Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Influencing the Regulatory Process


Let’s talk about another important branch of government that advocates must deal with.  The bureaucracy is part of the executive branch of government, often serving as the point of contact between the public and the executive (Mayor, Governor, President, etc.) While I know the stereotype of a government bureaucrat is someone with a certain attitude that exudes “lack of helpfulness,” most of these public servants really do want to help people.  Unfortunately, many of them are caught in internally created “intransigent bureaucracies.”
What? Our government is supposed to have bureaucracies? Chances are you thought they were an unfortunate side-effect of runaway government spending. In fact, a bureaucracy is simply “A formal, hierarchical organization with many levels in which tasks, responsibilities, and authority are delegated among individuals, offices, or departments, held together by a central administration.” They are the structures that executive branch agencies use to ensure that the policies passed by the legislature are properly implemented.
The problem with bureaucracies is that sometimes the people in and around them become more committed to the rules and regulations governing programs than they do the actual benefits of and original reasons for the programs themselves. This creates the tunnel vision that leads to the problem of “intransigent bureaucracies.”  One recent example is the EPA’s regulation of spilled milk, under which milk used to be treated on par with oil. One might say that citizens, the agencies and Congress were LITERALLY “crying over spilt milk.” 
So how can an advocate make a difference in this environment? Here are some ideas:
·       Participate in the executive agency’s public comment process: Almost all executive agencies, from your local Department of Water and Sewer to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, are required to offer an opportunity for public comment whenever they propose a change to their rules. Anyone with an opinion is allowed to file a comment and anyone with an informed opinion based on some level of expertise may actually be heard. Agencies actually review these comments pretty carefully and may use the more provocative and trustworthy information to make changes to what was originally proposed.  You can learn more about the process (and even submit comments!) at http://www.regulations.gov
·       Work on the executive agency through your elected representatives: Your local, state or federal representatives have an amazing ability to gain the attention of agency officials – mainly because these agencies rely on the legislative branch for their budget. Utilize your own amazing power to be heard by your elected officials to enlist their assistance in “cutting through” the red tape.
·       Contact the media: Reach out to media outlets, whether local, state, national, or internet-based.  Journalists love a good story, and may very well run with a piece on the executive agency’s policy.  Such public exposure can change a bureaucratic policy. Just be sure you know what you’re talking about!
The lesson here? Instead of beating your head against the wall of the “intransigent bureaucracy,” look for the most effective ways to apply your true power. Consider the example of the recent water pollution crises in Flint, MI. This was brought to the attention of the world through the actions of just one person -- a Flint pediatrician named Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She’s taken great steps toward exposing failures on the part of the state and federal government to deal with her city’s lead-contaminated water supply.  Her story (as told by the American Academy of Pediatrics) is a powerful example of how an ordinary citizen advocate managed to be heard in the executive branch process. .  Try the methods I suggested the next time you have a problem with executive “red tape.”.  You may be surprised at the results.

  - Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru

Friday, February 05, 2016

Don't Be Intimidated If You're Not a Lawyer

As I mentioned in my previous post, the judicial branch plays a major role in setting public policy.  Its duty is to interpret laws, handle disputes between parties, and apply appropriate punishments for individuals who break the law.  As an advocate, you may need to interact with this branch when its role comes into play on a particular issue you’re concerned about. 
At first glance, it may seem as though an individual advocate might not have a tremendous role to play with either the state or federal court system -- except to avoid it if at all possible. After all, everyone knows that you need to be a lawyer, or know a great deal about the law, to make effective arguments in a court case.
Wise advocates, however, will step back and think carefully about other potential points of access into this branch. While the average citizen may not be able to prepare a legal case that would sway a judge, this does not mean that we cannot have an impact. In fact, citizen advocates can dramatically alter the judicial environment and, as a result, the decisions made through this branch of government. How? Here are just a few examples:
Advocate for or against the confirmation of a particular judge: As an example, many states and the federal Supreme Court place the power of appointing and confirming the justices of the court in the hands of the legislature and/or Governor. And who are the legislature and Governor responsible to? That’s right, their constituents. Utilizing your influence as a voter with those who will eventually vote to confirm or deny a specific justice can have a dramatic impact on the ultimate shape of the court.
Participate in an election campaign in support or opposition to a judge: Many states and counties hold elections for judicial positions. As voters, citizens can play a role in determining whether a particular person will or will not be elected.
Assist non-profits representing your interests at the courts: Many non-profit organizations at the state and federal level become involved in court cases as part of their efforts to further their cause. Becoming involved with these organizations in this type of work can have a direct impact on what decisions come out of the courts.
The moral of this story is don’t be intimidated if you’re not a lawyer when it comes to dealing with the judicial branch.  Focus on your citizen power in those ways and on the avenues where you are most likely to make a difference- whether through the legislature, elections, or non-profits.  You might be surprised how much of a difference you can make.

  - Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Knowing your Government

Congressional staffers dread those phone calls from constituents asking for members of Congress to help them with a program beyond their jurisdiction.  An example would be someone calling his or her Congressman to install a stop sign on a nearby street, or asking a state legislator to oppose the President’s Supreme Court nominee.  Too often, citizen advocates waste time delivering their messages to the wrong level of government.

Effective advocates understand that government activity takes place on one of at least three levels.  What are these three levels? First, there’s the “local” level: think of your city council, mayor, county commission, local agencies such as transportation or housing or a regional organization. Government activity at this level is usually confined to very narrow geographic areas. For example, issues relating to your garbage collection service, zoning or building permits or property tax rates are usually very local types of functions.
The next level is the “state” level: think of, well, your state government. This would include your governor, your state House and Senate (except Nebraska – you just have one) and state agencies. Policies discussed at this level will generally impact the entire state or large portions of the state. A few state level examples of government activity include funding for and management of state parks, building and maintenance of state highways and, of course, those lovely state income taxes that many people pay.
Finally, there’s the federal level. This is where advocates get to play with Congress, the President and federal agencies like the EPA and the IRS. Government activity at this level is generally very broad in scope. In fact, the Constitution states (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the federal government can do anything “not reserved for the states.” This work includes federal income taxes, creation and funding of national programs like Social Security and Medicare / Medicaid, as well as trade and interactions with foreign countries.
Let’s also not forget the three branches of government (yes, everything in this blog post seems to be coming up in threes).  If you remember from your high school social studies/government course, they are: executive, legislative, and judicial.  Every level of government has their own version of these three branches.  For instance, the federal government has the President, Congress, and Supreme Court; while states have Governor, State Legislature, and state courts; and local governments have mayors, city/council councils, and local courts.  Keep in mind the responsibilities of each branch when thinking about whatever particular issues concern you.
Make sure to do careful research before writing a letter, signing a petition, making a phone call, or sending an email to an official.  You need to make sure that the official can actually help you with the problem and has the proper jurisdiction to do so.  This is one way to turning yourself into a more effective advocate.
  - Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why Hating Congress Isn’t ALWAYS the Answer to All Political Woes

Over the past eight years, Congress’ approval rating among the American public has been below 20%.  According to a Gallup poll from September 28, 2015:

• 52% of Americans see most members of Congress as corrupt, 
• 79% see most members of Congress as out of touch, and 
• 69% view members of Congress caring more about special interests than the needs of their constituents, 

 While some members of Congress certainly deserve the indignation they receive from the public, I think the body is often unfairly maligned. Imagine getting up at 6:30 every morning, Monday through Sunday, and kicking off 14 to 15 hours of non-stop meetings. The meetings are on every issue under the sun -- from trade with foreign countries to traffic conditions to whether the local Post Office should be renamed after Elvis Presley. That pretty accurately describes the life of an elected official with the occasional vacation or day off thrown in.

