The number of telecom policy issues now pending is huge. The implications for the public are vast. But public interest advocates are not terribly effective at winning, except in special circumstances. Why? Beyond the rooted pathologies of our current political culture (i.e., campaign finances), I believe the chief reason for ineffective public-interest advocacy is the lack of a broad, well-organized constituency. As one respected advocate told me, "We can get in to see Senators and FCC Commissioners -- we have access, we can give testimony, we can file petitions -- but we don't usually have the power to change their minds."
Policy is not just made through rational persuasion, although facts and analysis matter a great deal, of course. An equally important factor is the visibility and organization of public interest constituencies. FDR once told a group of businessmen who had come to lobby him: "Gentlemen, I agree with everything you say. Now go out there and make me do it!" That is the burden that the public interest telecom community has not met. We are not going out there and making policymakers adopt our policy proposals. It reminds me of the quip by gangster John Dillinger: "I've always found that I get farther with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone."
Historically, the political clout wielded by public interest advocates has derived from the publicity powers of the mainstream press. Our side has used the press either as a crypto-ally or a useful conduit to reach the public and indirectly influence policymakers. But the potency of this once-formidable lever has greatly diminished since the 1970s. A headline or two can tweak the national consciousness and perhaps prompt a hearing. But the mainstream press is too crude and unreliable an instrument for pushing through a policy agenda nowadays.
The only real solution, I believe, is to spend more energy and resources organizing the disaggregated constituencies who do support our policy positions. In some ways, the public interest community needs to show the same grit-and-gumption that the religious right has shown, by marshaling raw citizen support and giving it political/institutional force. Many grassroots forces are active, but not adequately connected to effective Washington lobbies. They talk among themselves on the Internet but cannot translate that latent energy into a real-life political impact. Meanwhile, many Washington players have forgotten how to reach out and organize, preferring to stay within the cloistered world of Washington and pursue "facade politics."
Facade politics is the mindset developed in the 1970s whereby crusading public interest organizations claim to represent citizens, and may even have large paying memberships which occasionally send letters to Congress. But these memberships are largely inert, and the Washington headquarters make few efforts to empower members at the local level and help them become semi-autonomous, active players in their own right ("building local capacity"). Undeterred by a grassroots opposition, retrograde politicians are free to ignore public interest advocates and pay no political price.
This is why so many public interest telecom crusades amount to pillow fights: There is no organized, outraged constituency that can inflict moral censure and political damage on politicians, the FCC and other players for hostile actions. Some political players, particularly the Clinton Administration, may want to "make nice" with the public interest community and work to find congenial solutions. But too often, these players have prior political debts that trump enlightened policy. (Note how Vice President Gore was not willing to take a more visible, aggressive public stand in his lobbying of the telecom bill. Why? Because he could not count on a public interest/nonprofit constituency to make a visible show of support to bolster his hand.) Without a constituency to protest and stand behind a sovereign vision, the public interest community can be rolled and have no recourse beyond press denunciations, and, on rare occasions, lawsuits. In its worst manifestation, public interest advocates act like abused spouses, unable to keep from returning to "friendly" politicians who abuse them some more. Why this perversity? Progressives have no where else to go, and the politicians know it.
It is critical to see that progressive policy aspirations are directly linked to the organized potency of their constituencies. Ultimately, advocacy without credible grassroots support is destined to stall. On numerous fronts -- environmentalism, campaign finance reform, consumer protection -- we have seen the limits of facade politics. This raises some questions: What tactical models are best at organizing constituents, and what are the mechanics of mobilizing would-be allies?
Conceive of an organization as a set of relationships among people, and one can begin to see how the networking technologies can fortify its advocacy capacity. By allowing pervasive, easy use of e-mail, fax alerts, fax on demand, online briefings, access to document archives, mass dissemination of publications -- all in short periods of time -- a lumbering dinosaur can begin to move with speed and agility. Indeed, this is the transformation that major corporations have achieved through information technologies. It is time for the nonprofit world to re-invent itself in a similar manner. If advocacy will be improved, so will membership recruitment, press relations, nonprofit governance, delivery of services, administrative efficiencies, and many other endeavors.
