Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I was honored to have a piece in Forum Magazine titled "Build an Online Advocacy Network for Advocacy Success." I outlined some options for advocate network leaders to consider when approaching the brave new world of web 2.0. I highlighted some challenges (and opportunities) inherent to this particular environment.

An editorial in yesterday's Washington Post offers more insights. In her piece "Citizenship 2.0, author Danielle Allen outlines two types of policy / political web 2.0 approaches: one focused on a top down hierarchical approach and one focused on a more interactive, community based philosophy. She looks at these two approaches from the perspective of the political parties, noting that in the past, the right has been far more likely to adopt the later approach than the left.

But the times, they are a changing. Recently the left has become far more cognizant of and familiar with the more interactive, less hierarchical approaches as evidenced by, in part, the Obama campaign's desire to build a conversation with the American people through the internet. Whether this will be successful or not remains to be seen, but Allen argues that, if it is, we'll see a richer and more engaging citizenship experience for all.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Citizens and Civics: A Shocking Disconnect

Considering the fact that the words "citizen" and "civics" derive from the same root, you'd think there would be more knowledge about our system of government out there in the country. For me, personally, having lived through the Clinton Impeachment debates, the Republican takeover of the House and the Gore / Bush "hanging chad" campaign (decided by the Supreme Court), I was sure that everyone certainly knows what impeachment and the electoral college are, much less the three branches of government! (not Moe, Curly and Larry, FYI)

That's whay I was surprised to read this USA Today article on the, frankly, apalling lack of knowledge about our government. According to the piece, only half of Americans can name all three branches of government and just over half know that it's the Congress that can declare war (not the President).

But then, I took part of the test and was further surprised at my own apalling lack of knowledge :). Some of the questions are hard!: albeit, not the "how many branches of govermment" questions. The Scopes Monkey trial? What's a progressive tax? Huh?

You can take the full test at Be prepared to be humbled.

Why the Legislative Process is Like Thanksgiving Dinner 2008

The legislative process has been compared to the process of making sausage: while some may find the final product palatable, you don't really want to see how it's made. However, I've recently come to a profound and somewhat startling realization. Forget Sausage. Think Thanksgiving Dinner.

Every year we host Thanksgiving dinner for 10 to 15 friends, and every year the menu has been the same. I mean EXACTLY the same. Each guest brings the same dish at the same time to the same house. In fact, in the last couple years our “invitation” has simply been one sentence: “Thanksgiving – you know what to do.”

This year, my husband, in keeping with the enthusiasm for change that is sweeping the nation, desperately wanted something different. While he agreed in theory that (in his words) “the fundamentals of our holiday are strong,” he sent an impassioned plea for new culinary delights -- for “Yes We Candied Yams” or “Swing State Sweet Potato Pie.” In keeping with the theme of change he has even committed to making Cranberry and Pineapple Salsa.

Salsa. On Thanksgiving. Needless to say, everyone is horrified. There’s been talk of a boycott, dismay over the abandoning of traditions -- even accusations of, dare I say it, un-American activity. While some of the guests are willing to sit down with Tim (but only with preconditions) to determine the course of the meal, others are ready to take the maverick course and walk out.

Why all this drama over a simple meal? Each of our guests has a very different and very steadfast idea of what the Thanksgiving feast must include. In past years the Chardonnay faction went head-to-head with the Pinot Noir bloc. The green bean casserole enthusiasts simply could not come to terms with those preferring green bean almondine. And I sincerely thought that the mashed potato and gravy vs. sweet potato casserole controversy would erupt into a fist fight.

Don’t even get me started on Pumpkin versus Pecan Pie. Until you’ve tried to get pumpkin pie out of your carpet (or out of your dog’s mouth) you can’t honestly say that you’ve hosted a Thanksgiving dinner.

