Is Good Advocacy a Science or an Art (or just luck), and how can we sharpen it?

November 3, 2016 2 By Duncan Green

Helen Tilley (

Hannah Caddick

Hannah Caddick

Josephine Tsui

Josephine Tsui

Helen Tilley

Helen Tilley

, is a Research Fellow, Josephine Tsui ( a Research Officer, and Hannah Caddick ( a Communications Officer, in the Research and Policy in Development Programme at the Overseas Development Institute.

‘There is an art to science, and a science in art; the two are not enemies, but different aspects of the whole.’ — Issac Asimov

In a recent blog, Duncan wrote about the professionalization of advocacy with the proliferation of tools and toolkits, and about the delicate balancing act between the art and science of advocacy. He expressed a degree of concern: that if we ‘projectise’ and create tools, we get away from advocacy’s heart – away from smart, entrepreneurial thinking.

A team in the Research and Policy in Development Programme (RAPID) at the Overseas Development Institute has been working on just this: creating an advocacy tool, for a project mentioned in the blog. Much of what he said rang bells with us.  It’s true that advocacy practitioners need the freedom to pursue change pathways they believe will work. Change happens because of a myriad of external factors, including ‘technological and demographic change, long-term shifts in attitudes and beliefs, the rise and fall of sectors…big shocks and events…’, so flexibility is crucial.

But policy change can also be down to more than just luck; in the words commonly attributed to Seneca, ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’.  We know that some advocates are better informed and better compass-v-mapprepared for change than others. Tools can help us to be systematically informed and prepared by guiding how we monitor our work, and reminding us to pay attention to what we are doing.

As Issac Asimov reminds us, art and science work together. It’s not always which systems we use, but how we use them. In RAPID, we suggest users think of our tools like a compass rather than a map. In advocacy, a compass helps to guide practitioners through challenges and towards success; other, more rigid tools can be too prescriptive.

Our team has been working collaboratively with Save the Children to develop a tool for their offices around the world, to help them understand their contribution to change in political will (not Duncan’s favourite term, we realise).

The project has taken us along a winding path where we have had to find ways to deal with various challenges, including how to capture those things that many advocates consider just day-to-day conversations to get your work done.

The initial tool we’ve developed for people to test applies outcome mapping principles and takes the user through a step-by-step process to record what they are doing to influence political will. Despite the ambitious aims, we tried to devise something simple to capture things that are often not recorded (watch this space, we will be publishing soon!).

In doing so, there are two areas of innovation that have required a combination of science and art.what-if-told-you

  1. Measuring the unmeasurable. Political will has been called ‘the slipperiest concept in the policy lexicon’ (Hammergren, 1998: 12) and it is true that typically ‘we spend more time lamenting its absence than analysing what it means’ (Evans, 2001: 8). At the same time to say ‘“it all depends on political will” – is a simplistic escape clause’ (Jones, Jones, Shaxson and Walker, 2012: 8).

There have been many commendable efforts to pin down political will (including practical models in participatory governance and as a tool for articulating an advocacy theory of change). We disaggregated political will into simple categories, identifiable by behaviour changes in the target stakeholders, adapting Brinkerhoff’s Unpacking the concept of political will to confront corruption.

Using progress markers, we ask Save the Children users to break down into smaller steps the behaviour changes they might see if the subject of their advocacy work were to understand, support or engage with their advocacy objective. Users then categorise these by the type of change in political will observed. The aim is to help advocates think about how changes are occurring.

  1. Applying adaptive management, an iterative way of working through problems and tasks, monitoring as you go so that you can respond and adapt: ‘Much development work fails because, having identified a problem, it does not have a method to generate a viable solution.’ While the policy objective will have been decided, how to achieve it has not. By managing their project adaptively, users can change their approach and tactics to more effectively work towards policy change.
A toolkit

A toolkit

Reflection, including upon context and other influences upon change, is the most important step in the tool. If the advocacy environment in, say, Ethiopia is very restricted, how can you adapt your tactics? What’s working and what’s not working? Advocacy entrepreneurs may do this without thinking. But the tool provides space for this reflection when it might otherwise be neglected or forgotten, or lost with changes in personnel.

Tools are only good as the data input into them, and if they usefully serve the users. The political will tool we have developed with Save the Children uses perception-based information and so being aware of and acknowledging biases is critical. It is also important to use participatory approaches to ‘ensure data is bottom-up and relevant to people on the ground’ by bringing in people with different perspectives to question and challenge. Yes, this can be burdensome but it can also be done in a manageable way.

While the tool builds a halfway house between the art and science to provide useful information, the way in which it is used – the entrepreneurship of the user – is at its core. This also requires flexibility and understanding from donors: encouraging reporting on things that might not be going so well without the risk of it affecting funding. After all, this is often where the real lessons can be learnt.