Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Open Government and Citizen Responsibility

I had a couple things happen today that reminded me how the concepts of "open government" (or "transparency") and "citizen responsibility" go hand in hand.

First, I was interviewed on a talk radio show in Michigan by a very thoughtful host (yes, they're out there) who wanted to know how people can be most effective in getting their message across to their legislators. He noted that many people are distressed about all the terrible things they hear about the major initiatives making their way through Congress (health care reform and climate change legislation being the most recent examples). How can an average citizen, he wondered, sort through it all?

The answer, quite simply, is they can't. Hey, I'm sorry to say it, but it's frankly impossible for anyone -- average citizen or Nobel prize winner -- to sort through the thousands of bills introduced in Congress and understand and have a thoughtful perspective on all of them. It's hard for most of us to do that for just one bill.

Frankly, that's why we have (gasp!) special interests. The people within these organizations spend a great deal of time culling through all the various bills making sure that the people they represent aren't harmed (or are helped) by the bill. If you're employed by someone, a member of a group like the AARP, HSUS or even the NRA, have ever bought anything or, ummm, breathe, chances are you've got one of those special interests working for you. And that's GOOD news. Thanks goodness we don't have to track down all this stuff ourselves.

This perspective was further solidified when I listened in on the Kojo Nnamdi show's great session on Open Government (more information on the WAMU website). The guests (from the Sunlight Foundation and Adobe) talked about the work they're doing to make Congressional information more accessible -- and what can be done to improve access to that information.

I'm 100% in agreement that nothing should be hidden. Bills should be posted, statements should be made public, citizens should know what their money is being spent on. At the same time, I also think more needs to be done to explain the significance of the information we're so busy pumping out. All the best information in the world isn't valuable unless people understand it in the context of the legislative process.

In short, I'm all for open government. But with that openness comes, I believe, a measure of citizen responsibility. We must, as Socrates might say, know what we don't know about issues and be willing to learn and explore the various nuances. That will be far more productive, and serve our democracy far better, than angry outbursts at what we've "heard" about particular bills.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Working with the Scary Congress

My thoughts turn to horror movies this time of year and, as a D.C. resident, I don't usually have to look much further than the Capitol for a good scare. Between arguments over health care reform, climate change and financial services, the legislative process seems a little frightening lately.

But have no fear! There are ways to "trick" your legislators into giving you what you want, and I discuss several of them in the latest edition of my Advocacy Tipsheet. Seven-year olds have mastered the art as part of their efforts to extract candy from strangers -- why shouldn't you?

Even if, in the spirit of the season, you're tempted to TP your legislator's offices, I encourage you to be the adult in this situation and rise above the process. You might just be able to make a difference -- check out my tipsheet to learn how.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why "Reading the Bill" Won't Work

I've blogged before about the impracticality of the "read the bill" movement. Many groups have joined together to demand that members of Congress read every bill that is introduced. Their argument is that lawmakers shouldn't vote to pass legislation they haven't read. This makes perfect sense, on its face.

Recently, the Post editorialized on this issue, pointing out the impracticalities of actually reading all 10,000 bills that are introduced in a two year Congressional session. Members of Congress and their staff would be doing nothing but reading whereas' and wherefore's until their eyes crossed.

I responded to the Post editorial agreeing with the impracticality argument. But in my opinion, the editors missed the main point, which is that reading the bill and understanding what the bill does are two entirely different things. You can read my response, which was printed in the Post on Saturday, here.

My main point is that the bill language isn't what legislators need to spend time reading in order to understand a legislative initiative. If they need to read anything, it's the biased and unbiased summaries from wide varieties of groups and individuals on their opinions of what the bill language might do in real life.

And beyond reading, they need to meet with constituents, knowledgeable citizens, subject matter experts, representatives of those "horrible" special interests like the AARP or the HSUS (tongue firmly in cheek) and even a lobbyist or two to have a complete understanding of how the bill language might impact the people they represent. Then, they need to balance the perspectives of all these groups and make decisions based on what they think will be best for their constituency.

The good news is that this is exactly what the vast majority of legislators and their staff try do every single day. So maybe this situation isn't quite as dire as some might have you believe.

Monday, September 21, 2009

News Flash: Politicians Like to Self-Promote

A recent article in the Washington Post titled "Tweeting Their Own Horns" reports on a recent study from the University of Maryland on Congressional use of the micro-blogging service Twitter.

