Give the People What They Want

You may have the perfect policy to meet your population’s needs. But do you know how to give them what they want?

Principled public policy advocates tend to work proactively where they see the biggest need for reform. This differentiates them from politicians, who largely react to public opinion. Taking on the big issues is a good way to go about staying true to your mission, but it can backfire if your advocacy only focuses the need for the reforms rather than connecting it to what people truly want. This doesn’t require a change in policy, but it does call for thoughtful marketing and communications strategy and execution.

For instance, as a fiscal policy expert, you may know that your state needs to shut down its wasteful “economic development” corporate welfare programs. Evidence, logic and principles are on your side and you can explain very clearly how this needs to happen. But most people want a job far more than they want good fiscal policy. While you’re explaining to them why they need these reforms, the interests at the intersection of big business and big government simply contend they’re “creating or retaining” jobs and you lose overwhelmingly.

You addressed what society needed, but your opponents promised to give your audience what they wanted. Unfortunately, what we want the most will almost always win over what we need the most. It’s human nature, and we’re all guilty of it. I need to lose weight, but I want a cheeseburger now. I need to save for retirement, but I want a vacation now. We certainly do go to the gym or meet with a retirement planner from time to time, but the policy topics that can drive that sort of short-term pain for long-term gain at a societal level are few and far between.

What does this mean for advocates trying to develop and implement policy that moves their society toward a better governance model? Good policy analysts are always going to use research and principles to develop policy proposals that address their society’s needs rather than react to transient public opinion. That shouldn’t change. And you’ll always need to be able to define and discuss that need for reform, especially at the policymaker level. But for policy to move from an intellectual exercise to signed legislation, you need an effective marketing and communications function that strategically positions the policy in terms of the wants and not just the needs of defined audiences that have leverage over key policymakers.

For example, consider a public policy topic that’s the epitome of short-term gain causing long-term pain, public-sector pensions. The traditional arguments for pension reform have focused on the need to protect against fiscal collapse, the need to deliver retirement security to public employees, the dangers of promising benefits without paying for them up front and related economic concerns. Reform efforts based on those legitimate needs-based arguments have had limited success at best, and governments across the nation have racked up trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.

However, a few pension reform campaigns have been successful in engaging critical audiences on the side of substantive reforms. One common thread in their success has been positioning the reforms not just as something that’s needed, but also as delivering something key legislators’ constituents want.

MPSERS signing
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signs teacher pension reform legislation as legislative leaders look on.

We dealt with this while working teacher pension reform in Michigan in 2016 and 2017 How do you make an esoteric topic like pension reform something that gives people what they want? Connect it to some very basic existing wants. People want their children to get an education that prepares them for the future. They want economic stability in the value of their home. They want to be able to have pride in the community to which they belong. When pension reform was presented in terms of necessary fiscal policy, it was met with deep disinterest by the general public. But when it was messaged in broad terms as, “This is the primary reason for the budget pain in your community’s public schools. It’s taking up a third of school payrolls, which means laying off good teachers and cutting things like arts and electives for your kids. If we don’t fix it now it’s just going to get worse and without good schools our communities will go downhill,” people began to care. Audiences who had completely ignored the topic before were willing to become engaged in support of the reforms. After years of only ever getting calls from union activists opposing pension reform whenever the topic had arisen in the past, legislators’ offices finally began receiving calls in favor of reform from average constituents. This was key in the passage of the nation’s most comprehensive public-sector pension reforms to date.

Pennsylvania also accomplished solid pension reforms. Their audiences and strategy were different, but still effectively connected to a key constituency’s wants. Rather than fighting off union opposition, their reforms passed with large bipartisan majorities and with minimal opposition from public-sector unions. In large part, that’s because it was the public-sector workers themselves whose wants were addressed. Pro-reform messaging focused on what workers truly want from retirement plans right now, which is eliminating uncertainty over their family’s economic security in the future. Advocates demonstrated how public-sector employees would receive 95 percent of their working income in retirement through a combination of retirement system income and Social Security payments. In return for the future economic security their members wanted (and with the threat of more serious cuts on the table otherwise), organized labor largely sat out the debate. This sent legislators who depend on union support an unmistakable message and the needed reforms passed by a bipartisan 4-1 margin in the legislature.

Pennsylvania and Michigan’s pension problems weren’t new. Lawmakers in both states had known for a decade or more that reforms were needed. What finally got them from proposal to enacted policy was the ability to demonstrate to elected officials that their constituents not only needed the reforms but wanted them as well. The arguments and audiences may have been different, but functional result of successful policy reform was the same.

The lesson is clear: If you want public policy reform, so must the audiences that matter to the people who control that policy. Understanding what key audiences want and showing how your proposal fulfills those wants is key to effective policy marketing and communications.

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