An Example of Complex System Advocacy


ADAPT Rally 1990, young man in wheel chair in front of MLK monument
ADAPT Rally 1990


I discussed in my last post the reality that most real ongoing advocacy involves dealing with target systems in the complex realm. This means that there won’t be straightforward expert based advocacy solutions that can be easily implemented through typical logic model plans. Instead, we must find our way a bit at a time, trying change ideas, seeing what they do, and building on the efforts that produce some successful change. The description of an advocacy effort directed toward a target is more like an evolutionary process than it is what we think of as planned change. Like any evolutionary process, both the advocacy effort and the target are changing and responding throughout. Advocacy in complex systems is a learning process, not a plan execution.

I worked for Michigan Protection and Advocacy starting in 1981, and roughly half of my direct advocacy work was representing students and their families in special education issues. It was very interesting work, and the evolution of MPAS special education advocacy illustrates advocacy in complex systems.

When I first began advocating on behalf of students and families, it was very easy to win the negotiations with schools. Mostly, this was because the school districts considered special education a small part of their overall responsibilities, whereas we saw special education advocacy as one core service of what we did as advocates. We knew the laws and rules better than the schools, we had more practice at things like special education complaints, and we were expected to be well prepared when we went into the education planning meetings on behalf of a specific student, unlike the schools who were running (sometimes) hundreds of education planning meetings in a few weeks. So, we won most of the negotiations, even if they went to formal hearings. Also, the families we represented were very grateful, and we liked that. Finally, it was easy and quick for us to solve the problem ourselves without taking the time to teach the families how to advocate on their own behalf in future.

This worked well for the a few years. But at first slowly and then much more quickly, a number of things began to happen.

The first was that local school districts and ISDs began to hire attorneys for specific cases, and eventually, keep the attorneys on retainer. Especially when districts had attorneys on retainer, they used them in lots of situations, since they were paying them anyway. This meant that schools stopped making simple rules errors, and the cases themselves became more complex. In turn, this meant that advocacy required more research, more time, more layers of appeal, more meetings, and fewer victories.

The second thing that happened was that families told their friends in the special education community and we had a sizeable uptick in the number of requests for advocacy support. Also, since we had inadvertently encouraged dependence, we got the same families back year after year for representation in their education planning meetings. This produced a sharp spike each year in such requests, and, after a few years, we no longer had the time or resources to respond well to all the requests.

Which is to say, that we ran into a resource limit as a direct result of our success. This limit was not just some lack of funding. A great deal of skill is required to properly negotiate such cases successfully, and there simply weren’t enough experienced special education advocates to handle the demand. In fact, the Michigan Department Of Education estimated that 10% of the special education planning meetings each year were contentious (i.e., needed an advocate), and that amounted to ~20,000 or so meetings a year. Since a single advocate could only handle about 100 cases a year, that meant we need 200 full time advocates. That was never going to happen.

The organization had to respond to this evolutionary demand from the environment, and there were basically 3 alternatives. These 3 alternatives are roughly the same for any advocacy organization that faces a resource limit (an evolutionary challenge) in implementing their mission.

Keep Current Practice: Most organizations struggle to maintain what they see as the most important parts of their change advocacy, and to try to alter the forces in the environment that are requiring this strategic reconsideration. This approach almost never works. Even when it does, it is typically for a relatively short period. Instead, the organization becomes less capable over time, bureaucratizing its workflows in order to gain control over the demand. One of the telltale signs of this is a sharp rise in what the British refer to as “failure demand”-calls, letters and other contacts from clients asking for updates or responses where the response is that nothing has changed. Failure demand sucks up time that the organization already doesn’t have because of the resource squeeze.

Modify the Current Model: Various versions of constraining the actual response are made across mission related demand so that the organization can control demand. In the case I experienced, the core responses of individual advocacy and legal responses were kept more or less intact, but the percentage of cases considered for these two responses was reduced through the use of an issue priority system that was updated each year. These contacts were responded to by an organized Information and Referral process. I&R became the primary response for roughly 80-90% of the contacts, and the number of demand contacts has plateaued at many thousands.

New Way of Doing Business: The one discussed during the transition I experienced was to move to a community organizing model, in which organization staff would work as organizers training and providing technical assistance to families in local school districts, building up a more or less permanent cadre of special education advocates around the state.

As you can imagine, there are many potential variations of these three canonical responses to resource scarcity. There isn’t a “best” response. There is only the response that the advocacy organization chooses, which maps out the organization’s future for many years, and lays out a path of skill and capability (learning) that the organization will track until another evolutionary challenge comes along.

This is the way that dealing with complex advocacy always works. It has little in common with the pretty picture of a logic model implementation. It isn’t that plans are of no use. Rather the plans are executed inside this evolutionary environment in which the advocacy effort and the target both adapt.

Next Post: Some other ways of looking at advocacy in complex systems

Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts

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