I know this will shock you: it turns out that politicians generally use Twitter to promote themselves. The researchers reviewed tweets through February, 2009 as well as postings in June, 2009 and August, 2009 to make comparisons about when Congress is in session versus out. According to the lead researcher:

"Twitter by its nature is a very self-absorbed service," said Jennifer Golbeck, lead researcher and assistant professor in the university's College of Information Studies. "Politicians are very self-important people."

Now, I think it's appropriate to cut our elected leaders a little slack. I'll bet that if you checked out most of the Twitter feeds out there, you'd find that the majority of users are focused on "self-promotion" versus "world peace."

While you can point to a few uses of Twitter as an interactive tool for promoting dialogue between parties, for the most part it is still being used by EVERYONE, not just politicians, as a mechanism for promoting a business, a cause or one's own daily routine. I'll confess that I use it (www.twitter.com/advocacyguru) to promote my particular cause (umm, and the services I provide around that cause) of making everyone on the planet better advocates. See how cleverly I snuck that in?

I guess my main point is that while the study does make for interesting reading, I hope people won't be using it as ammunition to feel even more cynical about our elected officials than we already do. As with all new technologies, it will take time to move Twitter from a promotional tool to an interactive tool. It's probably a good idea to think of Twitter as an evolution, not a revolution.

And if you're looking for ways to be part of the evolution, check out the TweetCongress site, which is working to connect citizens with their legislators in whole, new 140 character or less ways.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The "Emily Litella" Approach to Advocacy Strikes Again

Last month I wrote a little about the "Emily Litella" approach to advocacy (generational alert -- if you don't know who Emily Litella is, go immediately to this video of her from SNL titled "violins on television.") The Litella-syndrome happens when someone gets all outraged about a policy issue and calls their legislators all in a huff -- only to find out that they misunderstood some fundamental aspect of the proposal. Having been on the receiving end of some of these calls myself, their response is usually something along the lines of "Oh. That's different then. Well, never mind."

I am reminded of Emily Litella when reading this article in the Washington Post on where the "Death Panels" rumor got started. For those living under a rock for the last month, this is the idea that health care proposals put forth by Democrats would establish death panels for rationing care to the elderly. Couple interesting points about the death panel phenomenon:
  • The hospital in Wisconsin where all this started is actually seen as a leader in identifying ways for people to have a very specific say about their own end-of-life issues, INSTEAD of having other people decide for them when they are incapacitated. Kind of sounds like the opposite of death panels to me.
  • Allowing healthy people to be more clear about their wishes also helps save money. According to the article, there's about $40 billion a year spent on Medicare services in the last month of the recipient's life. Apparently, letting people have directives about how much effort they want put in to their end-of-life experience results in lower costs. I thought the Republicans were for reduced spending?
  • Finally, and most important, Sarah Palin was, as has been widely reported, the one who "raised the alarm" about the death panels. Seriously? We're taking our national health care advice from the woman who reads "... all [the newspapers] -- any of them that have been in front of me over the years" (as she told Katie Couric)
When I'm at the grocery store, the National Enquirer is in front of me, but I don't usually believe what it has to say about federal policy (it's usually right on about aliens, though).
Palin-bashing aside (sorry, it's so easy), the point is that the death panel argument is one of the most aggregious examples of the Litella syndrome I've seen in the last 10 years. I call on all effective advocates to resist the urge to get all fired up about something they know nothing about -- and instead take some time to learn about the issues. THEN get fired up.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The downside of policy success

In "Environmentalists Slow to Adjust in Climate Debate" David Farenthold of the Washington Post makes an interesting point about persistence, or the lack of it, within the environmental community when it comes to grassroots advocacy on climate issues.

While industry groups have continued in "campaign-mode" to highlight concerns about climate change legislation, even friends of the environmental community admit that they "slacked off" after the House passed climate reform legislation earlier this year, which may have been a mistake. As anyone can tell you, it's relatively easy to get a Democratically-controlled House to pass legislation associated with Democratic agenda items. It's the Senate where the real fun will begin during September, and it's the Senate where industry groups have focused their time and effort -- and money.

In fact, some might argue that money is the real difference between the two sides. Reason suggests that industry-types might have more money to pour into a campaign against climate change legislation and it is true that their investments have led to a series of television ads and much glitzier rallies and campaign "whistle-stops" than the ennviornmental community.

But the article points to another important element missing in the environmental communities' message -- passion. While the environmental coalition is running ads and holding events, they tend to be lower key, less enthusiastic and, thankfully, less shrill than what the industry is puting forth.

Perhaps the trajectory of this debate points to a political truism: it's easier to be passionate about something you're scared of than something you're for. And since passion for your cause is a critical component for persistence, it's no wonder that as the left gets more of what it wants from government (in health care, environmental protection and the like), they likewise become more complacent.

It's the downside of success that we all should be aware of, regardless of whether we're talking policy change, business success or plain old life!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Opinions are NOT Facts -- Especially in Advocacy!

I am often asked to be a guest on talk radio shows around the country, and I'm surprised that I tend to enjoy them very much. Sure, I get the occasional somewhat "controversial" host, but I find most hosts -- even those I don't really agree with -- to be generally thoughtful people. We talk about things like "Why Congress is Designed to be Completely and Totally Inefficient" and, of course, how citizens can be heard.

This morning, for example, I spoke with Troy Derengowski of WHON in Richmond, IN. While he and I don't really see eye-to-eye on whether people in Washington, DC work hard or want to do good for the country (I'll leave it to you to imagine who takes what position), I did feel that we had a good back and forth discussion.

It's unfortunate, then, that some callers on this and other shows do not want to offer the same level of courtesy and respect for other's opinions. For example, did you know that I'm a communist who is an apologist for Congressional efforts to eliminate habeas corpus and euthanize seniors? (sorry dad)

That some people would make such strange accusations doesn't surprise me, naturally, but it saddens me. Why are the same people who are "disgusted" by the rancor, bickering and partisanship in Washington, DC so willing to engage in the practice themselves? Why assume that people in DC are evil, terrible human beings bent on making life miserable for average citizens?

Their response would, of course, be "but the people in Washington, DC are evil, terrible human beings bent on making my life miserable." This, my friends, is an opinion. And, get this, opinions vary from person to person. Some people actually truly and honestly believe that single-payer health care systems and financial services reform are good things. It is not a fact that "everyone hates everything Congress is doing," to paraphrase one of the recent callers on a show. That is opinion and effective advocates will be very careful in differentiating between the two.

I may be titling at windmills here, but I'd encourage anyone hoping to engage in civil political discourse to heed to words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (as she describes Voltaire's perspective) "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

In other words, everyone is entitled to have (and to express) their opinion. No one should be shouted down or prevented from sharing their views. And we all should be thankful for and protective of the right to express our opinion freely -- while recognizing others have the same rights as well.

Wouldn't it be nice to see our democratic discourse work like that? Wait, I think I see another windmill over there...

Friday, August 07, 2009

... And More on AstroTurfing

Sorry to anyone who is tired of fake grassroots, but it's just such a hot topic lately. Today's Post had an article about how UPS employees were forced to lobby against FedEx. The article suggests that rank-and-file UPS workers (drivers, office personnel, etc.) were told by their managers to send letters to members of Congress in support of more stringent labor rules for FedEx.

If true, this is certainly an example of astroturfing at its most egregious. Informing employees of an issue and allowing them to make their own decisions is one thing: sitting them down with a pen, paper, talking points and some not-so-veiled threats is entirely different. There is a right way to encourage employee and other citizen involvement in advocacy. What's described in this article is NOT it.

Perhaps even more significant is the fact that given how these letters were generated, I'm not even sure how effective they would be anyway! I mean, if you're going to strong arm employees in to writing letters you might as well have them be effective. Some key problems with these:
  • Umm, handwritten letters? So last century. Pieces of paper going to Washington, DC go through an irradiation process. They come out of that process brown, crunchy and smelling bad (not to mention 3 weeks late). Personalized e-mails or faxes are often a better way to go.
  • Apparently managers told employees to choose from a few "key arguments" that they were to copy verbatim. A more effective letter would incorporate personalized arguments and stories from the writer about how they've been harmed by the status quo and how the proposed policy change would benefit them.
  • Employees were apparently pulled from work activities and told to write these letters while on the job. While that's not illegal, it's certainly suspicious. Anyone wanting to solicit employee engagement should encourage them to participate in "off hours."
Again, engaging employees in legislative initiatives can be both effective and ethical. The key is to consider this work in the context of helping employees understand the issues and giving them the tools they need to participate should they choose to do so.
In short, follow these basic rules for better corporate advocacy -- Foster the efforts of your internal champions to tell a positive story, yes. Force people who don't want to be involved and don't want to write letters, no.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

More on AstroTurf Lobbying

There's more on the recent "astro turf" lobbying scandal in the Washington Post today. Turns out it was the pro-coal "American Coalitions for Clean Coal Electricity" who hired Bonner and Associates to generate grassroots / grasstops support for changes to the climate change legislation. The ACCCE did not, obviously hire the firm to do fake letters, but to me this just demonstrates what happens when organizations focus almost exclusively on the NUMBER of letters going to the hill on an issue as opposed to the QUALITY. In this case, at least 12 of the 47 or so letters generated by Bonner were fake. That's a 25% fake-to-real ratio.

Nothing excuses the firm in question or the staff person who allegedly put together these fake letters. But would this have happened if someone had said "hey, we don't care about the number of communications. We just want to be sure they come from people who really feel strongly about this issue?" The truth is that just one high quality, thoughtful communication will have more of an impact on a legislator than 10 or 20 or 100 luke warm communications -- no matter whose name is on the letterhead.

The practice at Bonner and Associates (according to some bloggers) appears to be the opposite. Clearly, the premium is on getting as many letters out as possible without regard for their accuracy or adhering to the basic principles of enhancing true citizen communication with Congress.

The silver lining here is that this demonstrates to me that generating grassroots / grasstops support for an issue CAN be a useful tactic for advocay success if done right. And by done right, I mean focusing on helping truly engaged citizens connect in a meaningful way with legislators. I do not mean making stuff up.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Astroturf Ruins it for the Rest of Us!

There's a debate going on in Washington, DC (and has been for years) on whether so-called "grassroots lobbying" efforts should be included in lobbying disclosure regulations. This issue has come up again most recently in the context of organized grassroots campaigns, where an organization hires a company to generate grassroots communications into an elected official's office (full disclosure: our firm frequently helps organizations run these kinds of campaigns).

Sometimes a bad actor (or two or two hundred), generates grassroots communications that are less than genuine -- and gets caught, as noted in this Sunlight Foundation blog post. There's no way to defend this practice, of course. The whole POINT of grassroots organization is to inspire the delivery of quality, relevant and, most important, personalized communications from constituents. It is NOT to send fake communications in to a legislator's office. Not only is that unethical, it's not even effective. So why do it?

However, I do not think that the fact that there are some bad actors should automatically mean that anyone who does any grassroots lobbying should register. Naturally I would think that: it's in my firm's best interest not to have to go through the hassle of registering.

But, it's more than that. Believe it or not, I think that the vast majority of organized grassroots campaigns have honorable intentions. In most cases, their main goal is to give citizens the tools they need to connect in a meaningful way with their elected officials on issues those citizens truly care about. This, to me, is a practice that should be encouraged, not discouraged.

The problem with requiring some sort of registration for these types of campaigns is that if the net is cast too wide, such a requirement might limit true citizen participation in the political process. Imagine the citizen advocate who wants to rally people in his or her neighborhood to argue for (or against) health care reform. They decide to show people what to do, set up a "do it yourself" website and make some flyers to encourage people to attend townhall meetings. Should that person be required to register as a "grassroots lobbyist?" What if they take small donations of $20 bucks per person to defray expenses? Or hire a web consultant to help them put together a website? Would other people be less likely to participate if they thought they had to register with a government entity?

Sure, there are a lot of big players out there, some of whom are spending millions of dollars on these efforts (not with us, unfortunately :)). But how do you draft language that gets at just the "big guys" and leaves the smaller, citizen-based coalitions alone?

It seems to me that the danger of limiting citizen participation is much higher when it comes to registration requirements for grassroots campaigns. Therefore, it makes significantly more sense to tread much more lightly, to combat bad actors where they are found, and to redouble our efforts to encourage open and honest citizen to government communication.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Transparency, Accountability and Citizen Responsibility

I just attended a terrific presentation by Julie Germany of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet (http://www.ipdi.org). She offered a range of useful facts and figures designed to make the point that in today's super-charged, technological world, citizens expect more relevant information and more interactivity from their elected officials than ever before -- and they want it about 100 times faster than they've ever wanted it. Anyone who has worked in a Congressional office (and lived to tell the tale), can attest to the truth of these increasing and some might say overwhelming expectations.

Increased government transparency, specifically in the form of getting more information about what government is doing (dollars spent, meetings held, bills introduced and considered, etc.), is catering to that desire. Let me start by saying I have no
objections to sharing this information. In a "government by the people," (believe it or not, we're still that) citizens have every right to all the information they want about what government's up to (or isn't). It shouldn't be a secret.

At the same time, though, I think it's incumbent upon those demanding the information (or complaining about all the "secrets" in Washington, DC), that they make an effort to understand the content and relevance of the information once they get it and have some sense of what to DO with what they've learned.

All too often there's an "Emily Litella" quality to citizen communications with elected officials. For those under the age of 40 who are reading this, Emily Litella was a fictional character played by the late, great Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live (back when it was funny). She would get absolutely OUTRAGED about things like "violins on TV," until someone told her it was "violence on TV" and then she would say, as only she could, "oh! well, never mind." Believe me, it's funnier when you see it, which you can on You Tube.

How many times a day do people misinterpret what they read on the Internet (or believe without question) and then decide to contact a Congressional office in an outrage? Enough to shake the foundations of Congress with a loud chorus of "never minds."

Granted, fear mongering is a tactic sometimes used by the unscrupulous to inspire action -- but don't succumb! The next time you're tempted to be outraged about something, make sure you really should before you call all in a huff. And if you have ample reason for outrage, then figure out how to approach your legislators in a way that will capture their attention. If you need some help with that, check out articles on my site at http://ping.fm/YH5sZ

Hope this helps, and happy (thoughtful) advocating!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

No Senate vote on health care before the August work period: what does this mean for you? It means there will be some perfect opportunities to share your views on this and other critical legislative initiatives (financial services, for example) while members of Congress and their staff are at home during the August district work period. Here are three quick and easy things you can do in the next few weeks to enhance your advocacy efforts by leaps and bounds.

1. Attend a townhall meeting: If history is any guide, your legislators will be holding what are called "townhall meetings" left and right during August. These are two to three hour sessions hosted in the community where the legislator provides information on what is happening (or not happening) in DC and constituents have an opportunity to comment and ask questions. Call your legislator's office (you can find contact information at www.congress.org or call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121) and ask them when they will be holding these meetings. And then go!

2. Ask your legislator or a staff person to visit your facility, group or project: Pictures often speak louder than words, so consider whether you can actually show a legislator something in the district that demonstrates why you feel so strongly about the policy issues you're advocating on. If you can't get the legislator, get a staff person -- they actually handle most of the day to day work and it's essential to build a positive relationship with them. For tips on setting up site visits, visit my FAQs page at http://ping.fm/f7HkJ

3. Do your homework: August is almost always a good time to "catch up" on paperwork, projects, etc. Why not use a few minutes of that catch up time to learn about your legislators? Go to www.congress.gov, for example, to look up the bills they've introduced. Once you know some of the policy issues they care about, you'll have a much better shot at drafting a message they might find compelling.

Don't get caught up in the "Dog Days of Summer" (unless there are actual puppies involved). Instead, take some time to connect with legislators while they're home. You'll be ready to hit the ground running in September after taking a few steps today to prepare.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The SPIT Technique for Advocacy

I'm a big fan of acronyms as, frankly, they're the only way I remember things (I used to be better about remembering, but something has happened to me in the last few years). Knowing that people of my generation may have the same problem, I figured it would make sense to share this with you and see if it's useful. So here goes!

S is for Specific. When developing a message for legislators and their staff, you should be very clear about what you specifically want them to do. It might be a legislative ask, like sponsoring a bill, or it may be a relationship building ask, like attending an in-district meeting. Whatever it is, have a goal for your communication. Otherwise, you won't get the attention you deserve.

P is for Personal: Advocates bring a great deal to the influence equation including, perhaps most importantly, their personal stories. Telling an elected official why a proposed policy change is important to you personally can have a tremendous impact.

I is for Informative: Legislators and staff are looking for solid, reliable information and citizens are some of the best sources because they know how a certain policy change will impact people on the ground in the legislator's district. The most important thing to remember about the "informative" rule is that if you don't know the answer to a question, just say "I don't know, but I'll get back to you" -- and then do it!

