Do It Yourself Democracy Guide

DIY Democracy
SparkAction
February 11, 2008
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Make friends (and allies) and influence public policy in four relatively easy steps!

Pick an Issue

Scan the landscape. The first step is getting a sense of what issues national and local organizations are mobilizing around. This will help you figure out what issues you will be able to find key allies on (and what issues no one is focusing on, so it's gotta be you or it's not gonna happen!)

Here's how: Browse the national alerts. While you're at it, send 10 messages to elected officials. It's a chance to get a sense of what key organizations are working on, see what makes some alerts more compelling then others (hey, they got your attention!), and to start making a difference right away!

Study up. I know, I know, studying is not everyone's idea of a fun time. But trust me, this is a whole lot more interesting than cramming for an exam. And a putting in a little time will pay off. You would be surprised to hear the range of issues elected officials deal with, which means they often know less than you on any particular topic you are passionate about. This creates a powerful opportunity for you to build a relationship with leaders who over time may start turning to you as a key source of information.

Here's how: Browse the Action Center and our Topic Pages. Find a topic you are passionate about, and make a note of key facts and figures you think would convince your friends. And elected officials respond to news clippings -- so find some about your topic and drop them an email with a link, and don't forget to tell them why you think it is so important that they saw this story!

Find Allies

Find partner organizations. Look, you are busy: you've got homework, an afterschool job, and people to IM.  So maybe you don't have time to run a campaign yourself. Fine -- don't. But don't give up yet -- chances are there are others who are interested in the same issue who have already started campaigns for you. Hey, less work for you! Figure out who they are, and see if there are ways you can help (which fit into your busy schedule).

Here's how: Check out which organizations are posting alerts on similar topics.

Develop a Strategy

Focus on a specific piece of legislation. Focus focus focus! While most of us experience the world broadly (we like or don't like our school, we do or don't feel safe in our neighborhoods), simply saying we want to improve the schools or our neighborhoods is not enough to get an elected official to do what you want. (After all, you may not agree with their solutions!) If you don't tell them what specifically you want them to do on a specific piece of policy (often how you want them to vote on a specific bill), then they will not know what you are asking them for (or will claim that they are already doing all they can).

Here's how: Search for bills related to your topic. Read them carefully, see what other organizations are saying about it, and decide your position.

The key to success is getting the right people to say the right things to the right policy makers at the right time. Sure, easy to say, but how do you do it?

Identify the timing and targets. This is critical but tricky -- don't be shy about asking for help. While some elected officials may be happy to hear from you on any topic at any time, in reality there are narrow windows of opportunity when specific pieces of policy are being decided. Send a message to an official too early, and it gets filed and forgotten. Send it too late, and the key decision has been made without you. Policy makers divide the world up into pieces, with specific policy makers responsible for specific pieces. In the state legislature and Congress, policy makers are divided into committees, each with different topics. In the executive branch, they are divided up into departments and agencies. Target your campaign to an official who is in a position to make a difference, and they may take action. Send it to the wrong official and there may be little they can do.

Here's how: Take the time to get to know your elected officials. Figure out what committees they are on, what issues they focus on, and whether they agree with your position. Look up the policy you want to take action on. Take a close look at which committee or agency it is in. Figure out which officials are in that committee or agency. This is where you want to focus. Figuring out the timing can be a challenge -- often key votes are not scheduled until a day or less before they happen.

Do the best you can -- in the end, becoming friends with someone who works in government may be your best bet.

Also check out recent votes -- sending thank you messages to people who voted the way you wanted is an important and often overlooked strategy!

Follow the money. Find a large contributor to your target’s campaign, get them on your side, and you are in like Flynn! Hey, it may sound crass, but it really works.

Here's how: Go to opensecrets.org and search for the biggest contributors to the officials you are trying to influence. Copy the list, and send it to people you know -- hey, someone has to know at least one of the people on the list! Then approach them, tell them why this issue is so important to you, and ask if they would be willing to contact the public official for you.

Launch a Campaign

Send messages.This is the bread and butter of a successful effort. Public officials keep track of how many messages they receive on specific topics. The numbers it takes to get their attention varies -- in some states it is as much as 1,000 emails and letters, in other states it is much lower.

Here's how: By now, you have hopefully made contact with one or more of the YPAC member organizations. Notify them that the time is now right, the key targets have been selected, and ask them to post an alert on the Youth Policy Action Center (you may wish to offer to help them draft the alert).

Get the media on board. Another way public officials gauge what the public thinks is through listening to the news. The more stories there are about your topic, the more likely they will take it seriously. Kids and politics can make for great media, so give it a shot. In Massachusetts a group of young people asked for (and got) a meeting with the editorial board (bosses) of the Boston Globe -- something adult advocates had tried (and failed) to get for years. In Austin, reporters kept coming back to shoot more pictures of kids taking action (granted, the fact that one of them had a pink mohawk didn't hurt!)

Here's how: Search for local media, and send them messages letting them know what you are working on, and asking to talk with a reporter or the editorial board to tell them more.

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8 Comments
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The campaign information is rather logical - quite easy to understand why they track the message responses for specific topics as for campaigning fuel.

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November 17 at 08:13am

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May 15 at 08:38pm

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May 15 at 06:27pm

I agree with you, very interesting tutorial. Finding partner organisations might be the hardest part but is sure is a very good idea.

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March 8 at 01:40pm

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February 27 at 10:26pm

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