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 ( 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

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 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

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, 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?