Blogs

Moving On

After nearly seven years as the Principal and Founder of Milo Public Affairs, I am closing the firm’s doors. I have accepted a position as the Vice President for External Relations at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and will join the organization on Monday, September 16th.

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) was established by Congress in 1984 as an independent, federally-funded national security institution devoted to the nonviolent prevention and mitigation of deadly conflict abroad. I will be joining an exceptional team led by former U.S. Representative Jim Marshall. The opportunity to join an organization as important at USIP, at such a critical moment, was not one I could pass up.

Over the past seven years at Milo Public Affairs, and the three years before that at M+R Strategic Services, I have had the pleasure of working with some great people on a range of important issues. I have been on teams working on the farm bill, genocide in the Sudan, capital punishment, health care reform, renewable energy, copyright protection, media ownership, internet taxation, civic engagement, and more. Those experiences will guide my work at USIP.

Thank you to all of you who do the work of advancing justice and improving the lives of those around us. And a special thank you to those with whom I have had the pleasure of working over the past decade.

I hope that you, like the Milo after whom my firm was named, have many, many adventures.

More Advice for Advocates from the Pitch

Over the past several weeks I have offered advice for advocates from both a soccer player and a coach. Today I offer more advice from (an aging, rec league) player, thus making this an occasional series.

Below are three more insights for advocates from the pitch.

Talk to each other
The best soccer games are loud – not just fans chanting and singing, but players constantly talking to each other. The field is big and a player can only see a small part of it at once; players count on their colleagues to tell them what’s going on around them and help figure out what to do next. The best advocates do the same. Even as they focus on their part of the campaign, they are keeping their eyes on the larger effort and offering input: the online team suggests the Hill team use short bullets that can be repurposed as Tweets; the Hill team lets the communications team know what papers they see in legislative offices (if a paper is in a legislator’s office, it gets read by the legislative staff, and is thus worth pitching); and so forth.

Listen to each other
The corollary to talking is listening. Soccer players are competitive and can have big egos. We all think we know what we’re doing, and that can get in the way of hearing what is often good advice. Advocates are the same. Too often, social media professionals loathe listening to experts in dead-tree media, grassroots organizers have disdain for lobbyists, and lobbyists roll their eyes at everyone. But the best advocates, like the best players, manage their egos and listen to those around them. If an organization or campaign is good, the people in all of the positions are smart and have good things to say and are thus worth listening to (if that’s not the case, get better staff). This doesn’t mean doing everything everyone says – the advice is often contradictory so couldn’t take all of if you wanted to anyway, and like those offering input you’re smart and should use your judgment, but it does mean considering the input of your colleagues, especially if they see parts of the game or campaign out of your line of vision.

Trust each other
The corollary to the corollary is trust. Players need to trust the defender behind them will cover whatever is going on behind them, and players up front need to trust the run will be there when it’s needed. Advocacy campaigns are the same. The online team needs to have confidence the legislative team will advance the common messaging and share intelligence, and the legislative team needs to trust the grassroots advocates to reinforce the message being delivered on the Hill. People need to trust their input is being heard and taken seriously, and they need to trust the advice they are getting is good. Teams that don’t trust each other usually lose, both on the pitch and on the Hill.

Syria and the Metaphor War

As Congress takes up the debate over action in Syria, as pundits pundit about it, and as the rest of us figure out what we think, it is worth paying close attention to the metaphors and examples used to explain the situation.

We think metaphorically. The world is too complicated, and our brains too small, to fully grasp every angle of every new thing we encounter. To make sense of our complex world, we simplify events and objects, comparing them to things and objects with which we’re already familiar. As Riikka Kuusisto wrote in Framing the Wars in the Gulf and Bosnia: The Rhetorical Definitions of Western Power Leaders in Action, “Facts rarely ‘speak for themselves’: they need to be explained and named and given meaning before they can be comprehended.”*

This understanding, as incomplete and metaphorical as it must be, guides action. As Roland Paris wrote in Kosovo and the Metaphor War, “Competing interpretations of an issue…open up certain policy responses and foreclose others.”