So will we select between these conflicting and equally worthy menu items? Will we embrace change? Will we make the "hard choices"? My guess is no. As in year’s past we will have two kinds of potatoes, two kinds of green beans - even two kinds of turkey (regular and "tofurkey" for the vegetarians, including myself). And the varieties of wine available will become too numerous to count.

Incremental change may occur, although probably without much enthusiasm if the great “bacon-wrapped turkey” experiment of 2007 is any guide. We might have a fruity salsa to go with our regular cranberries out of the can. We will probably, as always, forget that we bought dinner rolls until it’s too late. We’re stuck in our ways.

So when you wonder why no big changes ever occur in the legislature, or how Congress comes up with these bills that have 18 million unrelated items, just take a good look at your own holiday traditions. Here are a few tips to (hopefully) help you think of all this in a different way:

  • Understand where the other person is coming from: Is your Aunt Millicent really insisting on her beloved "Brussel Sprout Surprise" because she's a horrible person? Will explaining to her over and over again that no one else likes Brussel Sprouts really convince her to forgo her long-time favorite? Not likely. Remember that members of Congress are representing the same diverse and, umm, interesting perspectives when it comes to policy matters.
  • Fight for your form of potatoes: Speak up! If you just have to have sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving, say so - and do everything you can to make that happen. Don't just sit there at the table all squinchy-faced thinking about how your meal is ruined because it doesn't include what you want. You may not be successful in lobbying for your potatoes, but you'll feel better if you ask. And who knows? You might not get your potatoes this year, but maybe you can have something to say about the style of cranberry sauce (but no salsa, please). Or perhaps a promise (be sure to get it in writing) of your form of potatoes for next year.
  • Develop alliances: My step-sister and I always join forces in lobbying for the sweet potato casserole, and we've developed strong alliances with other factions. As a result, support for our preference has remained rock solid, despite repeated efforts to have it removed from the menu. Think strategically and politically about how you form these alliances. Who has the ear of the "menu-planners" in Congress? How can you join forces with them to get your menu item on the table?
  • And finally, be prepared to give thanks, regardless. Many of us, thankfully, have enough resources (and space for leftovers) to please the majority of our Thanksgiving guests. That's a pretty big thing to be thankful for at a time when millions of people around the world go hungry. In the policy arena, remember that the U.S. Congress is dealing with somewhat more finite resources. Actual choices must be made and sometimes the things we like lose out, especially when new menu items - like an economic crisis -- start filling up most of the plate.

So, take a deep breath, think of the things you are thankful for, raise your glass of Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir, or whatever you want, and vow to continue the fight for your potatoes another day!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Campaign Contributors: NOT Trying to Buy Off Legislators

Conventional wisdom suggests that those who make big campaign contributions expect big things in return. Yet scientific evidence suggests otherwise. A recent article in the Washington Post titled "Big Political Donors Just Looking for Favors? Apparently Not" highlights research done by the Center for Responsive Politics on political contributors.

The organization's report suggests that the "investments" organizations make in campaigns are really quite small considering the potential impact policy proposals might have on their ability to do business. The financial services industry, for example, only invested about $123 million in the campaigns. While that seems like a lot, it's chump change compared to the $700 billion being wielded by the government -- $700 billion that will determine the industry's structure far in to the future.

As the article author points out:

"If you thought campaign contributions bought you goodwill, and you knew that decisions made in the next couple of years might be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in potential profits and losses, wouldn't you be willing to "invest" a lot more in the outcome?"

Sure, some might argue that this simply points out that politicians can be bought for cheap. But I'm not one of those people. Perhaps the more important lesson to take from this is that money simply doesn't play as big a role in legislative decision making as many Americans think it does. In many cases, those seeking to elect certain legislators over others are simply trying to ensure a favorable environment for their issues in the next Congress: they want to elect members of Congress that ALREADY understand and agree with their views, not "buy off" those that don't.

Even more important is the recognition that regardless of how people feel about money in the political process, everyone has an even more powerful tool at their disposal. It's called constituency. Now get out there and use it -- and happy advocating!