Monday, April 23, 2012

Inefficiency and Influence Go Hand-in-Hand

Believe it or not, effective influence isn’t always efficient. In fact, it’s rarely so, particularly as it relates to the definition of efficient as “satisfactory and economical to use” (yep, I found that on This is especially true in Washington, D.C., where lobbyists and special interests (and even citizens) try to influence an institution designed to be completely and totally inefficient. But it is almost equally true in corporate America — perhaps even more so. Please don’t tell me that you’ve never run in to an inefficient large company. I won’t believe you.

Inside the beltway, the inefficient institution of which I speak (or type) is Congress and it will likely not shock anyone to hear that our federal government doesn’t get much done. But there are a variety of reasons for that completely unrelated to the partisanship of its members. In fact, through the constitution and the Federalist Papers, the founding fathers set up a system of government that wasn’t supposed to work. They were very successful.

If you don’t believe me, take a quick look at the constitution at And yes, there’s an app for that – just go to the app store and search on “constitution.” By the way, don’t let any make you PAY for the constitution! If you flip through article one, between all the “whereas-es” and “wherefores”, you’ll see that it’s really hard to get anything through the legislative process. Then add on all the rules and protocols developed through the years and, frankly, you’ve got a big old hot mess.

Consider the following:
  • 271 people (1/2 the House, plus 1/2 the Senate plus the President) have to agree to the exact language of legislation before it becomes law. And that’s not counting the crazy filibuster rules in the Senate. That’s a lot of people with more than your average size egos trying to get on the same page.
  • Along those lines, people who very fiercely protect the interests of very rural Alabama (for example), have to agree with people who very fiercely protect the interests of very urban New Yorkers (for example). This, as you might imagine, is never easy.
  • Finally, I love the section of the Constitution stating that each House shall develop its own rules. We all know that he who creates the rules wins the game (how do we know that? Because it says that in The Influence Game). So every Congress the majority party has an opportunity to set its own rules of conduct, a recipe for frustration for the minority.
In short, inertia rules in Washington, D.C. as it does in most influence situations. To get to “yes,” you need to figure out the best ways to overcome that inertia – and note that I say the “best” ways. These aren’t necessarily the most efficient. Some tactics include:
  • Learning enough about the person or institution you’re trying to move to know who ALREADY has inspired action (and figuring out how to get them on your side).
  • Identifying the barriers to action and, if you can’t tear them down, at least figure out how to move around them.
  • Recognizing that inertia rules and coming up with a plan B, C and D designed to generate more action.
As Steve Pearlstein, a columnist for the Washington Post, points out in his April 24th opinion piece “Turned Off by Politics? That’s Exactly What Politicians Want,” the inefficiency is exacerbated by the whole campaign finance situation. Political donors tend to be more ideological than every day voters, so it kind of makes sense that a candidate would run to the left or right to attract more money. Unfortunately, sometimes the goal in political campaigns is not to get likeminded voters to the polls, but to keep the other side at home.

So how do we get around this? In the political arena the answer is to vote, early and often (OK, just the once). To overcome this inertia in other influence situations, take a look at the strategies noted above. If they work in Washington, D.C., it’s likely they’ll work for you.

Monday, April 16, 2012

I Love Paying My Taxes

It’s 10:30 the night before I have to write a big check to the I.R.S. and I have to keep telling myself “I love paying my taxes” over and over and over again. If you’re one of those people who don’t really enjoy paying taxes (i.e., all human beings), just repeat to yourself one (or all) of the following mantras. You may not start skipping down to the post office, but you may feel 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? Education? Having your garbage picked-up? 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 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” or, of course, “the government wastes my money.” And, I’m not going to lie. It occasionally does – like on 800K+ parties in Las Vegas. 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 can 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?

Go to and to find and contact your specific legislators.

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 or Chardonnay or even, gasp, Merlot might not have made it to your glass without some sort of taxpayer investment.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Election Connection: Civic Engagement in an Election Year

It will not be a shock to learn that this is an election year – and not just any election year, a presidential election year. Believe it or not, as irritating as the campaigns can be, they offer tremendous opportunities to learn more about how government works (or doesn't) and to be effectively engaged. Look at it this way: if you don't AT LEAST vote in the elections, you don't get to whine about the outcome.

Following are a few things you can do to get more involved – and make a difference!

• Register to Vote – and Then Vote: The simple process if voting is hands down the most critical thing you can do to make this democracy work. We all think government is broken, but have we ever considered the possibility that citizen apathy might have something to do with that? Only about 50% of registered voters turn out to vote, even in really big election years. There’s plenty of blame to go around, for sure, but it’s kind of a chicken and egg problem. Did government officials become less responsive because we stopped talking to them? Or did we stop talking to them because they stopped responding. Probably a little bit of both, so let’s do something about our side of the issue. Go to – and tell others to do the same!

• Learn About Candidates: There aren’t many excuses for not knowing something about the candidates before you walk in to the voting booth. At a minimum, there’s usually some sort of election guide in your local newspaper (yes, I rely on that frequently when I’m not feeling more proactive). Or, you can go to a website like the League of Women Voters ( or Vote Smart ( to figure out what’s going on with the races in your area. Another great way to get a sense of candidate priorities is to follow them on social media (like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube). And if they’re not on social media that’s probably something you should know, if that sort of thing is important to you.

• Volunteer for Candidates: Once you’ve learned about candidates, if you find one you really like go do some stuff for them. Host a small “house party” and have the candidate or someone from the campaign join you. Promote them on social media networks. Phone bank and doorbell. Talk to your friends. Wave signs. If it’s important to get people in to office that you like, it’s a good idea to help them.

• Get Out the Vote: Elections are won and lost by which side gets their people to the polls. You can help by adding a “remember to vote” line to your e-mail signature, mentioning it on your voice mail, posting something on social media sites or even just saying something to your neighbor. If you’re feeling more adventurous offer to drive people to the polls or make calls. Each of these actions helps get like-minded people to the polls, which only helps your cause.

• Work the Polls: Did you know that you can volunteer at the polls to help check people in, demonstrate the voting machines and hand out those fun “I Voted” stickers? In some jurisdictions they even pay! It’s a great way to get to know people in your community as well as to manage that irritating feeling of “dang it, this line should go faster.” Check with your local board of elections for details.

In following a few of these simple steps you’ll be having more fun during the elections than you thought possible. Hey, it beats sitting in your house throwing things at the television!

Stephanie Vance, the Advocacy Guru at Advocacy Associates, is the author of five books on effective advocacy and influence, including The Influence Game. A former Capitol Hill Chief of Staff and lobbyist, she works with a wide range of groups to improve their advocacy efforts. More at