The Advocacy Cycle

Done right, advocacy is a process that develops and strategically invest social capital. Social capital refers to the products of reciprocal relationships and networks (i.e. trust, fellowship, support, sharing of resources, etc.).

Components of policy work:
Policy work is an iterative process, meaning it is ongoing, reflective, and cyclical. The advocacy cycle depicted above is comprised of four overlapping phases and many ongoing tasks.

1. Community Needs Assessment – Community needs assessments investigate a wide range of conditions in the community (population demographics, housing stock, disease rates, economic factors, etc). When a partnership is formed in response to an identified issue, community needs assessments can contribute to a more complete picture of a community. An assessment can also be used to gain an understanding of the range of issues faced by a community and to identify some of the community’s strengths. Finally, community needs assessments can be conducted throughout the course of a project, policy intervention, or advocacy initiative, as an evaluative tool to assess the impact of policy changes. In coalitions it is useful to take stock of the community members’ impressions at the outset and look for evidence of the magnitude of the problems they have identified.

For example, in the Harlem Urban Research Center’s Community Action Board – a community-academic partnership – many community members reported that nearly everyone in the community knows someone involved in the criminal justice system. In a community poll they then conducted they found that 32% of respondents knew someone personally who had returned from jail or prison in the last 12 months. This finding helped to confirm and community members impressions, and to back them up with data.

2. Prioritizing community issues – Many coalitions evolve in response to a pressing community issue. However, for those coalitions that have general community improvement goals, prioritizing the issues facing the community will be an important and challenging task. Community needs assessment can help to guide this process. However, the group should generally be guided by what excites and moves it to action. Also the expertise of the members should be taken into account. If expertise is lacking in the group, additional members can be asked to join.

3. Assessing the Political Landscape – In addition to learning about any science related to your target health outcome, the policies that are impacting that outcome, and the community views of the issue, a partnership needs to learn something about the context in which the policy is being practiced. Understanding the political and economic environment that surrounds the issue, identifying the stakeholders related to the issue, and identifying relevant policies will set the stage for the development of an effective change strategy.

4. Doing your homework: Research – The more information you can gather about your chosen policy or practice and its social and political context, the more prepared you will be to take effective action.

5. Agenda Setting – While the coalition is developing a sophisticated understanding of the issues, it can also begin to develop recommendations for changes in policy or practice. It is useful to think about both ideal changes and changes that are achievable. The ideal (e.g. universal healthcare, living wage, alternatives to incarceration for youth) will guide the development of recommendations tailored to the current political and economic climate. Breaking down the ideal overall goal into specific policy recommendations for short, medium, and long range time frames allows the coalition to pursue multiple strategies with multiple decision-makers.

6. Coalition Building (Broadening your coalition)– Developing allies is often a critical component of a policy change strategy. However, it also represents a challenge to a coalition’s ability to stay focused and to set the agenda.

7. Action – Action is the mechanism used to achieve your policy goals. Action includes all processes that lead to desired outcomes (e.g. media campaigns, negotiations, program development, etc.).

8. Reflection and Evaluation – After a successful change in policy it is critical that coalition members monitor the impact of the change on their communities. Whether or not your actions produced the desired results, reflecting on the process used to achieve change can both bolster the group’s confidence and highlight useful lessons learned for future campaigns.

The rewards of strategic policy work
While policy work is time consuming and requires considerable resource investment, it also has many rewards. These rewards include both the political and the personal.
* Building Social Capital – Growing Stronger
* Developing Skills in the Community and in the institutions that serve the community
* Achieving Change
* Improving Social Policy
* Creating a more democratic society

Assessing Issues: Choosing an Issue to Work On

Deciding which issue to address can be a daunting task. There are so many policies and practices that affect health in our communities that it can sometimes seem overwhelming. For this reason it is useful to choose as a first project, changing a policy that is amenable to change – meaning one that can be changed without a miracle or radical change in the political environment – or choosing a project that will help to build resources. An early victory will go a long way to building the trust, optimism, and commitment among change agents necessary to meet other goals. If you are embarking on a long-term policy intervention with substantial resources, you should also select broader more difficult to change policies as a target of your efforts.

To guide your choice of policy priorities consider the following questions:

How much damage does the current policy do, both with respect to the number of people affected and with respect to the intensity of the damage to each individual?

Policies that harm a lot of people have a natural base of support for change. However, if the impact is small, people may not be willing to invest time or energy in changing the policy.

