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Impacting public policy through State and Provincial Psychology Associations: The case of Puerto Rico
By Eduardo A. Lugo-Hernández, Ph.D., Puerto Rico Psychology Association & Universidad del Este, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

State and Provincial Psychology Associations play a key role in the public policy process. These local associations develop key legislation, perform advocacy at the local level and through training and education enhance our capacity to impact policies that affect both our profession and the people we serve. For the past two years, the Puerto Rico Psychology Association (APPR, in Spanish) has significantly increased its involvement and impact on public policy on the island. Although, historically, the organization has contributed to this process, the creation of the Psychology and Public Policy Committee (COPPP, in Spanish) sparked the development of infrastructure to enhance its influence. It also diversified its collaboration with community-based and professional organizations, hence creating important alliances to advocate for socially responsive policies.

Several reasons lead to the development of this committee. These included research findings that pointed to low levels of psychologists’ public policy participation and recognition that our involvement in this area of intervention was imperative. The prevalence of serious social problems such as high violence rates (domestic and community), high levels of drug addiction and drug trafficking, poor quality of mental health services, problems with the educational system, and the worldwide economic crisis were also a catalyst. Our participation is also framed within our colonial relationship with the United States and the influence it has on our political system; a system which is heavily focused on partisan politics. It is within this environment that the APPR members decided to approve the creation of the COPPP, to serve as an advisory body to the APPR President and its Board of Directors on issues related to public policy.

The creation of the COPPP in 2007 preceded an election year. This proved to be a great platform for our insertion in the public process. Our first initiative, called Proposals without colors (colors represent the four political parties on the island), asked psychologists to submit policy proposals in the areas of mental health, violence and education. Public hearings were organized in the north and south regions of the island. This served the goal of increasing participation and attending to the multiple needs of the people we serve. After we gathered all the proposals we convened three multidisciplinary groups of experts who evaluated them and submitted recommendations to the COPPP. With these recommendations at hand, the COPPP developed a final version of the document that was approved by the Board of Directors. This document, along with an Executive Summary, was then presented to the four governor candidates to advocate for the inclusion of our proposals in their parties’ public policy programs. An analysis of the programs later revealed that the PR Independence Party platform included the highest number of proposals from our document. Media presence, through press conferences and press releases, was instrumental in getting exposure and promoting advocacy efforts.

Proposals without colors was the platform that propelled our involvement in public policy. This participatory process, led the Association to create collaborations with groups with similar interests. It has also inserted us into alliances with community cased organizations and professional groups (physicians and social workers), who have engaged in the development of policy proposals through participatory processes. The principle here is to move from developing proposals to creating a strong group of organizations that can lobby and advocate for specific projects. One such initiative has been the Community Conclave where eight organizations converged to create a document called the National Mandate. This document includes proposals in the areas of education, sustainable economic development, environment, and health. It will be presented this year both to the Executive and Legislative branches.     

At the legislative level we have evaluated several policy projects for the PR Senate and House Commissions. In analyzing these bills we have used as a framework an emphasis on multidisciplinary approaches to the development of public policies, the dissemination of initiatives and policies, prevention, evaluation of public policies, and the reduction of the influence of party politics in their design and implementation. Projects have included proposals for the psychological assessment of teachers in the public system, the development of a mental health clinic for employees of the Natural Services Agency and the creation of a multisectorial and multiagency commission to develop a National plan to attend to drug addiction on the island from a public health perspective. 

Recently, our country has faced several social and economic challenges. Our government’s decisions to “enhance” our economy led it to lay-off more than 17,000 government employees. This and other decisions have been implemented in a way that many feel do not promote community participation and fail to consider proposals from multiple sectors. As a result a strong community, professional and labor movement has engaged in protests and other initiatives to revoke governmental lay-offs and reclaim their space in the political forum. In this process the APPR has been a consistent participant and advocate for the rights of workers considering the mental health and social impact of political decisions.

The APPR involvement in these and other public policy activities has faced multiple challenges. Among these are the individualistic nature of our profession and the view that policy might not be a legitimate space for us to intervene. There are psychologists who believe that the organizations’ involvement in the public debate hinders our objectivity and may be destabilizing for society. Also, our increased presence in policy spaces has created a culture shift within our organization. In order to respond to the increasing demands there has been a need to streamline processes, create protocols to deal with specific situations and requests, and enhance collaboration among APPR committees. We have also had to create a cadre of experts and resources who are willing to collaborate with the organization in public policy initiatives. Although there have been (and continue to be) growing pains in the process, we have grown into a strong social voice, one that advocates for policies that promote social justice.

The insertion of the APPR in political and social debates exemplifies the impact that State and Provincial Psychological Association can have at the local and even the National level. As professionals, our expertise and knowledge position us well to influence the political process. Our involvement requires a reflection of our role in society and our stance towards social problems. It demands that we position ourselves not as mere social spectators but as protagonists who recognize the value of scientific knowledge in producing social change. It compels us to define the values and goals of our associations and evaluate how our work benefits not only our members but also the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. We have the capacity to help bridge the gap in health disparities and promote social justice by being active participants in policy processes.   

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