 During a typical week, for example, members of Congress have an extensive schedule of visits, dinners and meetings in their congressional districts or states. They fly to Washington, D.C., where they have more meetings, votes, evening events and, most important, interactions with constituents from their districts and states. Often, members have major employers in their districts or states who needs they have to keep in mind. And these employers will donate to their campaigns. So are these legislators representing the people who contribute to their campaigns? Or the people who live in the district? It’s not always as crystal clear as we might think.

 Members of Congress are influenced by a variety of factors, including personal relationships, media coverage, and personal interests and passion. Members of Congress are human beings, who look to their family, friends, and even staff for advice. Media coverage of events will often have an influence on what elected officials do. Elected officials even have personal interests and passions that animate them. Finally, in my opinion, the most important thing that influences Congress is their constituency connection. For members of the U.S. Congress, the highest and most important obligation is to the people they represent. That’s why the most common phrase heard in any elected officials’ office is “how does this impact my constituents.” It is the framework through which all decisions are made.

Will I erase your skepticism about money? No. Does money play a role in setting an overall agenda and getting people elected? Yes. Do legislators HATE raising money? A resounding yes. At the same time, remember you do have another avenue for influence – your role as a constituent. Don’t give up that right simply because you’re disgusted by money in politics. You may be the only hope we have of fixing the system.

 Members of Congress value the opinions of their constituents and work hard to stay in touch with them. And despite low opinions of Congress as a whole, many Americans (and clearly most voters) have higher opinions of their own member of Congress and vote to re-elect their member. So before you complain about Congress, it’s worth your time to take a more careful look at the institution, its members, and why they make the decisions they do.

- Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Are Your Action Alerts Not Getting the Response You'd Like? Join the Crowd

If your advocacy alerts aren’t generating as much action as you would like, don’t worry. You’re not alone. According to M+R Benchmarks’ 2015 report, non-profts see an average of only 29 actions from every 1,000 e-mails sent. This is down 18% from 2014. So, yeah. It’s getting more and more difficult to get advocates to take action.

At the same time, the success rates in getting people to hand over cash to the organization (i.e., fundraising e-mails) is INCREASING. I suspect there might be a connection between these two trends. Many people don’t believe their voice matters, so they don’t want to take action. But they still want the organization to be able to make a difference (whether in advocacy or other arenas), so they give money.

What can we do with this? Well, we want to keep the momentum on money coming in going while also boosting advocacy action rates, right? So how do we do that? Two pretty obvious options occur to me:

First, increase the size of your audience. Many organizations are turning to social media to get the word out to more people, and potential advocates are starting to get on the bandwagon. In fact, the rate of Facebook likes and Twitter follows is increasing far more than e-mail sign-ups.  As more and more people turn to these sites (while deleting your e-mails), you better be sure you’ve got a social media strategy for your action alerts.

Second, get more of the 1,000 people receiving the e-mails to take action. Maybe (and this is something explored in much more detail in the M+R report) if you tie fundraising goals to advocacy outcomes, you’ll be able to leverage that to get more people to participate in the policy process. Maybe.

Anyway, I’m just touching on the tip of the iceberg here. There is a ton of really great information in here. To get your paws on it (for free – or, at least, in exchange for your e-mail address), go to www.m+rbenchmarks.com. You can download in either 3D and 2D, but I recommend the 2D, as most of us don’t have 3D glasses laying around (or is this a thing I don’t know about?). Check out the tool that allows you to compare your association to the industry standards and even make a cool infographic. Seriously, it’s pretty awesome.

- Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

4 Pet Peeves All Congressional Staffers Share

At a recent Women in Government Relations’ event, current and just-escaped Congressional staffers had a very cathartic experience. They had the opportunity to share with us a few pet peeves. The good news is that there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new here. The bad news is that there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new here. It seems that many of us are making the same mistakes over and over again. I’m doing my civic duty by sharing some of the highlights (or lowlights) of the conversation.

