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What I'm Saying.

Is Traditional Online Political Advocacy Working?

General Thoughts, Nonprofit Communications

Source: Checklist by mykpwedding on FlickrRecently, I read an article on the Huffington Post by Jake Brewer entitled, “The Tragedy of Political Advocacy.” This article questions the effectiveness of online political advocacy in reaching the intended recipient, in this case and most often, Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Brewer writes, “[d]espite how good your civic action may have made you feel, the overwhelming odds are that your deed was essentially pointless — and, surprisingly, Congress is not to blame.”

With “$3.5 billion dollars” spent annually on lobbying Congress and “82% of all citizen action in the United States is generated through these teams at third-party organizations such as the AARP, Greenpeace or Focus on the Family, producing anywhere from 300 to 2,000 email messages delivered to each Congressional office every day” I come to question the effectiveness of political communications online.

It is true that with the advent and application of online technology, the ease with which we all can communicate with our elected officials is amplified ten fold. However, it all amounts to white noise or the equivalent of a large crowd at a sporting event; the sound of the ocean or rain. Nothing is truly audible or discernible from all the noise. “Clicktivism” as it has been called, can make us all feel good in taking action but what are the results? Do we care what the results are? For some issues, we do. Those issues that are closest to us are ones that we prefer to know the result of our action. Those that might be a friend or family member’s issue closest to them, we may only want to say that we did something to assure the friend or family member that you care about what they care about. Further, we sometimes we take action on behalf of a friend’s request because if you were to ask a similar commitment of them, they would act on your behalf as well in the vein of reciprocity.

Does it matter if the message gets through to someone who can influence a decision being made or the decision-maker themselves? Brewer writes, “the sheer volume of incoming messaging is more than the minimal staff in each Congressional office can possibly handle – no matter how good their intentions.” With the average House of Representatives Member “employ[ing] an average of 14 members of staff” and a “population of 307,006,550 people in the United States, that means there are about 118,000 people per pair of ears on the Hill. How many people can you or I listen to at any given time? The sheer volume of communications is intimidating to say the least.

Brewer thinks that there are three reasons why our online messages fall on deaf ears:

  1. Advocacy organizations (and funders) are disconnected from the realities of the political process on Capitol Hill.
  2. The systems designed to allow for citizen input are both not getting through to Congress, and creating more of the problem when they ARE getting through.
  3. Congress simply can’t measure, make sense of, or act on what it gets from citizens.

What is most disconcerting for me is that,

[t]he software vendors who make the online tools allowing advocacy organizations to mobilize the grassroots know that email list-building is a critical metric, and as such, the tools are extremely good at building email lists. But they are very bad at delivering your message to Congress…” and “the dirty little secret of the advocacy industry is that there are countless more advocacy emails from constituents that never even make it to Capitol Hill at all because of deep flaws in the systems that deliver them… Estimates range widely, but rough ones from the professionals that have run these backend systems suggest that upwards of 60% or more of the emails sent never make it to the appropriate Congressional inboxes.

I, in line with Brewer, don’t pretend to have all of the answers to this conundrum, but I do agree that more transparency from those organizations that operate online advocacy campaigns as well as lobbyists representing those organizations needs to become a part of the online advocacy process. As a fan of performance measurement, providing an end goal for online grassroots activist organizers that seeks higher membership numbers is merely seeking quantity over quality. Perhaps those members will be able to act at a moments notice, but with no feedback on the result of their actions, those who regularly take actions will cease doing so altogether over time.

Brewer offers some insight through a bullet point list near the end of this article and these are great ideas. For example, seeking a commitment from the organization running the action alert or petition to deliver the messages by hand to the intended recipient. My personal favorite, “at the end of the day, campaigners can simply ask themselves before they ask their supporters, ‘do we want Congress be able to make use of the input of our constituents that they’re receiving or not?’ If so, be clear in your ask about whether this is a membership or list-building activity or something intended for Congress. And be clear about what the best tool is to get a message to Congress – which almost certainly isn’t sending them email.” Perhaps, asking the individual to call the office and speak to someone regarding the issue (instant feedback from the office). Each of these are great ideas.

For many of us online organizers and activists, we respond to what makes us look good and that is generating an increase in list size. Perhaps, board members of these organizations need to refocus their directive to one that is not so predicated on quantitative results, but instead on more of a mixture of quantitative and qualitative results. For instance, how many of our activist base can we call upon to testify in-front of Congress at a hearing and will that testimony affect/change Congressional member’s minds on the issue? How many of our activist base can we call upon to supply stories to share with Congressional offices that will demonstrate what a bill will do as an effect on their quality of life? Can we trust and allow our members to supply their stories in the first place without fearing a dilution of our organization’s brand? How many of our activist base are willing to sign a petition that your organization will hand deliver versus one that you will not? Each of these are valid questions worth addressing and something that could stand as outcome indicators versus an output. Rather than count the “widgets” as outputs from our factory we could be asking what impact we want the widgets to have and in turn, adjust rewards based on that criteria.

These questions may be difficult to address but doing so will help focus the message we are trying to convey with Congress as well as other elected and agency officials about our stance on a given policy, bill or proposed regulation.

Playing the game sometimes is not good enough. Like Chess, we can all play, but playing in a smarter way will yield the results we are truly looking for.

- Will

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