If there is a policy or practice which is severely affecting the lives of a relatively small group, that small group and their family and friends may be extremely motivated to work toward change. For example, spinal cord injuries are relatively rare, but devastating to the individual and their families. Therefore they work very hard to find successful treatments. Christopher Reeve’s foundation has been one of the leading organizations doing public education around stem cell research to try to get public support and public funding.

The importance of any given policy to your community should guide your decision. Also consider the strength of potential allies for each issue.

Is this a policy or a practice?

A policy is a rule, regulation, or legislation that governs action. Policies include: regulated incentive systems such as government grant making, the written protocols of corporations that govern their behavior, laws, and rules written by government agencies.

A practice is either the way a policy is carried out, or the way business is conducted in the absence of a defined policy. Practices are often the discretion of particular individuals and to change them will require finesse and negotiation.

At what level is this policy or practice set (federal, state, city, neighborhood, agency)

Federal level policy change generally requires substantial coalitions combined with connections in Washington, DC. However, this does not mean federal issues are not worth working on. It simply means that they are not easily affected from the local level. Media coverage can be a strong catalyst to changes in public policy at all levels, and is particularly useful for raising issue awareness nationally.

State level policy change requires contacting state representatives. Statewide coalitions are very effective tools to affect state level policies and to strengthen understanding among activists and service providers across a range of issues, cultures, and geographies. If you are in a large city, which encompasses a large percentage of the state’s population, you may be able to affect state policies simply by working with your locally elected state officials.

Local policies, those set by county, city, or community authorities are changed more readily through local pressure than federal or state level policies. However, this does not mean that they will change readily. Many local policies are just as entrenched as federal policies, some more so. An examination of the stakeholders will help you decide if a policy is likely to change.

How many stakeholders are affected by this policy or practice? Who has a stake in preserving this policy or practice?

Making a list of stakeholders and defining their stake in the issue is helpful in many ways. First, this exercise will give you some idea of how readily changeable a policy is. If the list of people/institutions positively affected by the policy strongly outweighs (in number or power) the list of people/institutions damaged by this policy, you can conclude that it the issue will not be easily changed. Again, this does not mean it would be impossible to change: it means that the resource investment to affect change would be great.

Secondly, your stakeholder list will help you define allies. These potential allies may surprise you. Don’t be afraid to form coalitions with groups that you do not typically work with in order to affect change on a specific issue. Often policymakers are particularly impressed by such diverse coalitions. (The argument is that if traditionally ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ people can agree on an issue it must have real merit. In addition, the issue is perceived as playing to a broad spectrum of voters, donators, and supporters.)

Thirdly, your stakeholder list should include an analysis of incentives. This analysis is a natural outgrowth of defining who gains and who loses from a particular policy. When you determine how an individual or institution gains or loses from the implementation of a policy, you have defined the incentives for that particular stakeholder.

Note: you may also find the worksheet “An Advocate’s Guide to Prioritizing Policy Goals” a useful tool when considering what policy or practice to target with the resources you have.

The Three Branches of Government

The state and federal governments, and usually local government, have three branches of government, each of which may be an avenue for change on your issue. The legislative branch, which includes the congress, state legislatures, and city councils, makes the laws. This branch also collaborates with the executive branch to create the budget.

The judicial branch, i.e. the court system, is responsible for interpreting the law. Judges have the discretion to decide what the law means and their written decisions become precedents that help to define future interpretations of the law. Additionally, judges are responsible for determining which law takes precedence when two laws conflict, as in the case of state sodomy laws recently overturned by the Supreme Court due to their conflict with the constitutional right to privacy. As culture changes, the judicial branch sets new precedents that overturn former precedents; it is a constantly evolving system.

The executive branch is responsible for enforcing the law. The executive branch controls the military and the police, as well as a wide range of government agencies. The government agencies that are responsible for health concerns from the federal level Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the city level health department are part of the executive branch of government. For this reason the executive appoints the key leadership positions in these agencies. For advocates working to affect health policy developing relationships with executive appointees is useful for agency level change and can help provide critical access to the executive and his or her thinking on an issue.

The executive has to sign every bill into law. If the executive vetoes a bill, generally a 2/3rds majority vote is required in the legislature to override the veto. Consequently, both laws and budgets are the result of a negotiation between the legislative and executive branches.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

In all three levels of government the executive (president, governor, and mayor) proposes the initial budget which is then revised through various means by the legislature and later signed by the executive to become the budget. As a result of this process, the budget is a negotiation between the executive and legislative branches of government.


The United States Congress is made up of the 100 member Senate and the 435 voting members of the House of Representatives. The Senate is made up of two representatives from each state, regardless of the geographic or population size of the state. The senate terms are six years with elections held every two years for roughly one-third of the seats.

