Public Policy Advocacy – Special Interests??

18 07 2008

News media. Websites. TV/Radio. Public Presentations. Direct Mail. It never ceases to amaze me at the extensive level taken to influence public policy in our country. 

God Bless the Framers and Founders of our nation for the First Amendment right to free speech!  But, as importantly, the First Amendment provides our right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  In other words, as legal citizens of this country we have the right to influence public policy, laws, regulations and legal decision-making.

I spent nearly a dozen years in my career as the head of government relations for a financial services and insurance company.  There is no comprehensible way to calculate the number of trade groups, advocacy groups, ad hoc coalitions, think tank and policy wonks who are employed solely to influence the public perception and regulation of the health care industry.  I am sure someone has tried to calculate how much is spent on health care advocacy in a given year, but I would tell you to double that number….and then some! 

But, even as there are so-called “special interest” groups pursuing their specific niche piece of the health care industry, it is without question that just about every possible side is represented and every angle has been heard. We are familiar with free-market health care, single-payer health care, government-run health, care, managed care, etc, etc, etc.  All these initiatives have teams of people working daily to further their specific cause. This is what is both great, and at times unfortunate, about how public policy is created and decided in this country.  It is great that our free society provides for the open discussion of nearly every ideology imaginable.   However, it is possible the greatest idea ever imagined could never become public policy if enough money, groups, and organizations are opposed or see the idea as a threat to their ideology. 

Let me go back to the term “special interest.” By far, one of the most overused, and incorrectly used term in our society.  Folks, ALL of us have special interests!! Simply make a list of all your passions, interests, careers, families, religous beliefs, parenting styles, food choices, educational attainment goals, pet ownership beliefs, and on and on and you will quickly see that you, indeed, have a huge variety of special interests.  If you have a passionate opinion on big issues such as abortion, religous freedoms, education reform and health care reform, all the way to day-to-day issues like food labeling and school bussing, your beliefs put you in so-called “special interest” groups. 

By labeling people, it is easy to place them in factions and let them “go at it”!  The media loves to group people into “special interest” to watch them fight over issues like dogs over a piece of meat. As the old media adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads”!  For instance, if they can get film of pro-life and pro-choice groups screaming at each other, it makes good press.  But, unfortunately, too often the battle is of far more interest to decision-makers than actually taking action on public policy. In other words, when an issue is so controversial it causes massive outcry from both sides, it often becomes too easy to do nothing.  Status quo is often easier, or safer, than making tough decisions.

I go on this rant for a couple key reasons.  One, absolutely speak your mind on public policy issues that impact your world!  Whether it is the illegal immigration, or the height of street signs in your community (yes, I was actually taken to task on this in my community), make your voice heard.  On the other hand, keep in mind that in a free nation, a wide variety of issues and ideologies will be shared from a wide variety of sources. Most come from a distinct difference of opinion, upon which we must agree to disagree. Unfortunately, others come from areas of hatred and malice, where the specific intent is to harm others. This is the crap that often makes the headlines.  Try to stay above the fray and use reason when considering facts. 

Make sure your voice is heard. But, let others speak as well. Hold public officials accountable, and steer public policy through level-headed debate. And, please, the next time someone uses the term “special interest”, feel free to slap them! Stupidity is a pre-existing condition.

Later  – Kerry Smith