Etmanski: Advocate with Empathy

When people ask what it is like to work in government I get them to imagine all the work for all parts of government as a giant slow-moving stream.   Since the stream is moving so slowly, it takes deliberate choice to expend the effort to actually get anywhere.   95% of government employees are happy to bob along like driftwood at the whims of the stream.  The other 5% are problem-solvers in boats trying to make a difference by paddling.  Inevitably though, the boats reach a place where the driftwood has clogged the stream and the paddlers must decide whether to work through it or bail out for the shore.

After reading Etmanski’s Advocate for Empathy, I realize my analogy isn’t entirely fair because it leaves out one important group.  There are some pieces of driftwood, tired of bending to the will of the stream, that want to climb into the boats to paddle.

But climbing into the boat means accepting three realities.  First, we can’t change the pace of the steam.  It is so cluttered with competing requests that it can be difficult to tell which direction the stream is flowing.  Second, we can’t change the technology of boats and paddles.  Even though voters expect government to move more rapidly by utilizing motors and GPS, they don’t want to pay for it.  Third, everyone can see you’re paddling effort from the shore and offer their critiques and condemnations.

The result is an intensely risk-averse environment rife with fear, stifling opportunities for innovation, change and impact.

Despite this, people want to paddle, so how do we help them into the boats?  

Etmanski points to Solution-Based Advocacy which focuses on solutions over criticisms and improving the ability of government to make better decisions.  It means acknowledging we are all in the same boat, government included, so we may as well learn paddling techniques from each other.

Five Characteristics of Solution Based Advocacy

  • Searching for a Heart of Gold” – Taking the time to look beyond what our political leaders do, to learn about who they are.
  • Using Strategic Inquiry” – Aligning your agenda with the government agenda by “…discovering the priorities, language and tools of the group you are trying to convince…” (p.116)
  • Cultivating a Network of Champions” – Although we think one champion is great, it just isn’t enough.
  • Solving Problems Together” – Shifting government from the role of parent to partner.
  • Doing it Themselves” – Regardless of how amazing the idea is, there will always be opposing interests being considered decision-makers.  Forging ahead without them can create the space they need to champion your idea and your success in the face of opposition.

Are you a paddler or are you driftwood?


Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation by Al Etmanski is a guide for social innovators to move their idea from localized success to broader systemic impact.