A policy advocate is a person who fights or lobbies for legislative bodies to adopt particular laws and policies. Policy advocates range from everyday regular citizens to organizations of like-minded people to lawyers. They may purely be motivated by a desire to fight for what they believe is fair and right, or simply for personal gain.
Most western countries have a representative democracy form of government. In this type of government, individuals are elected to a legislative body to represent the interests and desires of the people, or constituency, who elected them. Because these representatives are elected by the people and typically seek to hold office for as long as possible, they try to serve the interest of their constituency well. Policy advocates appeal to elected officials, often with promises of delivering electoral votes and financial donations should the representative assist them, and conversely, with threats of supporting other candidates should the advocate's desires not be met.
At the smallest level, a policy advocate is a citizen who is concerned about an issue in his or her local community, be it a proposed new bridge, the school budget, or a change in property tax law. Ultimately, he or she wants to influence the decision of the policymakers. As he or she becomes more motivated, he or she often will call on other community members to rally to the cause and may hold a town meeting to discuss the issue.
He or she may pass out fliers stating the cause and may even go door-to-door to explain to other citizens why they should support the stance. The policy advocate often asks supporters to call policymakers, to send letters, or even rally or march. When a movement begins like this, from citizen action and without the aid or inclusion of professional politicians, it is often referred to as a grass-roots movement.
At the larger level, there are organizations that have vast numbers of members, all part of the organization for one common cause. The AARP – formerly the American Association of Retired Persons – is one of these groups, and these entities themselves can be considered a policy advocate. They use institutional resources to motivate their members to contact representatives regarding issues of concern. AARP, for example, would likely advocate on issues related to changes in social security or Medicaid, both social safety nets for people of advanced age.
Perhaps the most unique type of policy advocate is the professional lobbyist. A lobbyist is often a lawyer and could be considered a policy advocate for hire. Lobbyists are typically expensive, but are hired for a good reason: access.
Generally, lobbyists reside in the cities where legislative bodies work – one estimate puts the number of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., in the tens of thousands – and are often formerly elected officials. They know the details and machinations of the policy process and they are on a first-name basis with the important people who ultimately make policy. Typically, they are hired by corporations, other advocacy organizations, and even cities.