States are represented in the House of Representatives based upon their population. Population is determined by the Census. Members are elected every two years. There are no term limits in either house of the Congress.

Bill is Introduced
Members of Congress introduce bills as the first step toward making a law. Sometimes these bills come out of a personal interest or expertise of the legislator or his or her staff. Sometimes the bills are proposed by advocates or lobbyists (people paid to advocate on behalf of groups – including corporations, labor unions, political organizations, and state and foreign governments – who can afford to pay for people to advocate on their behalf). A Member of Congress may even be given “draft legislation” to work with or introduce unedited by an advocate or lobbyist. Another way bills are proposed is at the urging of the President or one of the Executive Branch agencies; this is known as an “Executive Communication.”

When a Member of Congress introduces a bill they become the named sponsor of the bill. The bill receives a number with HR -for House of Representatives – or S – for Senate – before it. (Ex. HR 126 or S123) All bills having to do with taxing or spending (also known as appropriations) begin in the House. Once a bill is introduced it is sent to a committee by the presiding officer.

Bill Goes Through Committee
The House has twenty standing committees, in addition to select committees and The Committee of the Whole – the whole House convened to consider and amend bills but not to vote on them. The Senate has sixteen standing committees, as well as select and special committees, set up to deal with more specific or time-limited issues. Committees are generally run by the member of the majority party with the most years of service, known as the Chair. The member of the minority party is most often called the Ranking Member. The members of the committees are in practice selected by the party leadership. The committees have the power to hold hearings and subpoena testimony. The committee members will debate the bill, and may even amend the bill, though their amendments can be rejected once the bill is out of committee. The committee can release the bill with a recommendation for passage; this is called, “reporting it out.” Or the committee can hold on to the bill, which is called “tabling.” The chair manages the work of the committee and therefore has a great deal of power over which bills are considered quickly, over time, or not at all.

A bill may be referred to more than one committee if it deals with areas covered by multiple committees. In this case one committee is designated as primary and the other committees are generally given a time limit on how long they can consider the bill. The primary committee has no time limit for consideration of the bill. A Member of Congress may file a Motion to Discharge the bill from committee, if the bill has been in committee for at least 30 days. A motion to discharge requires the support of a majority of members to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

Bill Goes to the Floor
A bill passes in both houses with a simple majority (51 in the Senate, 216 in the House). In order for a bill to become law the exact same version of it must be passed by both houses and then signed by the president. If two bills in the two houses need to be resolved into one, a conference committee made up of members from both houses works on creating a single bill for passage.

Bill Becomes a Law
When a bill arrives on the President’s desk he may sign it, veto it, or wait ten days either signing or vetoing it before sending it back to Congress. If Congress is in session when the unsigned bill is returned it automatically becomes law as if it was signed. If Congress is adjourned the return of the bill functions as a veto, this is called the “pocket veto.” It takes a two thirds Majority of each chamber to override a veto.


The New York State Legislature was founded in 1777. Presently the Senate has XX members and the Assembly xx. Both Assembly members and Senator are elected every two years, the even calendar years. There are no term limits in either house of the state legislature. The New York State Legislature has been widely criticized by good-government groups for being undemocratic in its operations, and therefore for failing to fairly represent the voters. While rules reform is currently underway, the process so far is small. (For reference see the Brennan Center comparison of rules changes v. reform recommendation provided in your packet.) In effect, the governor, the Assembly Speaker, and the Senate Majority Leader decide which pieces of legislation are even permitted to come to the floor for votes. This is the “three men in a room” system of negotiation that you may have heard about.

Introducing a Bill
Ideas for bills at the state level originate in the same way federal bills do: from legislator or staff interest or expertise; from constituents’ needs, from executive request, from advocates, from lobbyists. If the bill does not come to a legislators office in a legal format (for example, some groups will hire lobbyists who have the legal expertise to draft legislation), then the substantive ideas are sent to the staff of the non-partisan Legislative Bill Drafting Commission, who draft the law or, more often than not, make the appropriate amendments to existing law. This document, filled either with totally original language or with the edited language of a change to existing law, is introduced in the Senate or the Assembly, or sometimes both, if a simultaneous introduction has been negotiated.

Bill Goes Through Committee
In both houses the bill is then assigned to a committee responsible for investigating the merit of the bill and deciding whether or not the bill should go to the full Senate or Assembly for consideration. The Assembly committees are more active than those of the Senate. While both have the power to call for public hearings and request testimony, the Assembly holds far more hearings than the Senate.

