Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Knowing the Nature of What You’re Selling: Part 4 – Timeframe

In the last few posts I’ve talked about how effective lobbyists understand the nature of what they’re selling in Washington, D.C.. They identify the intent (action vs. inertia), the scope (controversial or not), the importance (must do vs. may do) and the timeframe (short vs. long term). This post covers the final factor, timeframe. When a policy decision must be made quickly, it’s easier for special interests to “pile on” their pet projects. Policymakers are likely to just “go with the flow” because they simply do not have the time to consider an alternative option. Look at the example of the emergency payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits extension passed on Friday February 17th, 2012. Tucked into the bill were provisions to “study the use of state and local 9-1-1 service charges,” as well as funds to conduct research into wireless public safety communications. Believe it or not, these telecommunications-related sections of the bill were considered “germane” because proceeds from the sale of wireless spectrum were one means used to pay for the tax break and benefit extension. Oh, and because the “Next Generation 9-1-1 Advancement Act,” which was the genesis for this section bill, was originally introduced by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), a member of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

Whether you agree with this “piling on” approach or not, it’s effective. Clearly, the timeframe of passage impacts both the types of strategies you use in your influence campaign, as well as how extensively you use them. A couple hours of research might be appropriate for a decision to be made within a few weeks, while several weeks (and, indeed, ongoing analysis) would be appropriate for causes that will take several years to finalize one way or another. At the same time, you may need to build a foundation over time in order to take advantage of a “spur of the moment” opportunity. Rep. Shimkus introduced the 9-1-1 improvement act in July of 2011. He and his allies were well positioned – and early on.

Overall, when playing the influence game recognize that some “yeses” are easier to get to than others depending on all these factors. The easiest tend to be short term “must do” decisions that are non-controversial and not action-oriented. On the more difficult end of the spectrum are controversial, optional decisions that require your decision maker to take proactive action. If you know the nature of what you’re selling, you can find where you are on this spectrum, and plan your strategy accordingly. If your idea is a little on the controversial side, look for opportunities to connect it with those on the “easier” end of the spectrum. This is a tried and true legislative strategy that works.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Five Things Advocates Need to Know About the Budget and Appropriations Process

Happy Budget Day!  If you’re intimidated, confused or even just bored by the federal budget process, read on for a few things we think citizens should know – without getting all bogged down in D.C. jargon (OK, maybe a little jargon).

It’s important now because your voice matters more than anyone else in the political process.  Clearly, the 112th Congress is focused on cutting spending, which means that some program you like (whether it’s foreign aid, domestic education or business tax credits) will be cut.  Or perhaps you believe that everything should be reduced or eliminated – as many people do these days.  Members of Congress focus with intensity on the view of their constituents.  If you want your perspective to win out – you better speak up.  If you are going to speak up, though, be sure you know what you’re talking about.  Nothing screams “I haven’t done my homework” like someone saying, for example, “let’s balance the budget by eliminating all foreign aid programs.”  Foreign aid programs make up ½ of 1% of the budget.  Eliminating them won’t even balance my yearly coffee budget (yeah, I drink a lot of coffee).  Follow these four tips to learn a little more – and use this wisdom to become a lot more effective.

First, know the difference between the Presidential budget process and the Congressional budget process.  The Administration’s proposal, which comes out every February, is simply that – a proposal.  What Congress, as the branch that has the true “power of the purse strings,” decides is a totally different matter.  When the person occupying the White House and the leadership of the House and Senate are of the same political persuasion the budget numbers may be somewhat similar.  However, when the President and the Congress don’t see eye-to-eye, the President’s proposal becomes less a signal of where there are agreements and more a sign of what items will be most in contention

Second, know the differences between “budget,” “appropriations,” and “authorization” bills.  The first is a budget blueprint, the second type of bill allows a program to exist (authorization) and the third type provides actual funding for that program (appropriations).  The processes work in tandem and are equally important to the overall outcome.  Effective advocates understand the differences and develop their policy asks accordingly.

Third, know the differences between discretionary and non-discretionary spending.  The VAST majority of federal spending is on what are known as “non-discretionary” programs, such as Medicare, Social Security and interest on the national debt.  In essence, these programs are not truly non-discretionary: Congress could pass policy language making changes that would reduce or increase spending in these areas. However, major changes to these programs are few and far between.  Most yearly funding battles are oriented around the one-third of the budget that is considered “discretionary.”  Advocates need to understand that the funds available for domestic discretionary programs are decreasing, while demand is increasing, thus increasing the need for citizen voices.

Finally, know where to learn more.  In addition to the materials available on your own organization’s website, there are many other sources of information.  Consider Look at the Office of Management and Budget (, the Congressional Budget Office at, which has a primer on the budget process, and the National Priorities Project at, which also has a primer on the budget process has an interesting “where do your tax dollars go” calculator.
Armed with this information you’ll be ready to make a real difference.  So go forth!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love your government – Or at least don’t hate on them for a while

I recognize the likely futility behind this advice.  But hey, it’s Valentine’s Day and I just have to put in a good or at least neutral word for Congress.  I’m not suggesting that you buy your legislators flowers or chocolate (that’s not allowed under the ethics rules unless the flowers are less than $50 and the chocolate is eaten standing up.  Long story.  Don’t ask.)  Conversation hearts might be possible, but I’m too concerned people will add a “you suck” message to those before sending them so I’m not going to really suggest that either.

No, my simple way of asking advocates to show the love is to at least stop showing the hate for a few days.  I’ve been surfing a lot of legislator social media sites (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.) lately as part of an effort to encourage citizens to advocate online.  These sites are a really effective way to get a sense of what the legislators is interested in -- a key to effective messaging.  But WOW, the vitriol out there is amazing.  I found very few sites where anyone said something like “hey, I agree with that” or even “I respectfully disagree.” Sure, less than 15% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing – and they certainly need to know that we’re not really thrilled with what’s going on.  That said, could we all dial down the anger?  Seriously.  It’s not helping.

You don’t have to ask your representatives to “be mine” (some might take that too literally).  But how about a “Let’s Talk” to indicate you’re willing to have a conversation with them?  The good news is that you can have those conversations in-person while they’re home during next week’s district work period.  Most elected officials schedule forums and town hall meetings where they can connect with constituents and hear their views.  And I can’t tell you how many times one conversation at a town hall meeting has resulted in a member of Congress supporting a bill or program.  It’s certainly far more likely to be successful than some of the approaches I’m seeing out there right now.  Just look up their district offices through a site like (enter your zipcode on the top right side) and call.  It's that easy.

I hope this plea for just a little bit more love (or a little bit less hate) doesn’t fall on deaf ears.  Or, at least, I hope I don’t get a bunch of really cranky responses – a prefer chocolate.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Today The President's Budget is Released!

Today is a big day in Washington DC. President Obama has released his 2013 budget proposal. You can download it here. Also, the president's budget proposal will also be available through a smartphone app that will be availble for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry.

Today news coverage will be all about the President's budget. While going through the document, be sure to read press releases of your representatives to understand where he or she stands on the budget proposal. Then you can begin to draft a game plan to get your organization's budget campaign.

Be sure to follow our twitter feed @advocacyassoc and #happybudgetday for info about the budget throughout the day.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Using Video to Advocate- a Lesson from Political Candidates and Clint Eastwood

While pursuing an issue campaign, it’s important to use many forms of media to reach out to the general public and to elected officials for support. Depending on how your target audiences processes information, you should manage resources to deliver your message and keep them engaged. The most powerful resource any organization can use to reach all audiences is video. If executed correctly, a good video can quickly become viral and appear on television shows, social media pages, and newspaper/blog entries. There are three steps to begin a foundation for a successful video campaign.

Step 1: Have a Strong and Focused Message

There was a great example of a strong issue video during the Superbowl that has become wildly popular. If you haven’t seen it yet, I am referring to the Chrysler commercial featuring Clint Eastwood. The video was a powerful statement of how Detroit carmakers have begun a strong resurgence. Although it has no specific political agenda, the video builds a metaphor between the American Car industry and America. The video seeks to inspire Americans to believe in, and ultimately purchase, American made cars.

Step 2: Reach and Production Value

Elections have understood the value of video for a long time. Candidates have always used short commercials with limited reach and little production value. Today, these videos still exist, but they are now combined with the online video sources that have drastically increased the reach to a national level AT NO EXTRA COST thanks to sites like YouTube and Vimeo. In addition, videos now have greater production value. Production value is better today because technology has increased to the point that the time and resources needed to create a great video are less. Mastery of Final Cut Pro X, AVID, or even iMovie can make any amateur video seem great.

Some Examples:

Step 3: Don’t Be Too Bold

Videos are a powerful tool in any advocate’s arsenal. Be cautioned though: “with great power, comes great responsibility.” It’s important to note that “over the top” videos can result in negative consequences that will make your campaign look foolish. Your campaign will lose support if a controversial video becomes viral. Some examples of videos that have landed some of their candidates in hot water recently:

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Chat Hour With The Advocacy Guru!

Hello Advocates!

Join Advocacy Guru Stephanie Vance on Wednesday February 8th at 2:00 pm eastern for an online chat session. She’ll be available to answer your questions on effective advocacy. Just go to and type “advocacyguru” (no quotes) in the join box. Then click on the bubble to chat. It’s all free!

Friday, February 03, 2012

Knowing the Nature of What You’re Selling: Part 3 – Importance

We’ve talked about how effective lobbyists understand the nature of what they’re selling in Washington, D.C..  They identify the intent (action vs. inertia), the scope (controversial or note), the importance (must do vs. may do) and the timeframe (short vs. long term).  In the last couple posts I talked about intent and scope.  In this one we’ll look at importance.

Now sure, every idea (especially yours) is important.  But, let’s face it, some decisions are more immediately necessary than others.  However, with the right strategy these “must do soon” decisions can be some of the easiest to influence.  

Take the example of government responses to natural disasters.  They tend to generate a fair amount of lobbying activity outside the scope of the natural disaster because special interests know that THIS legislation will move quickly, unlike 96% of the bills introduced in a year.  In 2006, for example, when the U.S. Congress passed emergency legislation to help provide additional assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina, the bill included billions of dollars for other totally unrelated programs, like research into the threats from “bird flu” as well as farm bailouts.  Lobbyists and special interests saw these bills as opportunities to move their priorities because they were “must do” decisions.   No legislators wanted to be against relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina, so they agreed to overlook the other items.

For your own influence situation, consider whether the decision is “must do” or “may do.”  Does the decision maker desperately need what you’re selling right away?  Or is it the kind of situation where it would be “nice” for them to buy your product, service or time?  Are there other “must do” decisions coming down the pike that you can attach your issue to?  Knowing the answers to these questions will help you develop a winning advocacy strategy.