Joining the Conversation

Marci Harris is cofounder and CEO of PopVox.

As a former Congressional staffer-turned-startup-entrepreneur, I am excited to see the discussion on the Engine blog address what it means to join the policymaking “conversation” in Washington.

That conversation doesn’t have a very good reputation right now.  Congressional Job Approval (according to Gallup ) is at a flat 12%.  In an April 2011 poll, Americans said 71% of lobbyists had “too much power”, ranking them on this scale above “major corporations” (67%), “banks and financial institutions” (67%), and “the federal government in Washington” (58%). The legacy networks of grassroots  organizations have been examining their own “Tragedy of Political Advocacy”. This was the case even before “The Internet” pulled off the epic blackout of January 18 in opposition to the SOPA.

The Silicon Valley culture, which until recently served as a proxy for all “startups”, historically has been happy to be detached from the conversation. Nigel Cameron describes (as only he can) the Silicon Valley/DC divide as “the Continental Divide,” in which it can seem that the two most distant points in the universe are the Rayburn cafeteria and the Starbucks on Sand Hill Road.

Civic engagement, powered by game-changing technology, provides a vehicle for increasing trust and broadening the Conversation. Here are some things to keep in mind for all groups — including those in the startup community — that wish to engage and participate:

  1. Relationships. Bridging the Continental coffee shop divide is an important first step. Invite a staffer for coffee and get to know them. (They will have to pay for their own coffee.) Which leads to the next point:
  2. Staff are people too. A meeting with a staffer is frequently just as good (and sometimes better) than a meeting with a Member. You will probably get more time and speak with someone who can dig into the minutiae with you in a way that a busy Member of Congress just can’t.  Yes, that is still true if they look eighteen, happen to be answering the office phone, and even sometimes if their title is “intern.”
  3. Congress really wants to hear from constituents (but not everyone else). Unless a Member of Congress represents your district, they don’t technically work for you. If you want to convince them of something, convince their constituents.
  4. Big change (usually) takes a while. There is no hard and fast rule - BUT, you will usually have better luck with incremental steps over several years than attempting to push through a large proposal.
  5. Small things matter. There is value in baby legislative steps to demonstrate support — Naming a “day”, commissioning a study, “recognizing the goals of…” are all opportunities to explain your position and have a legitimate “ask” (i.e.“co-sponsor this bill”), to produce a list of allies on the record for your cause.
  6. Capitol Hill is the ultimate “Just In Time” fulfillment. Staff are busy and issues come quickly; if information is not available when needed, they will probably not go looking for you. It’s helpful to keep tabs on the agenda, and (shameless plug) make sure your positions on bills are easy to find on a platform like POPVOX, which is designed to answer a staffer’s “need information about this bill NOW” need.
  7. Don’t assume they know the details. Your letter or one-pager should summarize and re-explain the issue, even if you think that EVERYONE should know the background and what the acronyms mean. (Really, a ONE-pager is important.)
  8. Seasons change, people change. While your relationship building might seem best focused on leadership and committee chairs, keep in mind that the pieces are rearranged after every election.
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