Stephanie Vance worked on Capital Hill and is familiar with the most effective way we, prostate cancer advocates can make a difference for our community. What she says reinforces what I have heard from others working on the hill. Her thoughts will help you as you plan your actions on the Thomas J. Manton Prostate Cancer Act.

HOW TO BE AN EFFECTIVE CYBER ADVOCATE
By Stephanie Vance

It seems like you can’t click the mouse these days without finding a website seeking to connect citizens with their government. But are these sites really helping citizens connect with their elected officials in a meaningful way? Has the Internet really led us to the brink of direct democracy? Or are the communications that are coming through these sites merely adding to the white noise that permeates Capitol Hill?

Does “Point-and-Click” Make a Difference?
As someone who spends a great deal of time teaching people how to effectively communicate with Congress, I am concerned that some of these sites leave people with the impression that being an effective citizen advocate is as easy as clicking a mouse. Pointing and clicking on the “yes” or “no” button on vote.com’s site is not equivalent to participating in a meaningful way – even if your vote is forwarded to your Congressional representative. Frankly, your vote, if you are lucky, will simply be tallied with other opinions, and that tally (again, if you’re lucky) may be 1/10th or 1/20th of a factor in your representative’s decision-making process. In most cases, your “yes” or “no” vote is simply deleted from the system.

If Not, What Does?
So what really influences members of Congress? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not money. In fact, it’s good old-fashioned policy analysis, research, and personal beliefs. To be an effective advocate, you must become part of that process – and you don’t get there by pointing and clicking. The most important thing to remember in seeking to influence the policy making process is that you have something of value to contribute. You probably have a particular reason why you feel the way you do about a specific policy proposal, or a reason why you’re seeking a change in law. A thoughtful approach to policy issues combined with a careful explanation of why it’s important to you personally is very compelling to congressional staff and members. In writing a personal, thoughtful, well-argued letter or e-mail, your chances of influencing your Representative’s decision-making process increase dramatically.

People ask me all the time whether e-mail is an effective means to communicate with Congress. I tell them that the tools citizens use to communicate with their elected representatives are far less important than what they say. The key to being effective in your written communications is ensuring that someone on staff actually thinks about what you have to say. So how do you do that? By being personal, relevant, asking for a response, and reaching the right person.

The Personal Approach: By far, the most compelling and effective letters combine a thoughtful approach to policy issues with a careful explanation of why it’s important to the author personally. In most offices, it is these letters that the member of Congress actually sees, not the letters generated by mass postcard or form letter campaigns. For example, one of the members I worked for routinely asked to see the five to ten most thoughtful, rational letters we received in a week. These letters received much more attention then other less personalized correspondences.

Why Are You Relevant?
You are relevant to the Congressional office because you are a constituent or because you represent a constituent, and you can demonstrate that connection by including your postal address on every correspondence, whether it’s e-mail, fax, or traditional letter.

Ask for a Response: Given the limited time and budgets in congressional offices, priority will always be given to letters that require an answer. Asking for a response means someone on the staff has to think about what you’ve said and, in some way, address your concerns or comments.

Reaching the Right Person: Correspondence requesting a meeting or site visit should be sent to the Executive Assistant or Scheduler. Educational and informational correspondence about your program should be sent to both the member and legislative assistant assigned to your issue. You can find out who these people are at http://www.congress.org By following these guidelines, you can dramatically increase the chances that your correspondence will be noticed, whether you send it via e-mail, snail mail, or carrier pigeon!

