeholders

Who wields influence in the budget process? This group can include government officials, interest groups, the media, and others. Budget advocacy needs to take into account all of these actors in its strategy for impacting budget policy.

The Broader Context

Socioeconomic Situation

Budgeting is the policy arena where government most directly makes choices for meeting the population’s basic needs and services. How much does the population depend on government to meet those basic needs? Is poverty widespread? Is it growing or diminishing? How wide are the gaps between the need and what government, in general, already provides?

Prevailing Customs and Values

Is there general public support for a strong public sector role in meeting people’s basic needs, or is there resistance to that role? Is there wide resistance to or support for government efforts to secure the revenues necessary to provide for those needs?

There are several tools, often referred to as Strategic Analysis Tools, available to analyze the environment. One way to assess the policy landscape is known as the Advocacy and Three Sectors approach, which examines the balance between state, market, and civil society forces. Understanding the relative power and influence of each of these sectors on policy and budget decisions will help advocates assess the challenges they will face in achieving their objective and identify the sectors that might provide potential allies for their issue.

Analyzing the Political Space is another useful tool that looks at how much tolerance and opportunities the system has for challenges, and what advocates might do to achieve results in their particular environments. This analysis typically identifies political space as closed, narrow, and open. Read more about tips for achieving the best results in each of these environments.

Another approach for understanding the environment is Analyzing Power Relations at different levels of the society. Understanding these dynamics will help you assess how much support you can get from different groups and sectors, and the potential clashes you might run into when implementing your budget advocacy campaign. Read more about analyzing power relations.

Scanning the Landscape of Needs and Problems that Budget Advocacy Must Address

Before developing an advocacy objective (e.g., increasing public spending on primary education by 25 percent) and crafting a strategy to work toward that objective, advocates need to thoroughly understand the nature of the problem. One approach is known as a From Problems to Budget Advocacy analysis, which seeks to separate problems from issues.


Problems are what people see and experience firsthand. For instance, it is a problem if children in a community have less than a one-in-two chance of making it to the sixth grade in school.

The next step is for advocates to analyze and understand the reasons behind the problem. Is access to primary education handicapped because there are an insufficient number of schools? Is it because there are enough schools but an insufficient number of qualified teachers to fill those schools? Are those problems a result of insufficient allocation of funds or corruption that drains the funds allocated? Is it because children are pulled out of school by their families in order to work? There can be many factors that contribute to a problem such as this one (and often a mix of several all at once) and advocates need to begin with a clear sense of those various factors.


Issues are the various factors that may be contributing to the problem. It is generally the issues that advocates seek to resolve in order to address the problem. For example, in the case of a cholera epidemic some of the potential issues might include a lack of clean potable water in the community, poor personal hygiene practices, an inadequate health care system, or sewage problems. Once advocates identify the related issues, they can prioritize the critical factors that contribute most to the problem and focus on these first. The choice of whether to pursue budget advocacy would depend on whether their issues are related to budget policies or execution, e.g., recent cuts in funds for health care resulted in reductions in health care personnel in the community, reducing the system’s ability to respond to the epidemic.

One of the most important tools available to analyze public problems is the Triangle Analysis, developed by Margaret Schuler. In the Triangle Analysis the problem is examined from three different angles: Content, Structure, and Culture. The relationship between these three angles is always dynamic; a change in one will almost always affect the other two.

Content refers to the existing laws, regulations, and policies related to the problem. Examining the content can help identify whether there are adequate laws, regulations, and policies to address the problem, or if there need to be changes to these. Structure refers to the implementation mechanisms for the relevant laws or policies, which may be inadequate or completely lacking. Finally, Culture relates to the prevailing values and norms that may affect the implementation of the relevant laws and policies or undermine their ability to address the problem.

For example, examining the political culture may reveal that ordinary people do not use an existing Access to Information law to ask the government for budget documents because there is a fear of reprisal. It’s obvious that Culture is an important factor in the effectiveness of public policies but, unfortunately, it is a factor that is often overlooked in advocacy efforts, including budget advocacy efforts.

In the cholera example above, a Content analysis may reveal that the budget actually included sufficient funds for health care personnel to handle cholera cases, but the Structure analysis may identify problems in the transfer of funds between levels of government, which lead to the allocated funds not making it to the community. To exacerbate this issue, a Culture analysis may show that there is a lack of attention to adequate hygiene. Advocates in this example might want to engage in budget advocacy to address the breakdown in intergovernmental fund transfers, and a public education campaign to raise awareness about the importance of hygiene.

Another tool for analyzing problems and issues for potential solutions is Timelines, sometimes referred to as Naming the Moments. Essentially advocates map the trends in the problem over time, usually covering a period of 20 to 30 years. On this timeline, you identify points when the trend for the problem or issue changed and try to analyze what caused the changes. Advocates can use this information to anticipate the future magnitude of the problem and identify the actions needed to address the problem and improve the outlook for the future.

Resources and Tools for Understanding the Political and Policy Context

Learn more about strategic analysis tools and tips.