How to talk to Congress
Dec 23, 2011 Clay Johnson

This week was a busy week -- besides the great Forbes Review of the Information Diet, I also spent some time on the Kojo Nnamdi show, and wrote a somewhat controversial op-ed for the USA Today. But nothing went so big as my post Dear Internet: It's No Longer OK to not know how Congress Works. One particular comment though got a little under my skin -- this one from Jon Wright. Jon Writes:

Considering that SOPA is happening NOW, I was hoping this article would outline things that can be done quickly to have an impact iIMMEDIATELY.[sic]

So I want to answer that question, for both the short and the long term. And it goes beyond SOPA/PIPA. It's how to talk to Congress.

The Short Term

First, we need to talk about what's effective and what's not. Fortunately, the Congressional Management Foundation has done a lot of our homework for us by talking with hill-staffers and members of Congress. Here's what people on the Hill think the most effective forms of advocacy are to Congress:

Most Effective Ways of Reaching Members of Congress

Now keep in mind -- this study is self-reporting. No staffer is ever go on record saying that "lobbyists are the most important people we listen to," or "campaign contributions work really well!" -- to my knowledge, there aren't many studies measuring impacts of influence that way. But since we're playing in the world of what can we do without a lobbyist, this chart is a good introduction to what can be done.

The moral of the story: if you can get a Member's time and attention, that's best.

So here's a checklist of what you can do:

  1. Read SOPA. Start with that -- the thing is, you may be so charged up and angry over this bill without knowing what it actually says. If you come across to a Member or a Member's staff as being less than professional -- or if they can dismiss you as being "crazy" -- then you're not going to get listened to.
  2. Read OPEN -- the popular alternative to SOPA/PIPA.
  3. Congress is home for the holidays right now -- so there may be a chance that you won't have to travel to Washington to make your voice heard. While Congress is on its Holiday Recess, call their Local Office in your area and ask if your member is holding any events while they're at home, or if you can schedule a meeting with them. Be polite. Don't do any name-calling. Pretend you're talking to your mother, or if you don't like talking to your mother, than pretend you're talking to mine. Do the same with your Senator.
  4. If you can't manage to meet your member while they're at home, then you'll have to come to Washington. Or -- if you can send a designate from your community, bundle some money together and send someone to Washington. According to the graph, it's only 4% less effective than meeting them yourself.
  5. If you have to go to Washington, you're going to have to call the office and ask for the scheduler. Tell them you are a constituent and are requesting a meeting.
  6. Dress appropriately. Wear a suit. Men: wear a tie. If you don't look sharp, you're making it all the easier for you to be dismissed as fringe. You want this person that you're talking to thinking that you are smart and that Mean Business. Don't yell at them, tell them you read SOPA, what you think of the bill, and the harm it will cause you and your community.

So that's the most effective way you can make a member of Congress move. If you really want to stop Congress from passing SOPA then this is the most effective use of your time. It's not sending comments on twitter or tweeting your rep. It's not clicking a few buttons to send a few form messages: it's through showing up and involving yourself in the political process.

The Long Term

In the long term, if we want to keep the Internet "open and free" then we've got to transform online advocacy from being the least effective form of advocacy to the most effective form of advocacy. Right now there are a bunch of problems to be solved in that regard. None of this can get done before any votes on SOPA of course, but it's more a list of suggestions to fight the SOPAs of the future.

Location

The first problem that needs to get solved is one of geography. We aren't represented by opinion or party, we're represented by location. Right now when we send emails, or make comments via social media, that doesn't come with our location associated with it, meaning the representative's office just dismisses it because they don't know whether you are a constituent or not.

Organizations like PopVox and Votizen are trying to solve this problem, and I think they're without a doubt, better than sending a letter to your congressperson today. But I don't think go far enough for two reasons.

The first is tactical: people are already communicating with members of Congress using the tools they want to communicate with: Facebook, Twitter, the Email, and the Telephone. The second is personal and ideological: having a single for-profit business be the gateway between people and Congress seems like a heap-of-trouble in the long term -- though I have to say I really love the team at Popvox and would probably trust them.

If Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ allowed for people to associate their various legislative districts to their profile, and defaulted to making that public, that'd go a long way. That said, I'd like to see an organization like Mozilla bake this into the web itself and run it independently of the various social media companies. Think OAuth for Advocacy.

Aggregation & Filtering

The other problem that we have is one of aggregation. Because of the ease of sending an electronic message, the volume is unlistenable. We need technology that automatically listens to various media and transforms it into actionable and intelligent information -- software like what we're building at ThinkUp. Built on top of the location data I've mentioned above, we can start aggregating the sentiment of voices in a particular district.

A member seeing a web page that says "5,000 people in your district oppose SOPA" is far more powerful than a member receiving 5,000 emails to the same affect. And if this page is public, then it becomes even more powerful -- as we don't have to count on the member actually ever visiting the page. We just have to count on the media or that member's electoral opponent using it. It becomes a political liability to ignore those voices.

But more than aggregation we also need filtering. Often times the loudest voices reaching Washington may be the most well organized but they're likely not best voices or the majority opinion. A member wondering what to do about Net Neutrality might wonder how many of her constituents work for Verizon. Or Google. And what it is they have to say. And again, if this is public and open -- and associated with our social graph, this becomes possible.

Organizing

We can make all the tools we want to enhance electronic communications, but that alone isn't ever going to beat face-time on the hill. Look up in the short term section again where I mention that you could get your community together to send a delegate to Washington to express your view. That's a high barrier and a hugely difficult organizing task. We need to make it easier for small groups to form and send people to Washington if we want to have a Washington that's as accountable to citizens as it is to lobbyists, then we've got to increase the face-time members have with people in their districts. Technology like Meetup, DoveTail, and Everyblock help people meet locally. That's the first step.

So that's it -- I hope I answered your question, Jon. That's how to do it right now, and what we can do in the future. If you're interested in working on any of these projects, contact me and let's see if we can get some stuff going.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson