Problematics of Advocacy Evaluation

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Ezra Klein’s looking to donate some money to an organization that does effective advocacy on international issues, and is soliciting opinions on who does a good job. I’d be interested too. But I’m also interested in what a difficult issue this is in general. I was at a conference recently that focused on the subject, and it drove home some obvious-but-underrated points.

One is simply that most of the time most things mostly don’t change. And that’s not because all the advocates are ineffective. It’s because (a) status quo bias is powerful, and (b) for anything worth doing there are advocates on the other side. The failure of the cap-and-trade bill has caused a lot of second-guessing of the main cap-and-trade advocates’ strategy, but it would be dumb to reason “health reform passed, energy reform failed, therefore every health advocacy group was more effective than every environmental advocacy group.” On the contrary! Common sense says that in both camps there were a range of groups with a range of effectiveness, and one passed but the other didn’t for reasons that have nothing to do with the efficacy of any one organization. I sometimes joke around the office that Igor Volsky is the most-skilled Wonk Room blogger and Brad Johnson is the worst, but that’s just a joke.

A related point is that advocacy matters, in the sense that you’re not going to get anything done if you don’t have any, but other things matter too. On the international front, there was a lot of good advocacy in 2006-2008 aimed at building a consensus around a big hike in foreign aid. And then came the financial crisis, recession throughout the developed world, and a big retrenchment of aid commitments. That’s someone’s fault, but it’s certainly not the One Campaign’s fault. If you’re fairly deeply embedded in a system, then you can kind of tell—whose work is taken seriously, who do people roll their eyes when they talk about, who is helpful to you and others who you talk to, etc.—but even so you end up relying a lot more on personal judgment than on any kind of really rigorous “objective” measures.