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Conversation: The Best Answers to “The Tragedy of Political Advocacy”

Cross-published on Adfero.com

In a 2007 poll, 44% of Americans responded that they had contacted a U.S. Senator or U.S. Representative within the previous five years.

According to the Congressional Management Foundation‘s Communicating with Congress report, this percentage was significantly higher than a 2004 poll, largely due to the increased availability of online tools to contact Congress.

CMF’s data suggests a more engaged electorate – something that should be viewed as a positive. After all, an ideal representative democracy functions best when more citizens voice their opinions.

Yet in a recent piece for The Huffington Post titled “The Tragedy of Political Advocacy,” Jake Brewer takes issue with this very trend. Jake’s main point is that modern advocacy campaigns create lots of noise, but produce few tangible results. The result? Lobbyists play an even more important role in the lawmaking process. Hill staffers don’t know what or who to pay attention to, so they turn to hired guns to make sense of their overflowing inboxes.

In many ways, Jake is right. Frustration with email-focused grassroots campaigns — and the organizations that create them — is understandable. No one can argue (at least not with a straight face) that inundating Capitol Hill offices with email messages is the most effective way to achieve a policy goal. Campaigns built around phone calls and snail mail letters don’t fare any better.

Advocacy organizations have become their own worst enemies. They focus on generating a certain number of constituent “actions,” hoping that the sheer volume of contacts will make Members take notice of an issue. In trying to stand out, most grassroots campaigns only create more noise.

There are undoubtedly more effective ways of implementing advocacy campaigns. But Jake’s critique of modern advocacy trivializes what the Internet has done for democracy. It is undeniable that a much larger percentage of the American public is in contact with Congress because of the Internet.

Increased political engagement is something to be embraced, in spite of the headaches it brings. The advocacy community should be focusing on how to harness Americans’ increased appetite for involvement and translate it into a more meaningful dialogue with Congress.

Right now, real conversations between Members and their constituents are few and far between. A Hill staffer sending a form response back to a campaign-generated email does little for either side. There is surely a richer way for constituents and legislators to communicate. (The CMF has gone so far as to release an entire report on “Recommendations for Improving the Democratic Dialogue.”)

Jake certainly does not advocate for eliminating public engagement with Congress. His proposed solutions (including hand delivering petitions to Capitol Hill offices and compiling constituent votes on specific pieces of legislation) focus on how to package constituent opinions in a way that is understandable to Members. And sure, a straightforward statistic (e.g., “44% of citizens in your district support the jobs bill, H.R. 999″) will probably have more impact than 5,000 emails asking for some sort of unspecified action on the economy. But Jake’s proposals still fall short of establishing a conversational model of engagement.

One example that comes closer to a conversational approach is the America Speaking Out campaign, an effort of the House Republicans. (Disclaimer: My firm, Adfero Group, worked on the campaign’s launch.) The campaign’s goal is to increase dialogue between Congress and citizens. Americans can “speak out” by posting ideas for how Congress can act on policy issues like health care and energy. Other citizens can vote on the proposals and respond with their own comments and suggestions.

Allowing citizens to engage in dialogue with one another is the first step. Ideally, Members should also be jumping into the discussions. By allowing multiple citizens and their elective representatives to exchange viewpoints, it becomes a true conversation. The advocacy community should be focusing its creativity on finding these types of solutions.

The real “tragedy of political advocacy” would be failing to deliver the conversational opportunities that Congress and the American public are obviously ready to embrace.

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