Wednesday, April 28, 2010

And Now for What Citizens Can Do...

I've been writing this week on the recent Pew Study about the fact that most citizens do not trust their government. And, like Sisyphus and his impossible task, I'm having the temerity to suggest improvements. Yesterday I made some suggestions for politicians. Today I have some ideas for citizens.

Know the institution: When I was on the hill we received numerous letters about foreign aid (yes, I know I'm dating myself: for those who don't remember letters they were communications sent on paper through an institution called the U.S. Post Office). The writers were almost uniformly outraged at the huge percentage of the federal budget spent on foreign aid. In reality, the percentage was ½ of 1%. Granted, these writers probably didn't want any money spent on foreign aid, but under no construction could this be viewed as a "huge percentage of the Federal budget."

Or what about the constituents that I talked to who owned a deli in our district? They were moving their business and wanted our office to arrange to move several federal agency offices so that they would have better foot traffic at lunch. Not really a reasonable ask of a Congressional office.

Clearly these are extreme examples, but what about something simple? The people who used to call our office after a vote to express their extreme frustration with us could have been far more effective if they'd called BEFORE the vote. We still might not have agreed with them, but it's always best to tell Congress what you think before they take action.

From knowing what Congress can actually do for you to knowing your issue, citizens can help enhance trust by knowing what they're talking about.

Know how to advocate effectively: Your communications must be relevant, personalized, thoughtful and specific if you want to have a prayer of being taken seriously. Sure. The Constitution and the general idea of a democracy give you every right to fire off an angry e-mail to every member of Congress you can think of, and if it makes you feel better go ahead. But in a representative system, it's the officials that specifically represent the area where you live or work who really care what you think.

If you want to advocate in support of an appropriation for a specific program, your best place to start is with the elected official who represents the area where you live, work or serve people. If that person happens to serve on the appropriations committee great, if not, it's still best to communicate with your own legislator and ask him or her to reach out to the appropriators. If you aren't sure who they are, go to to find out.

Once you've gotten passed the relevancy hurdle, you need to think about how your communication can rise to the top of the thousands that are received in a Congressional office everyday. You do that by being specific about what you want, being thoughtful in your arguments and, most important, by telling a personal story. Personalized communications have far more influence with a legislator than form communications. Period.

Understand the difference between "being heard" and "being agreed with": In many cases the problem is not that your opinion isn't heard. Rather, it's that either a) the legislator doesn't really agree with you or b) the legislator doesn't have an opinion on your issue. So yelling louder probably isn't going to be effective.

If they don't agree with you, you might be able to turn things around. See if there are some "baby steps" you can take to help them understand the issue better and, perhaps, change their mind. These might include srranging site visits or attending townhall meetings. If that doesn't work, it's time, on your end, to decide whether this is a deal breaker and vote accordingly in the next election.

If it's simply that they don't have an opinion yet, targeted follow-up that addresses the legislator's concerns and connects the issue to the people he or she represents will be more effective than more yelling.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Building Trust Between Citizens and Their Government

Following up on last week's blog posting regarding the Pew Study with the shocking findings that citizens don't trust their legislators, today's post is the first in a two part series on what politicians and citizens can do to improve the situation. Today I'm focusing on politicans. Tomorrow I'll focus on citizens.

So, without further ado -- three things politicans can do to move themselves up on the trust ladder.
  1. Improve constituent communications: Time and time again I have advocates tell me "I wrote a letter to my Congressman about issue X and I got a form letter back about totally-unrelated issue Y." No wonder citizens feel that politicians aren't listening! However, rather than assuming politicians and their staff are sitting around eating bon-bons all day and sending random letters, let's look at the reasons behind why this happens. In fact, in most cases, what it boils down to is a resource problem. Did you know that since the advent of the Internet, constituent communications have at least quadrupled? Yes, you read that right. And yet the resources available to deal with those communications have remained virtually unchanged. Members of the House, for example, have the same number of staff as they had before the Internet. While Congress has certainly become more efficient in managing these communications, the panacea of "increase efficiency" can go only so far. At some point, it's time to get more people and systems in place to manage the problem.Although it would be wildly unpopular, members of Congress should use their own advocacy skills to make the case for additional funding, and then apply those funds to solving this urgent issue.
  2. Be clear about why you're in Congress: Every elected official has his or her own reason for enduring the grinding 24/7 schedule and constant stream of abuse that, these days, is the hallmark of a Congressional career. 99.9% of the time it's not "because I like to be powerful." For the most part, it's because they want to achieve some specific policy goal or because they want to help their legislative district or state. Members of Congress need to be clear ? to themselves and to their constituents ? what their proactive agenda is, even in the midst of partisan bickering and infighting.
  3. Stop adding fuel to the fire: Hopefully it goes without saying, but for heaven's sake politicians should please stop any unethical, shading or just plain disgusting dealings that make the whole institution look bad. Former Rep. Massa, I'm looking at you.
Tomorrow -- what can you do to make a difference? Read the blog to find out!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Can You Trust Your Legislators?