Don’t tell staff you pay their salaries. Whenever someone told me this I would hand them a dime (the per capita amount of my salary for the number of constituents in the district) and say “Great. Now we’re even.” You personally do not pay each staff person’s salary. You pay a portion of their salary. That salary is also paid for by people who believe the exact opposite of what you do. The staff work 50 to 60 (to 80) hours per week trying to reconcile those two viewpoints.  Believe me. You’re getting a lot for your money.

Talk to the right person – and that means the person who handles your issues. If you want to talk about saving balloon animals, don’t bypass the balloon animal LA. Too many people think that talking to the Chief of Staff or Legislative Director is somehow better than talking to the person who actually deals with the issue on a day-to-day basis. This is not true. Don’t do it.

Don’t threaten. Hopefully, it’s obvious that threatening bodily harm is a big no-no on Capitol Hill. Then the Capitol police get involved, and no one wants that. But threatening other kinds of retaliation – I won’t vote for you, I won’t contribute to your campaign, I’ll tell all my friends I hate you – doesn’t work either. Remember that the offices are hearing the exact same thing from people on the other side of the issue. They prefer to work with people who want to find an area of agreement, as opposed to those who say “it’s my way or the highway.”

Know something about who you’re talking to:  You don’t have to be as obsessed as I am about looking up bills they've introduced or reading their websites. But knowing things like what party they’re a member of, where they are on the political spectrum and even whether they’ve already cosponsored the bill you’re begging them to cosponsor will really help move the conversation along.*

There were many, many more pet peeves, but this is good for starters. It basically boils down to ‘put yourself in their shoes.’ When you do that, you’re meetings will be more productive and enjoyable for all.

* And if you’re really interested in that last part, particularly as it relates to sending advocates up to Capitol Hill, you HAVE to check out our AdvocacyDay app. You can also avoid another of their pet peeves, ‘having multiple people ask for the same meeting,’ if you work with us to schedule your event.

- Written by:  Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Breaking Congressional Update: National Pickle Week

For those interested in what’s happening in Congress, I thought you’d be interested in this statement from the Congressional Record of April 1st, 2015 regarding a very important national issue.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to inform the members of this august body that my dear friend, the esteemed gentleman from the Great State of California, whose love of country I admire and respect, is a sanctimonious jerk. The legislation he brings to us today does nothing less than attack the very core of our democracy.

I speak, of course, of his proposal to establish a National Pickle Week. If passed, this bill would allow the purveyors of pickle propaganda to brainwash millions of Americans into embracing a pro-brine lifestyle.

Let me be clear. No one enjoys pickles more than myself. I eat those of the bread and butter variety on hamburgers. I eat sweet relish, replete with onions and mustard, on that great American treat, the hot dog. I even drink the juice, which I understand goes well with whisky.

But I ask you, my dear colleagues, what of the other pickled vegetables? String beans, okra and peppers have done as much, if not more, to preserve the freedom we as citizens of this great nation enjoy. And indeed, where is our effort to honor other garnishes? Capers? Cocktail Onions? Almond-stuffed olives? In singling out pickles for such recognition, we send the message that we will cave in to what I can only describe as the ISIS of the pickled vegetable world.

I would never suggest that my cherished companion, whose integrity I admire, would introduce this legislation at the bidding of the pickle lobby. The fact that he accepted over $100,000 in campaign contributions from the Acme Pickle Corporation has no bearing on this discussion. Nevertheless, we, as the preservers of democracy, must stand up to this powerful special interest. We, and only we, stand between freedom and pickle domination.

Now before you get yourself all in a huff about the stupid goings-on in Congress, remember that today is APRIL FOOLS DAY! The citizens of this great nation are safe from the horrors of National Pickle Week. Now let the “This is too true to be satire” comments begin.

- Written by Advocacy Guru, Stephanie Vance