Follow The Money – Tips for Solution Based Advocacy (21)

I was asked by a young parent recently, what is the most common mistake made by advocates. My reply was immediate.  Not following the money trail in Government. Or, as was the case in this circumstance (he was advocating for inclusive education at a local School Board), within and between levels of Government.

You can get lots of things right as an advocate: good media; good research; broad based support; meetings with senior public servants; a meeting with a Cabinet Minister or School Board Chair; and perhaps even a promise – but still make no headway if the resources aren't there for implementation. 

lot of power in government resides in the people who oversee money – its collection, its budgeting, its allocation, its spending, its administration, its reporting, its accountability.  It is worth paying attention to who, on both the political and public service side of government, controls spending priorities and expenditures. 

That's why Ministers of Finance are almost as powerful as Premiers or Prime Ministers.  Or comptrollers and Chief Operating Officers (COO 's) can be almost as powerful as Deputy Ministers, CEO's, City Managers, and Superintendents of departments, ministries, Crown Corporations, municipalities and school boards.

No matter what position you are advocating or what decision you have agreed on, there is usually a behind the scenes route that lands at the desk of someone responsible for money. While the politicians with money
responsibilities have a public profile, public servants with financial responsibilities will not be as well known, even though they
senior positions and may even have veto power.

Here are some tips to help you follow the money:

  • Don't ignore Ministers of Finance even though you may be dealing with another Minister and Ministry. Get to know their Policy Advisors and Executive Assistants.  Learn who is the Analyst in the Minister of Finance or Treasury Board responsible for the Ministry you are dealing with. They have influence.
  • Research who is on the Cabinet Committee responsible for allocating financial resources.  It may be called Treasury Board.  It may be called something like, Agenda and Priorities. There may be split responsibilities. If the Minister you are lobbying is not on one of these powerful committees, they may have less power than you think. Any new major program likely has to be approved by one of these committees.
  • Ask the public servants you are working with to explain the flow of money within their department, ministry,Crown Corporation or arm of government.
  • If money is flowing for example, between a Provincial Ministry of Education and a local school board get to know the provincial as well as local officials. Ask for the performance or accountability mechanisms.  For example: How much special needs funding is allocated to School Board 'X'?   Are there expectations? What can the money be used for?  What happens if the money is not spent on what it was allocated for?
  • Draw a map of the flow of money and try to identify as many key stops and decision makers, both political and bureaucratic, as you can.
  • If there is a transfer of funds from one level of government to another map this flow as well.
  • Once you know who these key people are, reach out to as many as you can while maintaining your other contacts.

Yes, it's a lot more work. But following the money gives you a greater chance of success.

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  1. Sean Moore

    That’s excellent advice, Al and very practically illustrated. Bravo. This is a real public service you’re performing. I’m going to be using this – with attribution – in my future advocacy training sessions.

  2. Al Etmanski

    A long time friends and remarkable advocate, particularly for the inclusion of children with disabilities in regular classrooms sent me this detailed and very helpful commentary. Phil, has forgotten more about advocacy than most of us will learn in the first place. Thanks Phil!
    Hi Al:
    Excellent article as usual;
    I tried without success to add a comment to your latest Advocacy Tip. I would like to know how to do that on line.
    I’ll add it here again and ask that it shared with other parents and their supporters.
    In the movie Jerry Maguire said ‘Show me the Money! and as Al has noted that is really only the first step in finding out how special education funding works in the British Columbia public school system (and similarly in other jurisdictions across Canada). School districts receive an annual per pupil funding allocation and those children with defined special education needs generate additional funds based on a formulae for their specific education needs.
    Thus the Ministry of Education can state that they have given school districts funding to provide educational services for all it’s special education students. Leaving aside the question of the adequacy of those funds to deliver services for the moment – let’s follow the money………….
    Once the above funding – (both annual student allocation and the addition special education funding) reaches the school district the spending of those funds is determined exclusively by each school district according to it’s priorities. There is no provincial mandate for school districts to spend the special education funds they received by formulae on those students that the same district claimed were necessary to provide special education services. Indeed in some extreme cases i.e. Gifted students, no additional funds were spent by some school districts for that year. To be fair, some districts have spent more than the special education allocations for some classes of students. However this is not the norm.
    Now we know how the ‘Money’ is generated and how the ‘Money’ is spent. Special education funding could be described as a ‘shell and pea’ game , leaving the ministry as identified, allocated, additional funds and the reality of districts not being held accountable to spend those resources as they were intended. The irony is that many school districts then claim publicly that special education in particular is under funded and parade handicapped children to emphasize their claim.
    I would argue that ‘Show me the Money’ is not enough. Until there is a Ministry of Education mandate for school districts to spend additional special education funding on those students who generated the funds there will be no true accountability for special education funding.
    Indeed our new rally call should be ‘Show Me Where the Money Was Spent on Special Needs Students!’
    Phil Russell
    As a parent advocate representing Special Education I served on Education Reference committees for three Ministers of Education.

  3. Al Etmanski

    Thanks Sean and Phil – most of think, hope, assume, have faith that simply describing what needs to be fixed is enough. Alas that is seldom so. To be solution focused means we have to pay attention to all the buttons and levers that makes a system work – including the money lever.

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