Bill Goes to the Floor
In practice a bill generally gets to the floor only with the permission of the Speaker in the Assembly or the Majority Leader in the Senate. Non-controversial bills will be voted on with no debate. Bills pass either house with a simple majority. If the bill passes one house, it will be referred to the other house for a vote. If it is amended in the other chamber, it must be reconsidered and re-voted on in its new form, before it can be sent to the governor for signature or veto. As in the congress, both chambers of the state legislature must pass a bill with the exact same language for it to go to the executive to become law. If a bill needs to be reconciled the Speaker and the Majority Leader can convene a conference committee, choosing which members from their house to serve. This committee is charged with developing a compromise bill to be voted on in each house.

Bill Becomes Law
While the Legislature is in session, the Governor has 10 days (not counting Sundays) to sign or veto bills passed by both houses. Signed bills become law; vetoed bills do not. However, the Governor’s failure to sign or veto a bill within the 10-day period means that it becomes law automatically.

Vetoed bills are returned to the house that first passed them, together with a statement of the reason for their disapproval. A vetoed bill can become law if two-thirds of the members of each house vote to override the Governor’s veto.

If a bill is sent to the Governor when the Legislature is out of session, the rules are a bit different. At such times, the Governor has 30 days in which to make a decision, and failure to act (“pocket veto”) has the same effect as a veto.


The New York City Council is made up of xx members, currently dominated by Democrats.

Legislative Process

1. A bill (proposed legislation) is filed by a Council Member with the Council Speaker’s Office.

2. The bill is then introduced into the Council during a Stated Meeting and referred to the appropriate committee.

A. One or more public committee hearings may be noticed and held on the proposed legislation.

B. After public testimony and committee debate the bill may be amended.

C. The committee votes on the final version of the bill.

D. If passed in committee, the bill is sent to the full Council for more debate and a final vote.

3. If passed by an affirmative vote of a majority of all Council Members (at least 26 members) the bill is then sent to the Mayor, who also holds a public hearing.

4. The Mayor then chooses to sign or veto the bill.

A. If the Mayor does sign the bill, it immediately becomes a local law and is entered into the City’s Charter or Administrative Code. The time before a new law becomes effective will vary from law to law.

B. If the Mayor disapproves/vetoes the bill, he or she must return it to the City Clerk with his or her objections to the Council by the next scheduled Stated Meeting.

C. If the Mayor does not sign or veto the bill within 30 days after receiving it from the Council, it is considered approved automatically.

5. The Council then has 30 days to override the Mayoral veto. If the Council does repass the bill by a vote of two-thirds of all Council Members (at least 34 members), it is then considered adopted and becomes a local law.
Important Dates in the Budgeting Process

Mid-January – NYS Governor submits Executive Budget to legislature (and the public)

Mid – January – NYC Mayor releases Preliminary Budget by January 17th.

February – President of United States submits his budget to Congress (and the public) on the 1st Monday in February.

February – Community Boards and Borough Boards respond to Mayor’s Preliminary Budget

February – mid-March – House and Senate pass initial Budget Resolutions, which do not set binding spending limits, but do set a framework for budget negotiations.

March – City Council holds Budget Hearings

April 1st – NYS Budget due to be passed by Assembly and Senate and signed by the Governor. Historically, this date was often ignored, but the last couple of years the deadline has been met, in part, as a result of increasing public demand for on-time budgets. April 1st is also the beginning of the fiscal year in New York State.

Late Spring-Early Fall – House and Senate sub-committees “mark-up” appropriation bills. While holding hearings and gathering information, the committees draft and revise the initial appropriations bills before sending them to the floor for votes.

May – City Council holds final Budget hearings taking into account Borough Presidents’ recommendations.

June – City Council adopts final budget by June 5th.

July – beginning of the fiscal year in NYC

Late July-September – City agencies and community boards develop budget priorities for coming year, discuss with the Office of the Mayor. Community Boards hold hearings.

September – Mayor releases Mayor’s Management Report detailing past year’s spending and performance for mayoral agencies.

October 1st – deadline for the passage of the Federal Budget. In recent years this deadline has been missed requiring Congress to pass “continuing resolutions”, which continue funding to the government using the past year’s budget as a template for a period of time. October 1st is also the beginning of the federal fiscal year.

Sources: The federal level is edited from Wikipedia listing on the federal legislative process, “How our Laws are Made” published by the U.S. House of Representatives, Updated 1997. The state level is edited from the NYS Senate website, as well as, information from the Brennan Center for Justice. The city level is edited from the New York City Council website.

For much more detailed information see:
“How Our Laws Are Made”

“How an Idea Becomes a Law”
“Unfinished Business: New York State Legislative Reform 2006 Update”

City Council Legislative Process