Will the Internet Make Representational Democracy Obsolete?
But will all this personal, thoughtful letter writing really be necessary in ten years? Some people argue that the Internet heralds a new day for democracy, where people will vote for their representatives and eventually vote on policy issues directly and online. Essentially, Congressional representatives would become obsolete. However, this “ballot-initiative” model of government ignores the most important role that your elected official plays in the process, paying attention to every issue under the sun 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Think about it. Under the direct democracy model, you would be pointing and clicking to cast your vote approximately 900 times a year. That’s over twice a day, every day including weekends. You’d be voting on Permanent Normal Trading Relations for China, the Patient’s Bill of Rights, legislation to promote Digital Signatures, and whether to name the Post Office in Garden City, Kansas after Clifford R. Hope.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that all of these sites are emerging and that some are flowering. The Internet is an important and powerful tool for connecting citizens to their government. But so was the printing press, the telephone, and CSPAN. It’s what we do with these tools that matter. Content, thoughtful analysis, and personal perspectives still matter.

So go ahead and point and click – but follow that up with a thoughtful e-mail, letter or phone call. You’ll be a better citizen and we’ll all have a better Democracy.

Check out the following resources to learn both about Congress as well as the impact of the Internet on policy-making. Then, use that information to communicate effectively with members of Congress and their staff. Pretty soon, you’ll be a truly effective Cyber-Lobbyist.

Learn About Congress
A number of important books offer insights into how the Internet is changing democracy.

  • Steven Clift, a well-known name in the “e-democracy” world, recently released a new online book, “E-Democracy E-Book: Democracy is Online 2.0”. Check it out at http://www.publicus.net/ebook/
  • The Net Effect, by Pam Fielding and Daniel Bennett. This book outlines the impact of the Internet on Congress and provides a simple framework for understanding how to use the Internet for activism. Authors Daniel Bennett and Pam Fielding weave together stories from across the Internet and the political spectrum, showcasing some of the top strategies being used today to deliver results online.
  • Electronic Democracy: Using the Internet to Influence American Politics , by Graeme Browning, Daniel J. Weitzner, This book teaches how to use the Internet to organize e-mail campaigns within congressional districts; access a wealth of information that will impact politicians at the local, state and federal levels; monitor law-makers’ voting records; and track campaign financing and contributions.
  • Cyber-Citizen, by Christopher Kush. This latest entrant to the cyber-advocacy game offers users an extensive range of resources, as well as tips and techniques on how to apply those resources effectively.

Use the Web to Communicate with Elected Officials
Finally, use the web to identify and communicate with elected officials. Some of the most effective sites include:

  • Politics Online (http://www.politicsonline.com) Includes up-to-date information and news on use of the Internet in politics, from online contribution totals to the latest in online voting. Two free e-newsletters for those interested in keeping informed. Also has a helpful “toolbox” of free and not-so-free tools for managing Internet campaigns. Although these tools are more oriented toward candidate campaigns, they can be easily adapted to use for issue campaigns as well.
  • Speak Out (http://www.speakout.com) This site allows users to directly lobby members of Congress on any issue under the sun. You can both learn about the issues you care about and use the information on the site to craft a thoughtful, well argued e-mail or letter to your elected representatives. This is also a commercial site offering a variety of products to help advocates enter into the world of effective cyber-advocacy.
  • Congress.Org (http://www.congress.org) Like many sites, Congress.org allows you to identify your representatives, send them an e-mail, and learn more about their positions on the issues. What sets Congress.org apart is the in-depth information on Congressional staff, who are the people who REALLY get things done on the hill. Once you’ve looked up your Representative, you are linked to an information sheet with biographical information, addresses, and the names and responsibilities of the Congressional staff. Best of all, this information is updated monthly! In addition, there are helpful tips for writing, e-mailing and calling your representatives. This is a very useful site for anyone seeking to be a truly effective advocate.
  • CitizenSpeak.org (http://www.citizenspeak.org) is a free web-based advocacy service that allows grassroots organizations to incorporate email campaigns into their communications strategies. With CitizenSpeak, email targeted decision-makers one-on-one messages with a single click. You create an online account and then choose the campaigns you want to participate in.

—Stephanie Vance, the Advocacy Guru, is author of “Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress” and a former Capitol Hill veteran. She lives and works in Washington, DC, offering workshops and advice on effective advocacy. Find out more at http://www.advocacyguru.com