Here inside the beltway, policy conversations are centered on specific legislation, the legislative process, and the next election. Over the last several weeks on behalf of a client we held dozens of candid, off-the-record conversations about a pressing federal policy battle with senior staff on the Hill to learn more about what they’re hearing, how Members are making decisions, and what they think could move the needle. We spoke with staff who work for the new Tea Party members, as well as those on staff with long-serving Republicans and Democrats from safe and swing states and districts. Whether their Members were generally with us or against us, we heard several things from every senior Hill staffer we talked to:
- Policy asks that are overly broad – those that can’t be dealt with by a single committee or aren’t covered under a single pending legislative proposal – fall on deaf ears because they’re impossible to act on.
- Policy asks divorced from legislation currently under consideration or legislation currently being negotiated are irrelevant. No one can do anything about those asks, so no one takes them seriously.
- Policy asks wholly divergent from the political climate are viewed as posturing and considered irrelevant. For example, no major new spending bills will be considered right now, so policy asks demanding major new spending are dismissed out of hand.
- Policy asks without a constituency are easily dismissed. Unless you’re a major donor, can demonstrate you’ve got legions of in-district voters behind you, and/or bring a politically important set of voices with you (small business owners are particularly persuasive on the Hill right now), you’ve got no leverage.
- Policy asks that demonstrate lack of knowledge hurt more than they help. Things like demanding action on a bill that’s in committee from a Member who’s not on that committee, demanding support from a Member who’s already with you, demanding an about-face from a Member who’s publicly taken a strong stance, and delivering petitions or grassroots actions from people not in the Member’s district are examples staff volunteered.
The staff we spoke with also echoed the findings of a recent Congressional Management Foundation study (http://www.cmfweb.org), noting that mass email campaigns on their own are ineffective and personalized communications and visits from constituents are most persuasive.
Concurrently with the inside-the-beltway research, we worked with a research firm on polling and focus groups outside the beltway. In addition to trying to discern how best to communicate a complex policy to voters in ways that move them, we worked on understanding how voters thought they could make a difference on policy. We found that advocacy campaigns have trained voters well, and wrong. In perfect contradiction to the information we have from the Hill about what works, voters thought signing an email petition would be the most effective way to register their support or opposition and most dismissed an office visit as a waste of time.
The evidence is mounting – the way advocacy is done isn’t advancing our causes. It’s past time for a shift to investing resources in building smart, strategic engagement ladders, personal outreach to help advocates develop the knowledge and skills they need to be effective, and campaigns that go well beyond the recruitment email petition.