Sunday, July 23, 2006


Advocates and Congress can move forward together

The Internet has democratized our political culture in part because it has given all Americans a kind of civic activity that is simple and not threatening. They can go to a campaign website posted by an organization they trust, learn about an issue, and send a quick message to state or federal lawmakers. They affirm agreement with the campaign message and want to participate in the organization's coordinated effort along with possibly millions of other people. This is good, but leads to an increasing volume of email to lawmakers.

Last week, the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) released its own quick assessment of the logic behind "logic puzzle" (the new tool to block mass emails launched in the House). It announced that neither Congress nor advocacy groups are "completely wrong" and that both have to change their "mindsets and their practices" before email delivery can improve.

CMF wants to mediate this purported dispute and offers advocacy groups some wisdom on the changes we should be prepared to make.

The Advocacy Community must recognize that there is a difference between being noticed and having an impact on Capitol Hill. Quality is more persuasive than quantity. Short, targeted, informative, and personalized messages (even if they are part of an organized campaign) have more influence than a large volume of identical form messages, especially if those are intentionally sent to overwhelm congressional offices.

I find this kernal of wisdom pretty funny really. Of course, quality is more persuasive than quantity. The vast majority of advocacy groups strive to bring as much personalized messaging to Congress as possible. Of course, personal messages have a greater impact than standard ones, and phone calls make a greater impression than emails. Actual office visits and real conversations make a great impression too!

Advocacy groups work to lead Americans to more and more personalized and higher level volunteer activities because those activities are critical to achieve our political goals. That is essentially beside the point here. Standardized messages are here to stay because Americans appreciate them and want them. Advocacy groups in turn want to give Congress options that will make those standardized messages easier to manage. Those options might include certain kinds of data that feed along with the message and help distinguish the standard message from an edited version and from a completely unique communication.

People don't change the standard message because they agree with it, or because they have too little time to restate the message in their own words (Americans are very busy people), or because they are intimidated by writing, or because they trust the organization to identify the best approach, and for many other reasons. Some individuals almost always send a personalized message--others almost never do. The act of reading about the issue and deciding to send a standard message still represents an affirmative decision to communicate with Congress, and millions of Americans demonstrate by their actions that they want to communicate in this way.

Once people get comfortable with an issue, learn more about it over time, and participate repeatedly, they often begin volunteer for more complex and personalized activities. Advocacy groups encourage that with all our different volunteer programs. But a substantial number of people will still send a standard message, and might not send any message if required to do more. Depressing the civic participation of Americans is in no one's best interest.

It seems to me that the question is not whether 'quality is better than quantity'; the question is how to make the quantity more useful to Congressional offices. Advocacy groups participating in the Don't Block My Voice coalition effort are committed to doing just that.

The Congressional Management Foundation has significant grounding in Congressional mindsets and practices, after interviewing hundreds of staffers for a report released last year. Its not clear that they have the same grounding in the world of online political action. For that reason, they plan to launch an elaborate research into Americans' online political activities. This may well prove interesting, but there's no need to wait for that research to resolve the current problems that Congressional offices have with email communication.

Devil's advocate here.

How does sending a boilerplate message that you haven't read qualify as civic participation?

If I showed up at a classical New England town meeting and my only participation is to stand next to someone eloquent and say "What she said" after she finishes, am I really participating?

The Parents' Television Council has been condemned pretty roundly roundly for using an "automated complaint factory" to convince the FCC to impose sweeping limitations on "indecency" in broadcast communications -- limitations that have already had a chilling effect on free speech and free media.

If it's not civic participation when the PTC does it, why is it civic participation when we do it? Should we be hailing the PTC as a shining example of the potential of online democracy?

I know why this approach is good for the organizations running the campaigns (it lowers the bar to get people onto their mailing list). I know why it may even be good for the person hitting "send" (it gives them a warm fuzzy). But is it really good for democracy?
I guess we need to get back to our ideas about what constitutes democracy and civic participation. Do I think that the guy sitting next to the eloquent person and saying (or even just thinking) "what she said" is participating? Of course I do. Fortunately, eloquence is not required or relatively few people could contribute to our self-governing process.

While I've never been to a town meeting as you describe, I've been to many hearings at the Texas legislature where advocacy groups bring dozens or hundreds of people. Most of them don't speak. A few do, some eloquently. But they all watch the proceedings and their presence sends a clear message to the lawmakers on the dias that their actions are under scrutiny and these people (and thousands of others who couldn't show up for the hearing) will hold them accountable if they don't do the right thing. That is civic participation, and that is the dynamic at work when a person sends a standard message. Lawmakers know that people are watching their actions on a particular bill, will know the outcome--and may well decide their next vote on it.

Consumers Union's activists (along with members of many other organizations) have filed a standard public comment with the FCC during rule making proceedings. Some edit the comment to make it unique. A small number of people--often the paid lobbyists for industry--access the FCC's comment area individually. Do I think the addition of organization-lead standard comments is good for democracy in this case? Absolutely. In your complaint example, the implication is that people filed statements that were somehow false. Obviously that would be wrong. But when you send a standard statement of position, you send a message that you agree with this statement and hope that the decisionmaker will agree too. Is that wrong? I hope not.

I really don't know exactly what PTC did, and don't know if I would in fact condemn it. In partisan circles, there's a lot of condemnation that goes around. But if they did what most groups do, and sent a standard statement of position, and fewer than 200 signons affected the FCC's actions, then they conducted a highly effective political action that demonstrates incontrovertably the power that people have when they merely "show up" and identify themselves with a particular organizational message.

Democracy is not just one thing and not the other things. Its not just the debate among bloggers, or the opinion of editorial boards, or the direct mail you get at election time, or the negative TV advertising you deplore, or the online campaign by a candidate, or the nonprofits with advocacy goals and large online and offline memberships. Its all this and much more. And there's a place for everyone (no matter how ineloquent, no matter how short on time, no matter how shy).
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