*The views espoused belong solely to the author and should not be attributed to the
Virginia Management Fellows program, nor the Commonwealth.
A second disclaimer follows the initial disclaimer provided directly above (is it obvious that I have a law degree?), though this one has no legal bearing—the “topic” of this post is not what I anticipated to write about when this blog initiative first started. Instead, I had planned to delve into the critical work that public servants engage in within the various health & human services agencies. But that now seems like a “safe” choice. In addition to the obviousness of the proposition that would have been espoused—of course we need more funds for those crucial resources!—I don’t believe I would have made much of a statement or persuaded many minds with that piece. So, what exactly does this blog consist of? First, I should explain why I changed topics.
I don’t mean to mislead – nothing “new” has occurred. Yet again, the world hears the wails of individuals who, for the course of history, have consistently been marginalized, deprived of liberty, neglected in the formulation of policies and laws—simultaneously relegated & targeted with the aim of oppression.
Although I cannot, as a public employee, engage in lobbying in my position, I can still act as an advocate for issues I care about (such as dismantling oppressive systems), and so can you, regardless of your advocacy preferences. For example, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence writes:
Advocacy just means “speaking up.” Anyone, including people employed by state and local governments, can be an advocate. Advocacy includes such activities as: educating the public; providing information and resources to individuals in need of help; going into court; commenting on regulations; and helping individuals get benefits or services to which they are entitled.
Public employees may not engage in lobbying while at their jobs or using public resources (unless they were hired to do government relations). But public employees do not give up their rights as citizens when they take a public job. During their personal time, everyone has the right to speak up or express a point of view on proposed laws and budgets and to communicate those views to elected officials.
And so, therein lies my blog topic: don’t allow your position as a public servant to dissuade you from advocating when able. More importantly, let the experiences and expertise gained as a public servant fuel your advocacy.
Generally speaking, three categories of advocacy exist: case advocacy, issue advocacy, and policy advocacy. Case advocacy focuses on the individual (think of a caseworker, or someone answering calls on a nonprofit’s hotline). Issue advocacy is bit broader and focuses on a specific “issue” or problem within a community. Policy advocacy is much larger—it is solutions-based & considers root causes of various problems, attempting to remedy such issues by providing enforcement mechanisms (compliance).
It is my firm belief that public servants—particularly those involved with the formulation, interpretation, and implementation of policy—are well-suited to serve as policy advocates. Public servants have expertise—technical expertise, subject matter expertise—that can bolster the success of policy advocacy initiatives. Put more simply, public servants should absolutely advocate when able.
Last week, I attended a regularly scheduled monthly meeting. Our facilitator devoted the first twenty minutes of the meeting to discussion surrounding the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death; we spent nearly the full hour reflecting on the various injustices we witness & the myriad ways we—as public servants—could serve as agents of change. The entire group expressed gratitude that we were provided a forum to discuss something of such import. The collective “shock” that seemed to reverberate through the group—not regarding what had occurred, but that we could discuss together—left me feeling deflated. In my mind, public service is not limited to your role in your organization or your career; nor should our workspaces be considered “bubbles” from the outside world, as if what occurs every day has no bearing on our work. It does. Even more, it impacts us at work—our engagement, wellness, and the opportunities provided to us. Most importantly, our work impacts others!
In fact, we discussed during this meeting why our initiative (enhancing employee engagement) grew more urgent and salient in the wake of outrage and despair. We specifically discussed how policies (one of the workgroup’s priorities) impact various facets of work and all state government employees. As public servants, we hold great influence regarding various aspects of policy formulation and implementation, even if not meant to “advocate.” Consider this excerpt from scholar William Dunk:
Man in his life plays many parts, and the public servant, by and large, plays more parts than most men. He may mix up with high-level policy as part of his daily life, or his policy work may be at a more modest level, but if he reaches any significant place in the scheme of things, he will have some share in devising, or influencing, or “formulating” policy.
Perhaps you find my zealousness off-putting. I may be particularly fond of advocacy; as a law student, I worked solely for advocacy organizations—the PELE Special Education Advocacy Clinic, the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance. When entering this fellowship position, I, admittedly, was wary about losing the vigor I carried for advocacy.
At this point, you may be thinking, “I understand your conundrum wholeheartedly, for in 1939 the United States Congress passed the Hatch Act, limiting the political activities of public servants at all levels of government, therefore precluding many advocacy-related activities!” Thank you, reader! You are quite keen!
But what I’ve learned throughout my year as a Fellow is that, although various rules regarding advocacy by public servants “on the job” have been created, and for good reason, there still exists a space in which each public servant can use their skills and expertise to advocate for what is right and equitable.
It is my great hope that each reader leaves with a newfound zeal for the potential influence they can have in the public sphere.
If you would like to learn more about advocacy opportunities in Richmond, or any part of Virginia, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for stopping by! Until next time.
Cassidy White, JD, Virginia Management Fellow 2019-2021