Most policy problems are multi-faceted, with lots of moving parts, and a range of both known and unknown consequences (for example part of our current health care mess is the result of wage controls during World War II). When we are asked to consider a new policy we don’t treat it like Jack Skellington does the first time he sees snow, rather we look for quick cues that easily put the policy into a category or mental bucket we already carry around, sort of an intellectual “tastes like chicken,” and then treat this new thing as we do old thing we’ve just compared it to (or at least our metaphorical understanding of the old thing, which itself is similarly necessarily incomplete).

This is as true of policymakers as it is of the rest of us. As Schlesinger and Lau noted in their study of health care policy metaphors, both the public and policy elites reason by policy metaphor, a finding which ought not be surprising. People behave like people, regardless of job title. Paris wrote that, “American policy makers tend to apprehend and respond to foreign events through the filter of historical analogies and their own personal experiences.” (See also Analogies at War here).

There tend to be two levels of debates over metaphor: fit and meaning. The new thing has to make sense as the old thing, and the actions one takes based on the metaphor have to make sense as well.

If all this is true, the first battle over Syria is the metaphorical one – the answer to the question “what is this most similar to? Does this taste like Iraq? Afghanistan? Vietnam? Nazi Germany?” Is Syria a “powder keg”? A “domino”? A “Cold War relic”? A “nightmare” or “morass?” With this answer, the next answer – what to do about it – becomes far easier. If it’s Iraq (or at least the most recent iteration of Iraq) then the answer is “WMD my ass, not our fight.” If it’s Hitler, then the only answer is to intervene before it is too late. If it’s a powder keg we need to contain it before the explosion rocks Israel, if it’s a domino we need to ensure it doesn’t fall and start a chain of nasty events. If it’s a nightmare or morass we can only get sucked in with no clear way out, and thus ought to avoid it all together.

Syria is real, the lives that have been taken and the lives now at risk are real. Our choices are complicated and the outcomes unclear. We are in the public 'sense-making' phase of the debate. As advocates and citizens we need to be attuned to this sense-making phase because it will determine that reality that Syria will become.

* There is at least 2,000 years of scholarship on this, which somewhat blunts my natural instinct to footnote even more than I have. Those interested in this general topic of metaphor, politics and policy can see this post for a list of some readings on the subject. For more on metaphor and rhetoric and foreign policy see for example: The writing of Robert Ivie; Philip Wander, The Rhetoric of American Foreign Policy; Riikka Kuusisto Heroic Tale, Game, and Business Deal? Western Metaphors in Action in Kosovo; and of course all of the links in the post.

Unsolicited Advice for Advocates on Hard Decisions

The Sunday Washington Post featured an essay on challenges facing Howard University. The historically black university is losing money, students, and prestige. In the view of the Vice Chair of the board, “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.” It is difficult to find an institution of any sort, public or private, that does not have similar concerns. For years the mantra for many was “doing more with less.” Many have passed that point, and now challenge is doing less with less.

The tricky bit of course that difficult decisions are difficult. If it were easy to say ‘no’ to ideas or opportunities, people would say ‘no’ more often. If it were easy to lay-off staff or shut down programs, no one would write op-eds in major national newspapers about the need to do so. Hard decisions are hard to make, and harder still to implement.

One step that can help is to have a clear goal, and a clear role the organization plays in achieving that goal. The best goals are public and measurable: reducing childhood poverty; doubling high school graduation rates; preventing conflict; and so forth. If an idea or program does not advance the organization’s goal more effectively and efficiently than other ideas, it should not be done.

A second step is strategy in the context of other organizations working toward the same goal. Just as building a house requires carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, and more, achieving social change requires grassroots advocates, media experts, policymaker engagement, social media, research, and more. Not all organizations can, or should, do all things. Some are best suited to outside agitation, others to inside education, some to agenda setting, others to finding middle ground, and so on. If another organization is better suited to an approach, or if someone else is already doing it better, then another organization should do it. Just because something should be done, doesn’t mean your organization should be the one to do it.

