GATE: Grassroots Advocacy Training Exchange

Grassroots Program Development

10 Lessons for Getting the Most out of Your Grassroots Program

I. Politics Has Supremacy Over Economics

Failure to recognize the supremacy of politics over economics is the chief mistake made by most advocates. Too many people believe that because economics is considered a science, it must necessarily have priority over politics. Though this makes sense, it doesn't play out that way in government. There's an old adage: "In the short run, politics determines economics. In the long run, economics determines politics." True, although it was a modern observer who set it right when he added, "But in the long run we are all dead."

The primacy of politics should not be fought or resisted. It should be understood and accommodated. The key to prudent policy-making is to understand politics and the politicians who play it. Those who truly understand win more often than they lose. Moreover, the presence of politics does not have to mean the absence of principle. It's up to all of us, as citizens (both public and corporate) to merge principle with politics.

II. You Need to be Involved at Multiple Political Levels

Yes, this is more expensive. Yes, it's more time-consuming. But the notion of saying, "Budgets are tight and we're going to have to do this cheap" is wrong. Some organizations have taken the position that, because they're mostly state-regulated, they'll operate predominantly at the state level. In truth, they need to be operating at all levels or risk ending up in a position where their adversaries can segment them.

Something else to consider: "all politics is local." The constitution sets forth the principle that federal congressional policies can preempt state policies, but the federal policy maker is moved by, stimulated by what, by whom? The people back home, of course. And since all politics is local you've got to operate there, not just in the state capital and in Washington.

III. The Quality of the Information You Have is Critical

Policy-making is a process where, to a great extent, you not only have to know the decision-makers, you also have to know when and where to intervene in the process itself. Knowing when to move, where to move, how to move, and with whom to move makes all the difference, and for that you have to have all the information you can find. If you have to cut financial corners, don't cut them where the flow or quality of your information will be affected.

One straightforward approach to information-gathering is to interview employees or group members to find out who lives near a politician, has a relationship with a politician, has a relative who is a politician, or has a neighbor who is on a politician's staff. Solicit such information from all group participants and employees. Know who in the organization knows whom in the government, and how well. In a company with thousands of employees, there are bound to be at least a few people who have reasonably close relationships with legislators (or legislative aides) who are working on the legislative committee handling a given issue. Their names ought to be available at the push of a button.

IV. Government Relations Staff and Executives in Companies, Trade Associations, and Non-profit Groups are Limited in What They Can Do.

Make sure that your people above you and your people below you understand that if they are relying on you to get the job done by yourself, it will not get done. If your initial reaction is, "But I want them to think I'm essential," you're missing the bigger picture. You really want them to think you're a part of something that is essential, but that unless they're part of it too, it cannot succeed.

There's only so much that you can do on your own. You've got to have quality troops. You've got to know how many foot soldiers there are, who is behind them, how active they are, how they are split up geographically in the state, and what kind of contact delivery capacity they have (not just phone-calling ability). Next, you've got to know how much your people know about politics, not generally, but specifically. Know how much they know and how much they do not know. Profile their talents and knowledge and then match their talents and knowledge to the needs you have in your organization.

You may be surprised to discover how politically unsophisticated the average employee, the average executive, the average American, can be. In one survey, seventy-eight percent of college freshmen could not state the names of the US senators from their state. The problem is this: People cannot lobby someone whose name they do not know. Even if they do know that legislator well, they cannot lobby the legislator effectively if they do not know the facts about the issue under consideration or if they are politically unprepared.

It is of little value to conduct training courses for potential grassroots team members if they lack enthusiasm or motivation for the effort. You may need to resort to a variety of strategies to be sure your troops are primed for battle.

It's not enough, of course, that employees merely possess materials about grassroots procedures and issues. You've got to create situations in which they apply the information to good use. This can be done in mock tests in which participants answer questions on how specific situations should be handled.

V. A Professional Commitment to Grassroots is Not Enough

A professional commitment is essential, but it's not enough. There has to be a solid, personal commitment as well. There are times when the troops are going to have to be mobilized for after-hours work. But many of them will go on sick call unless there is a personal commitment, a visceral commitment to the cause. They've got to know that they have a personal stake in the success of the operation — that what they do is important not only to the company or organization but to their own well-being through increased stature in the eyes of their peers, through recognition within the community, through a bonus or a boost in salary, or through service to the community.

VI. "The Appearance of Power is Power"

This phrase by Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, is true because the most powerful weapons are the undetonated ones. If those you want to influence assume you have power they will pay attention to you. So build coalitions. They give not only the appearance of power, but the substance of power.

But remember the corollary: The appearance of weakness is weakness. When legislators sense you are weak, they will trade you off in favor of a coalition they believe to be stronger.

VII. Use a Variety of Grassroots Techniques

A survey of members of Congress asked: "How many letters do you have to receive before you will consider assigning a staff member to work on a problem?" The average answer? Seven. Not 70. Not 700. Not 7,000. Seven. Why? Because those seven constituents could be the tip of the iceberg. No legislator wants to be caught by surprise if a problem is developing. If he or she feels the letters are the products of a routine campaign, or if there is a sense that the matter is of little consequence, it will be dropped. But if the sense is that the problem is one that is going to become increasingly important, attention will be paid.

VIII. Don't Ask for More Than You Need

Some companies or organizations expect to win every time with a grand-slam home run. They want a 100 percent victory every time. That strategy will lead directly to disappointment. You have to educate your people to understand that those on the other side of an issue also have to come away from the table with something. The results of a shared victory, a fair compromise, may last far longer than a 100 percent win.

IX. Remember the Rules of Access

Except in rare cases, do not try to go directly to the member of Congress or the state legislature. You don't need to. Your first goal should be to get to the lawmaker's senior staff person at the local level. Second, you want to speak with the staff person who knows the issue, the technical staff person. Your third goal should be to get to the political staff person who is closest to the elected member. Indeed, it may not be necessary to get to the member at all. You may already have accomplished your objective by meeting with the behind-the-scenes people who are essential for the passage of legislation.

X. No One Wins Every Time



Kevin Gottlieb & Associates, Inc.
P.O. Box 3240
Annapolis, MD 21403-0240
(301) 858-5101 tel

All contents of the GATE web site are copyright © 1996 Kevin Gottlieb and Associates, Inc. All rights reserved. GATE® is a registered service mark of Kevin Gottlieb and Associates, Inc.