Two foundations that recognized this early on are the W. Alton Jones Foundation and Brainerd Foundation, which brought together 100 environmental leaders, foundation officials and technology experts in June 1995. (The Pew Foundation is also quite advanced in grappling with digital technologies, and the Mellon Foundation in exploring new models of electronic publishing.) The goal was to determine how "wired" the environmental groups were, and to suggest how the technologies could vastly enhance their advocacy. A consensus document generated by the conference reached several key conclusions:
A survey of the environmental groups attending the conference reveals the "primitive" state of communications at most environmental groups. Of more than 1.3 million instances of membership communication, about 991,000 were delivered via bulk mail. Press conferences are still the main way of communicating major issues to journalists. Phone trees are the primary tool for mobilizing constituencies -- while electronic bulletin boards, fax broadcasts, and other networking tools are fairly rare. The challenge is not simply to make these technologies available; they must be integrated into the daily strategic decisionmaking of the organization. As the conference organizers concluded: "Environmental NGOs must work toward a cultural shift within institutions to take technology out of the 'backroom' and apply it to achieving mission critical goals. Part of this culture shift will involve a much greater commitment to cooperation among organizations with shared goals."
In this regard, one highly effective electronic activist models is SCARC-NET, the "intranet" of the anti-tobacco activist community. Formed by the Advocacy Institute, SCARC-NET has been an invaluable tool for trading documents, debating strategic plans, and mobilizing rapid responses. Such examples abound, but they have not been rigorously studied. Hundreds of activist-oriented networks flourish under the auspices of Peacenet and Econet, two sister-networks devoted solely to promoting peace, human rights, social justice and environmental issues. These networks are jointly run by the Institute for Global Communications (IGC), a division of the Tides Foundation based in San Francisco. There are at least 900 newsgroups operating through IGC, which itself is allied with the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), a worldwide umbrella group of networks in more than ten countries. The nature of these "communities" varies widely, of course, ranging from casual chat to moderated discussions to action-oriented advocacy.
What may be most exciting is the unexpected diversity of activist models out there. There is a Usenet newsgroup devoted to these ideas, misc.activism.progressive, and an MIT Web site on civic participation www.ai.mit.edu/projects/ppp/home.html, NOTE: this URL is no longer valid as of 05/23/2001). I have heard of environmentally committed foresters within the U.S. Forest Service who electronically share views that question official policy. There are multinational networks of activists whose communications frequently usher a story into the mainstream press, spurring change. Indeed, the profusion of innovative advocacy anecdotes and models is so great, but so difficult to identify and evaluate, that Essential Information, the Nader-founded group, has assigned a person to routinely prowl the Web for innovations worth replicating.
One of the most significant challenges lies in activating "niche constituencies" to recognize their own self-interest in the new technologies, both from the perspectives of internal operations and public policy. Unfortunately, existing efforts in this area have not caught fire. The Public Interest Summit in 1994 and the Benton Foundation -- along with general press coverage -- have "softened up" the field. Nonprofits know that something is going on. But even when strong personal presentations are made to the executive committees and boards of organizations, there is often little follow-through by those organizations.
In general, the policy community's outreach to niche constituencies -- library users, educators, artists, writers, independent video producers, etc. -- need to be more intensive and sustained. The community networking people have a Washington presence, but their stories and perspectives are not forcefully represented in policy circles. Dozens of other professions and user communities simply are not plugged in to the policy debate or action. Yet their participation can be transforming. When CD-ROM publishers were alerted to challenge West Publishing Company's monopoly on federal court rulings, they became a moral and political force in their own right, changing the terms of policy debate in the process. Similarly, when Intel and Microsoft (yes, Microsoft!) were shown that they had a self-interest in more aggressively prodding telcos to lower their ISDN rates, it also had a transforming influence. The strategic development of new niche constituencies -- especially business sub-sectors whose views coincide with the public interest vision -- could be remarkably effective in bolstering advocacy.
A vexing problem is how to overcome the stubborn balkanization of the telecom/nonprofit community. I think the chief answer is to support those organizations that show initiative and effectiveness, which naturally attract followers/collaborators. These organizations are able to imagine/conceptualize new strategic opportunities, define the terms of engagement in tactically shrewd ways, and bring together diverse groups to actualize the plan. Coalition-building requires development of a compelling, specific message that speaks directly to people's self-interests and galvanizes them. Unfortunately, some coalitions have relied upon more generalized, lofty appeals without the immediacy, focus and personal relevance of message-driven campaigns. Not surprisingly, their political traction is limited.
I have already alluded to this strategic opportunity, but it deserves a brief, separate mention. Unleashing reliable government information and making it popularly accessible is one of the most cost-effective tools for achieving policy reforms. This has been seen countless times over the past twenty-five years, exemplified by the Sunshine in Government reforms (which opened up congressional and federal agency deliberations), the Freedom of Information Act, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, as well as statistical disclosures such as the Toxics Release Inventory and Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.
In terms of making government information resources electronically accessible, public interest forces have achieved some important beachheads. But this area deserves far more concerted, focused attention. If nonprofits and advocacy groups were more actively educated about their huge stake in government information, it might propel a new coalescence among those groups around information policy goals. It would also quicken the desire of the participating nonprofits to update and improve their own communications infrastructures.
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