Your Budget Advocacy Strategy

Ultimately, the goal of a budget advocacy effort is to bring together a strategic objective, a clear sense of audience, a winning message, and strong alliances together to form a set of activities that delivers your message powerfully. The medium of message delivery, or how the message will be conveyed, can vary based on a number of factors.

Different formats, styles, and content of communications are appropriate for different purposes and audiences, and sometimes it is necessary to prepare more than one version of a communication to cover different needs and objectives. Some organizations might produce many different versions of the same analysis, from the full 30-page report to summaries and fact sheets that focus on specific questions and issues. Formats for delivering messages can include: house meetings, workshops, public hearings, rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, strikes, print and electronic media, drama, puppetry, poetry, and songs.

In addition to how the message is conveyed, who will convey the message (experts, key constituencies, affected individuals, public figures, etc.) is central to a successful budget advocacy strategy. The messenger should not only be familiar with the advocacy objectives and the message but also should be someone that the target decision maker and other advocacy audiences will trust and respond to, e.g., a well-known economist can be an effective messenger for budget-related proposals. Including messengers who are directly affected by the issue into your campaign can be very effective. Though they may not be well-versed in the details of the budget, they add a human face to the issue. Even when there are different messengers for a specific advocacy issue, there should always be one unified message. CSOs and coalitions engaged in advocacy can identify and develop their messengers over time — the more public exposure they receive, the more they will be recognized as experts and public figures.

Once you have identified the issue you will work on and assembled the evidence you need to understand that problem and argue for a solution, then it is time to develop a clear and coherent strategy that will help you achieve it. Your strategy will generally involve six important components:

  1. Objective
  2. Audience (Constituents, Opponents, Allies)
  3. Message
  4. Partners and Alliances
  5. Message Delivery
  6. Schedule

While there is a logical progression of the steps and activities presented here, undertaking an advocacy effort is not a linear exercise. If advocates want to maximize their chance of achieving their objectives, they will often need to revisit some of these steps and adjust their strategies based on unexpected challenges and new information.

Determining Your Objective

An advocacy objective should set out very clearly and specifically what you want the government (you must be specific about what branch, ministry, department, or program) to do, how it should be done, where, and when. The more information and evidence you have about your issue, the environment, the decisions and decision makers of the budget process, the clearer your objective will be. One set of criteria used to select a strategic objective is called SMARTER. That is:

Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Realistic
Time-bound
Evaluation and
Readjustment

Specific
  • Be as clear and specific as you can about the action you want from the government. A goal akin to “housing for all” might command inspiration and set out the long-term goal, but something more specific such as the construction of 1,000 housing units for the poorest and most vulnerable living in the city – is something you can hold government accountable for now. State the objective as a problem and a solution, i.e., people are suffering for the lack of housing, and we are seeking the construction of 1,000 new homes in the next year. For many budget advocacy initiatives, public participation in the decision-making process is also one of the most important results. So this too should be defined in specific ways, such as requirements for public hearings, etc.
Measurable
  • Similarly, be as precise as possible as to what you want — what you want done, when you want it done, and how you think it should be done. It is not enough to say that government should “speed up its housing delivery” or “build more houses.” Your objective should constitute a measurable step toward solving the larger problem, e.g., providing $XX in funding for incentives for all families earning at or below the poverty rate to send their daughters to school. It is important to identify how you think that government can achieve the increases or improvements in service delivery you are proposing (i.e., identifying funding sources, demonstrating whether it can be administered by existing structures or if new bureaucracy will be necessary, or proposing civil society partners that can help implement the change on the ground). Be sure, as well, to focus on the results you want to achieve. This will give you flexibility to change your tactics in order to achieve your objective.
Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound
  • A smart advocacy objective is also realistic, taking into account the political realities in which it will be sought. If the government is fortunate enough to enjoy a budget surplus, then it might be an opportune time to make the push for a new service or spending program. If the government is facing a significant budget deficit and talking mostly about cutbacks, then it is likely far more realistic to aim for something smaller, such as a pilot program. It would also be even more important to identify possible savings in the budget to offset the costs of your proposal.
  • It is also important to set a timeframe for the objective: this financial year, over the next three years, by 2015.

Keep in mind that not everything can be changed immediately. For larger, long-term goals, think about progressive realization. Partners in an advocacy coalition will be unlikely to commit to objectives that are too far out of reach.

Evaluation and Readjustment
  • Just as with a trip down a road, when implementing an advocacy strategy it is useful to have a map and a solid plan of where you are headed before you leave, but equally important to stay open to changes along the way. This means building in mechanisms for evaluating progress. These can include defining indicators of progress, in terms of political support, policy progress, etc. You can also measure media coverage of the issue and make other assessments of political progress. If you aren’t achieving the desired effect, adjust.