T is for Trustworthy: It hopefully goes without saying that you should never lie to a legislator. Consider taking your "trustworthiness" a step further by actually telling them about what the other side has to say about an issue. They're going to hear it anyway -- wouldn't it be better coming from you?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Another Example of the Cash / Votes Conundrum

So, the Washington Post had an article today highlighting how Kay Hagan, a Senator from North Carolina, was the only Democrat to vote against the recently passed tobacco regulation legislation (N.C. Tobacco Farmers Find Friend in State's New Senator.) Now, before I go too far down this path, let me make it clear that this is not a post about the merits or demerits of tobacco legislation. Personally, I'm for regulating tobacco. I support efforts to reduce the burdens on our health care system caused by this product.

However, as long time readers of the blog might suspect, I do NOT support the ongoing speculations and cynicism in media reports about the motives of elected officials in their voting decisions. Sure, there are many examples of wrong doing by elected officials and we're all a little jaded by the political process. But does every story really have to try to tie an elected official's voting record to campaign contributions?

In this example, the Post notes that Kay Hagan took $19,200 from tobacco interests to help finance her Senate race. What the Post does not point out is that she raised a total of over $8.5 million for that cycle. Her tobacco money equaled approximately .2% of her overall funds. The same article notes that there are 50,000 people directly employed by tobacco in the state, which is about .8% of the employable population (assuming people under 18 and over 65 aren't working). This is a $7 billion industry in the state. Does it even make sense to suggest that she voted the way she did because of the money for her campaign, as many people have? (although this is not, I should be clear, what the Post said). Why can't we believe that she did it for her constituents?

In fact, she raised more money from individuals associated with EMILY's List, MoveOn.org and the health care industry than she got from tobacco. Her going against these "monied interests" seems to be a bigger story here and clearly those groups are not happy with her position on these issues (although she has been known as a long time tobacco supporter, so I'm not sure they're surprised).

The point here is that we already have an electorate that feels beaten down by special interests and powerless in the face of money and lobbying in the political process. These types of stories and inferences aren't helping. We can disagree with the decisions some politicians make -- and I do, frequently. But I really wish we wouldn't ALWAYS paste everyone with the "bought off politician" label simply because they disagree with us or they represent a part of the country with different interests from our own.  

It sounds terribly naive, I know, but I believe it is possible that many politicians do truly believe that what they are doing is in the best interest of their constituents. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Are members of Congress bought off by cash or votes?

I was struck by Dana Milbank's sarcastic and, let's face it, somewhat snarky description of the recent hearings on DOD appropriations issues on Capitol Hill (see Defending the Nation From Common Sense from today's Washington Post).

In it, he feeds into the common perspective that those terrible members of Congress in Washington, DC represent the corporate interests of their particular state far more than its citizens, much less the citizens in the rest of the nation. In referring to Senator Murray, for example, as the "Senator from Boeing" and picturing poor, beleaguered Defense Secretary Gates as ". . .(pleading) with the lawmakers to rise above the powerful contractors that fund their campaigns and influence their elections" (sniff) Milbank clearly points to greed and (possibly) corruption as the main drivers of defense spending in Washington, DC.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love a bit of satire as much as the next person, and I certainly appreciate all the fodder for it in Washington, DC. And Senator Murray and others don't need me to make excuses for them. But, let's try to be a little fair here. Sure, Senator Murray (and Senator Shelby and Senator Cochran and anyone else with a defense contractor in their state) wants to be sure that the devices made by those contractors continue to be made. But here's the question -- are they protecting these contracts in exchange for the campaign contributions? Or are the doing it to protect tens of thousands of jobs in their states -- jobs held by constituents -- jobs held by constituents who may vote -- jobs held by constituent who may vote and who are struggling through tough economic times?

Let's look at the numbers. According to opensecrets.org, The Boeing PAC, for example, has given $10,000 to Patty Murray in the current cycle (2005-2010). Overall, she has raised $5,385,000 in this cycle. The Boeing contribution represents LESS THAN .2% of her overall dollars. Even if you add in individual Boeing PAC contribution to that number, it's still less than .4% overall. That's "point" 4, NOT 4.