These two steps provide a template against which decisions can be made. An external, clear, and clearly articulated, template also has the effect of depersonalizing difficult decisions. Programs are increased or decreased, staff hired or let go, based on their relationship to the template – not based on personal history or commitment to the larger issue or field. Decisions about both programs and personnel are based on agreed-upon, external, criteria.

Such an external criteria with goals and strategies doesn’t make decisions easy (indeed, agreeing on such a criteria is itself a challenge), but it can help. And ultimately hard decisions are called hard decisions because they are hard to make. And sometimes they need to be made.

Language and Politics Syllabus

Teaching is the most fun thing I do for money.

Below is the current draft syllabus for a course on language and politics I teach in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. It is a seminar course with about 18 students. Loge alumni are invited to drop by anytime on the condition they do the reading and participate in the discussion.

Thoughts and input on the syllabus are welcome (I've edited some logistics out of the below).

________________________

DRAFT v.1
Last updated 8/21/13 12:30pm

Syllabus
Language and Politics
________________________________________

"The world is still in want of clear-headed citizens, tempered by historical perspective, disciplined by rational thinking and moral compass, who speak well and write plainly."
- Prof. Lee Pelton, President of Emerson College

It is often said that “political language is political reality,” an assertion with which few in Washington would disagree. This course will investigate the connection between language and the political world around us. We will explore both the theory and practice of language in politics and discuss the implications of these explorations on the creation and consumption of politics.

This course is roughly divided into three conceptual chunks: foundational questions about where meaning ‘comes from’ and whether or not words themselves ultimately ‘mean’ anything; case studies of how words work in politics and policy debates; and a larger discussion of what happens when language starts referring to other language as proof rather than referring to ideas or objects in the outside world. Throughout the course we will be discussing the ethics of political language.

While the course will focus on words, we will also discuss the role that images, sounds, and other things play in the creation of meaning. The last chunk of the course will especially focus on the topic of systems of signs or systems of meaning.

From time to time Loge alumni may drop by class. Like you, they are expected to do the readings and participate in class discussions.

You will be expected to do the readings, think about their connections to events in politics, and participate in class discussions. Quality of insight is better than quantity of words, and challenging questions and questioning of assumptions is always more interesting than just tagging along.

The success or failure of this class rests largely on you and your colleagues. If you listen closely to your peers, make unexpected connections, and take intellectual risks, the fall will be a very interesting conversation.

...

Logistics
You will be graded on three short essays, a major paper, a mid-term exam, a final exam, and class participation. The final papers and essays should be emailed and handed in on paper.

Essays
You will be required to write three short essays. They should be no longer than two pages, double spaced. I will stop reading at the bottom of the second page, and grade you only on what I’ve read. Extreme efforts to extend margins, squeeze in fonts, etc., will be punished. No late papers will be accepted.

Each essay is worth 5% of your final grade (combined they are worth 15% of your final grade).

Essay #1 is due at the start of the second class session (Sept. 4) and should discuss a piece of political language and its implications – you might look at the difference between “conservationist” and “environmentalist” or what it means to label a group “terrorists” versus “insurgents.”
Essay #2 is due at the start of the October 2 class and should discuss the connection between language and politics – what it is, what it should be, and the implications of the connection (or disconnection).
Essay #3 is due at the start of class on November 13 and should examine the relationship between a metaphor and public policy.

Major Paper
For your final paper you will be required to do a thorough analysis of a piece of political language or a political image or develop and defend a position on the role of language (broadly defined) and politics.

One option is to find an image, word, etc., and explain something about it – what it means, how it came to mean that, the historical development, its implications, etc. Your paper should include reviews of others who have written on your topic and should place your analysis in the context of that research. For example if you write about the Confederate Flag, you should discuss others who have written about the symbolic power of flags in general, as well as those who have written about the confederate flag. An important element of the paper is the “so what?” You will be expected to not just describe something, but connect that description to larger events or issues. In the above example you could provide ideas on how to resolve the controversy around the Flag.