Here are some examples of SMARTER budget advocacy objectives:

  • The government, through the Ministry of Welfare and Social Planning, shall introduce a targeted social security grant to the 500,000 lowest-income, female-headed households with children under 12, living in peri-urban informal settlements. The grant shall be rolled out to 80 percent of the targeted beneficiaries over the next two years.
  • The Ministry of Health shall ensure that anti-retroviral treatment is available to all HIV/AIDS patients at primary and secondary health facilities throughout the country by 2015.
  • The Ministry of Education will improve access to primary education by appointing 300 additional qualified teachers and building 100 new schools over the next three years.

Audiences

Winning an advocacy objective is all about moving target audiences to your side. This includes both “primary audiences” — those with the authority to deliver the goods — and “secondary audiences” — the multiple stakeholders and others with influence who will have an impact on the choices those authorities make.

Decision makers
  • Who specifically in government will make the choices you seek – executive branch officials, legislative branch, elected officials, appointed people at the local, national, or regional level? Your target must be exact (and will often be a mix of these). Analyzing the budget will help you to confirm the primary audience for your advocacy. Knowing what budget changes are needed allows you to make sure you target the right decision maker(s), those who can bring about the solution you are proposing. In addition, this analysis provides the evidence that you need to make a strong argument for your position.
Those with Influence
  • Who else cares about the issue? What constituencies care about the issue? What institutions care about the issue? Who else will have influence – the media, interest groups, others. If they are going to have substantial influence on how policy makers decide then you need to know where they stand and seek to influence them in your direction.
Opponents
  • Opponents are not necessarily our adversaries (although they can be), rather they are those who do not agree with your position on the issue itself, or your strategy. It is good to listen to all criticisms with an open mind, in part, to learn how to enhance your budget advocacy efforts. In any case, you will need to understand their position to neutralize their message and to possibly attract some to change in their position.

Message

Your advocacy message represents the whole effort, and so it should be as strategic, thoughtful, and effective as possible. Four key elements should drive that message:

Keep it simple

Focus first on the basics and only then go into more detail, and only the detail that makes sense for a given audience. What’s the problem and what is the solution? Avoid jargon and terms that will leave your audience confused. “We have thousands of families living each night without shelter and that is why we are proposing a commitment by the government to build 1,000 units of new housing each year for five years.”

Make it Compelling

Talk about people, tell stories, and appeal to people’s head and heart at the same time. Tell us about a specific family that has no housing and what that means to them. Offer us an example of a family that was able to move into subsidized housing and what it meant to them.

Build in your defense

While you don’t want to make your opponents’ arguments for them, you should understand their objections and be prepared to refute them confidently. You can avoid some objections by talking about the challenges related to your proposal up front. In the example above, be open about how much the housing program will cost, and how difficult it will be to achieve. Where will the funds come from? How do we know those funds will be managed well?

Say it again, and again, and again

Messages have to be repeated over and over in different forums before they actually sink in. Repeat it in the media, in public meetings, in organizational materials, and at every opportunity. Remember in all of this that the right message is not what is compelling or convincing to you and others who already support the goal. A strategic message is one designed to be convincing to those who will make the decision and the others who will influence them. The message should explain simultaneously why the objective is the right thing to do, and why it is in the political interest of those with the power to do it. The first is communicated through evidence and argument. The second is communicated by understanding the politics and the people you are seeking to convince. On budget-related matters this also includes discussing how a proposal will not only spend funds but also save funds (such as by reducing the burden on emergency shelter and social services by those requiring shelter).

Framing your message

Framing your message appropriately means putting your it in the best terms possible for a particular audience and a particular context. A well-framed message answers the following questions:

  • Who is affected?
  • Who are the players involved?
  • Who can and should deliver the message?
  • What hooks can I use? Why should listeners care?
  • What stories, pictures, or images communicate the message in a compelling way?
  • What is this story really about?
  • What do you want the person or people receiving this message to do?

The frame you choose for your message will depend on the nature of the message, your intentions, and on what is happening in your context at the time. Using hooks in messages can be quite effective. Some examples of hooks might include a recent announcement made by the government on an issue relating to your advocacy objective, a dramatic human-interest story in the local or international media, or upcoming events that are related to your issue.