On the other hand, Boeing employs over 76,000 people in her state, which has a population of just over 6.5 million. In other words, 1.16% of the people in Washington State are Boeing employees. At a time when unemployment in the state is running 9%, you better bet she's going to fight to keep Boeing jobs, regardless of whether she gets money from the Boeing PAC or not.

Although I can't guess at Senator Murray's motivations any more than Dana Milbank can, I can offer up another and less sinister perspective on this story, and that is this: constituents DO have a powerful voice and level of influence in Washington, DC. Anyone who can demonstrate a constituent connection to a legislator can get in to their office and be heard -- not necessarily agreed with, but heard. I encourage people to read articles like Milbank's for fun (because it is funny), but to not let it fuel the cynicism that is keeping citizens away from the political process.

In short, the Senators insisting on keeping certain Defense spending in place could just as easily be doing it for the people they represent as the people that help finance their campaigns. For those who still find it appalling that elected officials would represent the interests of their own constituents over the good of the country, well, the truth is that's what representative democracy is all about.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Citizen Advocacy Interview with Mike Markarian of HSUS

I had a great time chatting with Mike Markarian of the Humane Society Legislative Fund about my new book, Citizens in Action.  You can read all about it (and see an absolutely adorable photograph of Ozzie, my infamous Australian Cattle Dog) on the HSLF's Animal and Politics blog. If you're feeling really cool, you can even read the same article on the Huffington Post.

Happy advocating! 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Advocating in the Judicial Branch

It's funny that when some people think of "advocacy" they think almost instantly of lawyers. In fact, many definitions of "advocate" at Dictionary.com indicate that an advocate is someone who pleads for a cause in a court of law. And yet ironically, the judicial branch of government has been, in many ways, the most closed off to the type of citizen advocacy I'm usually talking about.

This makes it doubly interesting that President Obama has decided to nominate someone who he admires because she has "an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live" (from one of the Washington Post articles on this topic). If you think about it, in the way the world really works, citizens want to avoid the judicial system at all costs. But it sounds like President Obama and his pick for the Supreme Court might actually be looking at our court system as a venue in which the barriers and obstacles that citizens many face are overcome. I'm wondering if this will be possible in an environment where citizens are rarely effectively heard?

Certainly, as was seen in the case of the U.S. Senate's refusal to ratify the nomination of Judge Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, citizens can have a say in who might actually be placed on the court. But in that case, their voices were heard by their duly elected representatives in the Senate.

What I find interesting about this choice, and many of the choices of the Obama Administration, is that he and his team seem to be bringing that ethos of "citizen engagement" to all levels of governance -- even a branch that has traditionally been almost completely removed from the input of "regular people." I wonder if it will work? I guess we'll have to wait and see!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Congress: Coming Today to a Neighborhood Near You!

Well, it's quiet in DC this week, but that doesn't mean the policy work isn't happening! In fact, this week is the Memorial Day District Work Period, and members of Congress and many of their DC staff are in their legislative districts and states looking for feedback from their constituents.

Following are a few tips for providing that feedback in a meaningful way (I mean, beyond "stop being such an idiot"):
  • Find out about townhall meetings: Most elected officials are holding townhall meetings over the next few days. These are open to the public and are often held at local civic institutions, such as a library, school auditorium or city hall. Call their offices (you can find numbers at www.congress.org), ask when and where the next meeting is -- and attend! You'll be surprised at how few people actually show up -- and how much personalized attention you can get.
  • Craft a personalized, thoughtful, relevant message: What messages meet this criteria? Specifically messages that explain how you personally are impacted by a policy issue (personalized), relate to the elected official's constituents (relevant) and don't contain any swear words (thoughtful) -- not one. You'll also want to do your best to ask for something specific, such as asking the official to cosponsor a specific piece of legislation, support funding for a certain program or even just agree to have a more in-depth meeting on a policy issue.
  • Learn about your legislators: If you want to influence policy makers, you need to know a little about them. Spend some time over the next week looking up bills they've introduced at www.congress.gov and reviewing their webpages at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov. You might be surprised at what you find -- they may already be on your side!
More ideas and resources at www.advocacyguru.com/resources.htm

Monday, April 06, 2009

Why Obama's "Grassroots Army" isn't Working (and How it Can be More Effecitve!)

The Washington Post had an article today titled "Obama's Grassroots Machine Sputters in Effort to Push Budget." It's an interesting look at the difficulties "Organizing for America" is having in translating the power of the citizen-based movement that lead to Obama's election into legislative victories.

