Words Matter

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The Power of Language

"Government" Words

Perhaps too many of us learned the wrong lesson from the old Schoolhouse Rock video, “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” The lyrics told us how easy it is to lobby: “Some folks back home decided they wanted a law passed, so they called their local congressman, and he said, ‘You're right, there oughta be a law.’”  But instead of focusing on how easy it is to call elected officials for assistance, it seems that as youngsters we were distracted by the cute word twist of a bill (piece of legislation) being named Bill (short for William).

And to this day, many of us are confused by words having to do with government or public policy, thinking that they are interchangeable, when in fact they mean different things.

For example, people often switch the words “advocacy” and “lobbying” as if they mean the same thing. But they don’t. “Lobbying” is just one narrow subset of public policy “advocacy.”  Think of “advocacy” as a giant tool box containing various tools that can be used to influence public policy.  One tool can be used with administrative agencies.  Another tool can be used in the courts. And the “lobbying” tool is used when attempting to influence legislation. 

Similarly, some people mistakenly think that “government” and “politics” and “public policy” are all interchangeable. But again, they aren’t. “Government” includes not only the elected officials put in office through partisan politics, but also appointed officials and hired employees, the first responders and teachers and many more who have no background or interest in partisan politics. And public policy can involve actions taken by businesses and attitudes and opinions by the general public.

Why does it matter? Because for too long charitable nonprofits have not used the full range of tools available to advance their missions. Instead of freezing up and being scared of “lobbying” or interacting with elected officials or trying to influence public policy, nonprofits simply need to revisit Schoolhouse Rock to remember how easy it is to “call their local congressman.”

Issue Framing

When building a house, people plan and double-check the framing as it goes up to make sure the structure will be sturdy over time. Equal care should be invested when making a policy argument to make sure your position will be sturdy over time and not crumble.

Defining the problem is the crucial first step in formulating a public policy agenda. This problem-definition is the expression of dissatisfaction with an existing situation or condition, usually at least implying some preferred policy outcome. … [C]ompeting interest groups struggle to frame the way an issue is understood and discussed.  A successful issue-frame will shape subsequent policy outcomes with respect to whose interests get priority, how cause or blame will be attributed, and the preferred choice among various alternatives.

--The Nonprofit Quarterly (Dec. 2000)

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