You can choose to enhance your message by framing it in terms of human rights, social justice, good governance, or public needs and priorities, depending on the specific context you are working in. Here are a few examples of ways of framing messages for different audiences:

Framing for Different Audiences

Legislators
  • The president of the Budget Committee, as member of the ruling party, completely dismissed the proposal for a larger child support grant, in spite of this being one of the main issues on your agenda.
  • “Without these 30 million pesos, 6,000 persons living with HIV won’t be able to access health services. Not only does this mean real people in your constituencies will be turned away from clinics but we risk higher rates of infection and greater costs for the state.”
A Government Ministry
  • At the last UNAIDS forum, you said that Mexico is fighting strongly against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. These facts clearly demonstrate the opposite is true.
Civil Society Groups
  • “International Women’s Day is coming. The government is taking money out of the women’s health budget in order to grant support to an organization that opposes public health policies. Congress has ignored all the work that civil society has been doing for years to help women. We need to demand action.”

Partners and Alliances

Effective advocacy, including on budget issues, is a group effort that requires many different kinds of organizations to be effective. Having a constituency for your budget issue is critical in adding legitimacy and credibility to your advocacy. Your constituency is your support base. Having a constituency drawn from ordinary citizens is a strong indication that your budget issue is relevant and necessary.

A strong advocacy campaign should include a mix of allies – lawmakers on the inside who can carry the issue, people directly effected who can speak about it in a personal way, experts who can speak about the technical aspects, and organizations that bring political clout to your side such as unions, political organizations, etc.

Message Delivery

Ultimately, the goal of a budget advocacy effort is to bring all of these elements together — a strategic objective, a clear sense of audience, a winning message, and strong alliances — into a set of activities to deliver that message powerfully. The medium of message delivery, or how the message will be conveyed, can vary based on a number of factors.

Different formats, styles, and content of communications are appropriate for different purposes and audiences, and sometimes it is necessary to prepare more than one version of a communication to cover different needs and objectives. Some organizations might produce many different versions of the same analysis, from the full 30-page report to summaries and fact sheets that focus on specific questions and issues. Formats for delivering messages can include: house meetings, workshops, public hearings, rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, strikes, print and electronic media, drama, puppetry, poetry, and songs.

In addition to how the message is conveyed, who will convey the message (experts, key constituencies, affected individuals, public figures, etc.) is central to a successful budget advocacy strategy. The messenger should not only be familiar with the advocacy objectives and the message but also should be someone that the target decision maker and other advocacy audiences will trust and respond to, e.g., a well-known economist can be an effective messenger for budget-related proposals. Including messengers who are directly affected by the issue into your campaign can be very effective. Though they may not be well-versed in the details of the budget, they add a human face to the issue. Even when there are different messengers for a specific advocacy issue, there should always be one unified message. CSOs and coalitions engaged in advocacy can identify and develop their messengers over time — the more public exposure they receive, the more they will be recognized as experts and public figures.

Schedule

The next step to creating a budget advocacy strategy is planning the schedule of activities, such as media events, workshops, rallies, release of reports and policy statements, meetings with Ministry of Finance staff or key legislators, etc. Keep in mind the objective and audience of the advocacy issue. If you are trying to influence a particular vote or decision, a debate in parliament, or making a general case for policy change, clarifying your purpose will inform the timing of your communication.

You must take into consideration the budget cycle. There is always more than one stage of the budget being implemented simultaneously, so knowing when the different stages are taking place will help to plan when and who will intervene. You may want press coverage to coincide with an event or debate, or you may decide to release the information through a meeting or public hearing.

The International Budget Partnership conducted six in-depth case studies of CSOs that conduct successful budget advocacy work around the world. These case studies included extensive research on the strategies used, and the successes and challenges experienced by Ibase in Brazil, Fundar in Mexico, Idasa in South Africa, the Uganda Debt Network, DISHA in India, and the Institute of Public Finance in Croatia. These case studies showed that:

  • Successful budget advocacy demands access to credible and timely information.
  • It requires persistent, dedicated, ongoing work.
  • Budget advocacy is not exclusive to economists or policy wonks; ordinary people whose lives are affected by budget decisions can be the most effective advocates. Involving these people can strengthen advocacy efforts and make their results more sustainable.
  • It calls for an understanding of how to navigate the political terrain – budgets can be highly political and, in some contexts, challenging those in power can result in personal risk.
  • Local advocacy efforts should connect with national-level, and sometimes international, processes and vice versa.
  • A strong coalition is a strategic tactic to gain support from constituencies affected by the issue and, thereby, give legitimacy to the advocacy issue.
  • Successful advocacy campaigns should remain aware of the socioeconomic and political environment and use the opportunities that present themselves along their path to achieving their objective.