The answer, according to a recent Pew Research Survey, is a resounding "no." In fact, just 22% of respondents believed that they could trust government in Washington all or most of the time.

This saddens the Advocacy Guru for a number of reasons, the most of important of which is that effective advocacy requires an environment of mutual trust. In other words, to achieve your policy goals, your legislators must trust that you are giving them good information. At the same time, you must trust that your legislators can and will do what you identify as "the right thing," especially after you've made your case

But how is this trust possible when a majority of Americans (52%) believe that the political system can work fine, it's the members of Congress that are the problem? Or when at least 76% believe that elected officials in Washington 1) care only about their careers; 2) are influenced by special interests; 3) are unwilling to compromise, and 4) are profligate and out-of-touch?

There's a glimmer of hope, though, in the findings. That glimmer is the fact that most Americans (56%) find themselves to be more frustrated with government than they are actually angry. This to me is a good thing because, frankly, there's something I can do about frustration.

So, how can we fix this? Next week I'll post information on what politicians and citizens can do to improve the level of trust. So stay tuned! In the meantime, if you're interested in this topic, check out the new Partnership for a More Perfect Union. They might have some answers!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Tax Day! Why Americans Should LOVE Paying Their Taxes

Ah, April 15 th . A day when the thoughts of many Americans are focused, like a laser, on the money we personally spend for the "public good" (or the "public bad", depending on your perspective).

Whether you're grumbling over your morning tea or joining a tea party protest today, if you're not skipping merrily down to the post office today all excited about the investments you get to make in our nation's infrastructure just repeat to yourself one (or all) of the following mantras. You might not wind up skipping, but hopefully you'll feel a little better.

I'm Investing in My Country

Do you like roads? Parks? Mail? The job our military does to keep us safe? Health care for the poor and elderly? Food stamps? Public broadcasting? Whatever your particular interest is, some portion of your tax dollars are going toward that project. If you're curious as to where your tax dollars go, check out the National Priorities Project and their interactive tax chart . Here you can enter the amount of taxes you actually paid (if it doesn't make you cry) and determine where those dollars went. Then, as you're filling out your 1040, pretend to yourself that you're making a donation to the programs you love best. You can even include that in the "memo" portion of the check - believe me, IRS workers have seen it all. That might ease the pain a little.

I'm Investing in Myself
If you're not convinced by the broader benefits to society that paying your taxes brings, think about it from a purely selfish perspective. Every minute of every day you are impacted positively by government actions. Think about it. Did you wake up this morning? If you did and heard the clock radio alarm or watched television, you were affected by FCC regulation of the radio spectrum. Did you take a shower? Clean water regulations (hopefully). Have some coffee? Trade tariffs on coffee beans. With cream? Dairy price supports. Use the restroom? You better hope there are combined sewer overflow regulations in your area. Drive on a road? Well, you get the point.

If you want to test this out, pick a day when you'll stop every few moments to write down how government impacts you (you can even use Twitter, if you're so inclined). Then, imagine that your personal tax dollars are bringing you these benefits. In fact, I'll be doing this through my Twitter feed today, so sign up to follow AdvocacyGuru and see what I come up with!

I'll Gain Access to Potential Perks

You know the old adage "you've got to spend money to make money?" Well, that definitely applies in the tax world. This year, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other recently passed bills, Americans can claim all kinds of credits on their returns. The catch is, you've got to file to get the cash.

For example, if you bought a car or a house, credits may be coming your way. There are more education and energy efficiency credits as well. So take a careful look at all the existing and new deductions and credits. You may be surprised at what you'll gain!

I'll Avoid Public Humiliation and Additional Fees (and possible Jail Time)
Famed mobster Al Capone wasn't sent to jail for the many violent crimes he allegedly committed. No, what brought him down was tax evasion. And, although they certainly shouldn't be equated with mobsters, tax problems have dashed the career hopes of everyone from cabinet nominees like Tom Daschle to the coffee shop owner here in DC who just didn't pay his local taxes for about ten years. With penalties and fees, his tax bill topped $400,000 - and now he's out of business.

Whether you're concerned about how your tax situation will be addressed during your nomination hearing, or just want to avoid losing your business, it's important to stay on top of your tax obligations. In fact, many employers now look at how individuals manage their finances as one important hiring criterion. You don't want to lose your dream job because you just couldn't bring yourself to write that check on April 15 th .

I Have the Right (and Responsibility) to Advocate on Government Spending
"But wait," you're thinking. "The main reason I don't want to pay my taxes is because government spends my money on things I don't like." Sure, it's all very well and good to imagine that you're spending money ONLY on those government programs that make sense to you. But as a practical matter, that isn't really the case, is it?

Well, here's the most wonderful thing about our tax system and our overall system of government. If you don't like where your tax dollars are being spent, you have a right and a responsibility to let your elected officials know! For example, if you paid $5,000 in taxes, you'll find out that $1,470 went to the military and just over $1,000 went to health services. For some people those ratios are just fine: others believe that more should be going toward non-military programs. Wherever you stand on the spectrum, let your elected officials know what you think we should be investing in as a nation. How cab you do that? Here are four simple steps:
  1. First, make sure you know what you're talking about. Don't rant about the huge portion of the budget being spent on foreign aid, for example. It's ½ of 1 percent. Try a site like to be sure you've got the latest information.
  2. Second, be clear about what you want. If you want a specific program cut, say so. If you want a specific tax increased or decreased, be explicit. Don't simply say "we need to pay less in taxes."
  3. Third, be able to answer the question "why should this legislator listen to me?" You'll be far more compelling and persuasive if you are a constituent, if you represent constituents or if what you want connects with policy issues the lawmaker is interested in.
  4. Finally, connect your "ask" to your personal story. How would what your asking for you benefit you and other constituents?
You can find your legislators and e-mail them directly through a site like .
When All Else Fails...
If things get too stressful just try to be thankful that at least you've got some income to pay taxes on, right? There are too many Americans struggling to make ends meet (especially in this economic climate). So sit back and relax with a glass of wine - and who knows? That Cabernet might not have made it to your glass without some sort of taxpayer investment.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

New Report on Congress Disproving Everything I've Ever Said

I want to be sure tipsheet readers know about a new report on Congress that runs counter to everything I've ever said about effective advocacy. Among other things, this report suggests that:
  • Members of Congress pay most attention to the people that live outside their district, not to their constituents.
  • Citizens should never send personal letters. Petitions and form communications work just fine.
  • The staff people for elected officials actually like it when you treat them badly and suggest that you're disappointed to be meeting with or talking to "just them."
April Fools!
OK, there is no such report. In fact, all the evidence suggests the contrary. But, in honor of April Fools day I thought I'd imagine what the world of advocacy would be like if we turned some of the fundamental rules on their head.
Imagine, if you will, a world where...
  • Constituency Doesn't Matter: Everyone and their mother would want to meet with Speaker Pelosi, other members of the leadership and the chairs of important Committees. What would the remaining members of Congress do? Seriously, though, the principle of constituency helps us identify which elected officials are supposed to care what we think - even if it doesn't always feel like they do.
The point: Consider the "power of constituency" as one of your important leveraging tools - and learn how to use it effectively.
  • Form Communications Really Work: The world where members of Congress pay attention to form letters is the same world where you pay attention to junk mail - it simply doesn't exist. If you think about it, what would you rather have: Members of Congress that can be swayed by a handful of identical communications or a system where personal communications, a little hard work and perseverance actually get more attention?
The point: If you can take an extra five or ten minutes to personalize your communications you will gain far more attention than those who aren't willing to take the extra step. And isn't that a good thing?
  • Staff People Enjoy Being Treated as Unimportant Underlings: Ah, yes. They love it when the people they're meeting with say "but I thought I'd get to meet with the Congressman. I don't want to meet with 'just you'." They also like it when advocates go "over their head" to the "really important people in the office."
The point: Treat the staff as you would any other person that can help you achieve a goal. They can become your strongest ally in getting what you want out of the Congressional office.
  • Members of Congress Stopped Arguing All the Time and "Got Stuff Done": Right now, Congress passes only about 4% of the 10,000 bills that are introduced. But in our imaginary world, they might get a much higher percentage passed, including bills like the "Military Toy Replica Act" or the "Nanotechnology in the Schools Act" (are we for? Against? I'm not sure).
The point: Our system of government is not designed for speed and efficiency for moving things through. It's designed for caution and deliberation. Sure it's frustrating when it's YOUR program that's being stopped, but at least be thankful that a lot of other crazy stuff isn't being passed (I know, I know, my friends in the military toy world are going to come after me on this one.)
Now get out there and enjoy your April Fools Day. You can start by reading about the Top 100 April Fool's Hoaxes of all time