Now first off, I think it's important to cut them some slack. No one has ever really tried to utilize campaign supporters in this way before and I applaud them for doing it. Nevertheless, it appears in this case that they did not have much of an impact on the budget debate, which was passed through the Congress using the same old partisan techniques that are always used.

Why didn't they succeed? In my opinion, Organizing for America failed to recognize a fundamental truth about legislative advocacy, as opposed to electoral advocacy. When trying to get individuals to ultimately vote for a specific candidate (i.e., electoral advocacy), asking them to sign a petition can go a long way toward achieving you goal. Once someone has signed a petition they are generally far more likely to walk in to the ballot booth and support that candidate.

However, in legislative advocacy the role of the citizen is slightly different. In this case, citizens must encourage legislators to vote a certain way on legislation. Organizing for America chose to demonstrate citizen support through petitions. However, recent evidence shows that names on a petition really aren't that influential with members of Congress. In fact, personalized, thoughtful and relevant communications are what can make a true difference in this environment. The organizers of the effort could have been far more effective if they had targeted a few key areas and worked to get a few members of the grassroots army making a more personalized pitch to their legislators as opposed to getting thousands of people to sign petitions.

I think, though, that Thomas Mann's assertion that "...the petition drive was "a pretty lame start to the effort, and largely inconsequential to the outcome,"" and that "... the hard politics of policymaking are still driven by partisanship, by public opinion polls, by the roles of interest groups and all the other things that have always mattered in Washington" was a bit overstated. One thing that ALWAYS matters in Washington, especially to members of Congress, is what real, live, thoughtful constituents think about the issues. Any effort that focuses the energy and resources of these individuals in a meaningful way will, over time, be successful.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Obama and Citizen Advocacy

I read another glowing Washington Post article (Obama Turns to his E-mail List) today breathlessly touting the amazing work of the Obama Administration in developing a grassroots army to help sell its budget.

Don't get me wrong. I admire the Organizing for America approach and everything they're doing to get citizens more engaged in the process of governing the country. And their use of representative democracy to further their message by helping people on the e-mail list connect directly with members of Congress certainly makes sense.

But I have to say, and this may be blasphemy, what's so amazing about this approach? Sure, I haven't seen it used in this particular way before (executive branch using grassroots advocacy techniques to influence the legislature) but the general process is something nonprofits have used for decades (or perhaps centuries, I'm not that old).

Perhaps I don't get it, but what's so "revolutionary" about:

"A new online tool, to be unveiled this week on the DNC/OFA Web site, will help constituents find their congressional representatives' contact information so they can call the lawmakers' offices to voice approval of the proposal "

There are about 20 different sites that do that now, among them Congress.org, House.gov and Senate.gov.

Let's all just remember that grassroots advocacy is almost the world's oldest profession. Nonprofits and even, gasp, those community organizers have been there and done that when it comes to engaging citizens in the political process. What will set this effort apart is not simply the fact that it's being tried, but rather the actual change that is generated as a result. I look forward to hearing more about results, not just the fact that e-mails are being sent to a large list.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What's IN and What's OUT for 2009

The latest edition of the Advocacy Tipsheet highlighting what's in and what's out in advocacy for 2009 is up on my website. What's out? Panicing, Mavericks and Doing it for the Money, among other things. What's In? Planning, Coalitions and Doing it for the Cause.

Take a look and let me know what you think! Oh, and one more thing that's "in" -- my new book! Citizens in Action is being shipped in February. Stay Tuned for more...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

If you're still not sure whether Grassroots Advocacy will be important for the next four years...

... or possible eight, then you haven't read this article from the Washington Post outlining how the Treasury is taking steps to restrict direct lobbying on the dispensation of economic recovery funds. In other words, if you're a professional lobbyist, you won't be able to talk to federal officials about the best ways to spend the funds.

But, if you're a citizen advocate you'll be able to talk to whomever you want. If this isn't a strong indication of the new way of doing things in DC, I don't know what is.

Clearly, if you want to get some of those funds directed toward your important cause, you'll need to have an active, prepared and, most important, nonprofessional advocacy network ready to go!

Think of it as the grassroots advocacy Olympics: if you haven't retained your amateur status, you may not be eligible for the Gold Medal.