I had the pleasure of being the public affairs world on the agency side for about 15 years, have also done so in the private sector for a non U.S. company and have also done two stints inside of the federal government. So for eight (or often, more) hours per day, I would think of new and interesting ways to move along the policy, regulatory or legislative agendas hundreds of times. Online or offline. Facebook or face-to-face. From the sender point of view or the receiver point of view. Since the mid 1990s.
In many ways, I suppose that I was lucky when I was doing grassroots and advocacy work, because “back in the day” [insert Grandpa Simpson voice], our goal was to get advocates to actually DO something. We got addresses, phone numbers and email addresses. And we used them. We organized. We filled up buses. We got stuff done. Sometimes, we won, and more often, we lost. But we got people to get skin in the game.
The Golden Goose for advocacy: federal dollars
I am treading carefully here because this post, like all others that I have written since I started blogging ten years ago express my opinions and mine alone (God, I get tired of saying that. And if you have any questions, pop over to my disclaimer page).
Let’s use the current example that I know best, medical research funding. It begins in Congress with the appropriations process. Most federal funding comes from the Appropriations Committees. These are the members of the Appropriations Committees in the House and the Senate. THESE people matter because they are the ones who have a say in how federal money gets spent. So unless your congressional representatives are on these lists, your time and energy are best spent elsewhere.
Before partisan bickering was in vogue on Capitol Hill, things actually got done. There was a schedule to getting appropriations bills done. If and when you DO build a relationship with a Hill staffer to a Member on an Appropriations Committee, good advocates get an idea of the legislative schedule. Knowing WHEN to act is sometimes more important than knowing what to do. When will a bill be introduced? When does the real budget planning process begin? If a staffer has his head buried in a military spending bill, you are not going to get her attention for medical research funding – in that moment. Forget your awareness month and the Hill Day that YOU schedule. You have to know when Congress is actually taking action on what matters to you.
And consider the following from someone who has been on both sides of the federal governm.nt fence and worked in online and offline advocacy.
Ten tips for how to be an effective advocate
- Hill Days are great if you want a trip to Washington, DC, but unless your representative is on an Appropriations Committee or best pals with one, you are often wasting your time. You get a grab and grin and you get shown the door.
- Your relationship with the Hill staffers (yes, harried 24 year-old) is your best key in the door to know if, when and how to get noticed. This is art and science; you are not a professional lobbyist, so you need to figure out the balance between passion and reality. Oh, and by the way, you are one in about 100 people who will contact that staffer on any given day, wanting something. Know that.
- The survey is a little dated, but that same Hill Staffer thinks that YOU are vastly more influential than the slick-haired lobbyist.
- Forming a relationship with that Hill Staffer means one thing: giving her the information that she needs that will be of value to her boss. NOT the information that you think is important. And if you want the point of view of that Capitol Hill staffer, read this.
- In additional to personal relationships with Hill staff, if you want to get the attention of an Appropriations Committee member and are on a shoestring budget, pitch a compelling, personal story to the Member’s local or most influential paper. The now-retiring Barbara Mikulski of Maryland’s home paper is the Baltimore Sun. You can be darned sure that it gets scanned every day for stories that may interest the Senator. It costs nothing to pitch a reporter.
- Stop infighting. People usually become medical research advocates because of a personal loss, and this makes people wildly passionate – too passionate. Trust me, I get it. But there is a time for passion and a time for steel-eyed logic. But guess what? There is way too much bickering and agenda setting. What if each and every last one banded together, with a united budget, ask and agenda? And actually worked with the people who decided how the money got spent? Nirvana.
- The people in the federal government agencies are not the enemy. Holding rallies, protests and other events to change the way that they “see” things is a waste of time. FDA, NIH or any other alphabet soup agency and others want funding for different types of diseases or medicines as much as we do. They want enormous budgets too. They want to write big, fat checks to researchers to do amazing things. But they don’t get to choose how much money they get. That comes from Congress. So try working with them. They want the same thing.
- Collaboration will bring about change. Combine the two items above and imagine the immense power of working together across advocacy groups, Congress and the federal government. Imagine the possibilities of getting everyone on the same page, moving in the same direction, aiming for the same goal.
- Stop with the Hashtag campaigns. This could be a whole different post, but understand the power – and limits – of social media. 100,000 uses of a hashtag is not going to get you anywhere. 3,000 shares of your loved one, while tender, is not going to influence what you want: to increase funding for disease-related research. These do not impact Capitol Hill, Pharma nor other federal institutions. Think of how AIDS funding got done in the 1980s: people showed up, protested, occupied and demanded attention. Asking for Likes and re-tweets makes people lazy and ineffective. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.
- Beware the Slactivist. This is closely related to the prior point, but what many advocacy groups have failed to grasp is the fact that you are CREATING SLACKTIVISTS. A slacktivist is someone who, with very little effort:
- Comes across an interest cause or issue while surfing social media;
- Likes, shares, re-tweets, pins or in some other way (and with one click) passes along the information, fulfilling her desire to feel good and worthy (five seconds); and
- Immediately disengages from the “cause,” moving on to an animated .gif of a cat with a piece of string.
If you want “awareness,” count on slactivists. If you want to MOVE THE NEEDLE, go back and read the Top Ten Tips above.
The motivation behind writing this was that now that I am really getting to meet some wonderful, smart, passionate and intelligent advocates and people who really care, I want to help. I want to help advocacy, particularly for medical research funding. I want to help those in the federal government who toil for a fraction of what they could make in the private sector because they believe so passionately in the work that they do. And I want to help the legislators understand how kicking the can down the road with omnibus bills and Continuing Resolutions makes it so much harder for everyone else.
So please. Can’t we all just get along?