Another option is to develop your own theory of language (verbal and/or visual) and politics. If you choose this route you should be sure to include those who have already written on your subject, anticipate and respond to criticisms, and demonstrate why your approach is superior. For example you could critique Lakoff and suggest your own explanation of metaphor in politics.

The final paper should be between 15 and 25 pages long. I expect these papers to be top quality, that you will footnote your claims, cite your works (any form of citation is acceptable as long as it is complete and consistent), and that there will be no grammatical or spelling errors.

The final paper is due at the start of the last day of class, December 4th. It is worth 25% of your final grade. No late papers will be accepted.

I encourage you to begin thinking about your final papers early in the semester and to consult with me along the way. I am willing to read drafts, look at outlines, talk about ideas, and so forth.

Exams
Anything that happens in class is fair game for exams.

The mid-term exam is on October 16 and will have a short answer and essay component.

The final exam will be a take-home exam and consist of one or two essays. It will be due at the end of the scheduled final exam period for this class.

Each exam counts for 25% of your final grade (for a total of 50%).

Participation
Class participation is worth 10% of your final grade. You are expected to constructively add to the conversation, which means you should do, think about, and be prepared to talk about the readings. You are also expected to pay attention to the political world around you and think about it in terms of the course. You should have ideas and opinions and be able to defend them.

You will not be rewarded for just talking a lot.

Readings
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Available in most decent bookstores and online

Other readings are listed in the course schedule below, and most are on Blackboard. In addition I may email articles or essays during the week that strike me as interesting.

Ethics
You have several ethical responsibilities in this course. This is a small group, in a small space, for several hours at a time. For this adventure to work for all of us, each of us needs to do the readings and think about them. We must respect each other’s positions on the readings, and honor intellectual experiments (the “what if….” positions); that means people should be willing and able to change their minds, to defend their positions, and challenge the positions of others. Critically, one should never confuse an argument with the person making the argument – positions are not people. This means you should not attack people, only their claims and you should do so based on reasoning. Similarly, you should defend your positions as if they were ideas to be kicked around, not children to be protected.

Cheating and plagiarizing are not acceptable. They will be punished to the greatest extent permitted by The George Washington University policy. All exams, papers, and other work products are to be completed in conformance with The George Washington University Code of Academic Integrity.

Misc
I work from the premise that you are all adults. I don’t take attendance, but you are responsible for everything that happens in class. If you miss a session, you should find a colleague from whom to get notes, readings, etc.

There may be guest speakers and the schedule of readings and discussions may change.

...

You can call or email any time, but calling before 7am and after 10pm will likely do you more harm than good.

I do not keep office hours at GW, but am happy to schedule a meeting on campus or another location that works for both of us.

Schedule
Aug. 28 Introduction.
Lecture: The Course in an Hour

Sept. 4 FIRST ESSAY DUE
Write the first essay discussing a piece of political language and its implications – for example, examine the difference between “conservationist” and “environmentalist,” “global warming” and “climate change”, etc.

Read
On Writing Well Chapter 1, 2, 3, 6, and 14
Speaking into the Air: A history of the idea of communication, John Durham Peters, 1999, pp. 10-31

Sept. 11 Read
Cratylus by Plato, available at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/plato/p71cra/index.html and elsewhere.

Discuss the connection between words and things.

Sept. 18 Read
Selections from Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure

Selections from C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards The Meaning of Meaning

“Language, thought and reality: a comparison of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics with C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richard’s The Meaning of Meaning by David West, Changing English Vol 12 No 2, October 2005 pp 327-336

Discuss
The connections between words and things.

25 Read
“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell available at http://www.k-1.com/Orwell/index.cgi/work/essays/language.html and elsewhere

“The All Spin Zone” by Stanley Fish

Discuss
Orwell, Fish and the possibility of “good” political language.

Oct. 2 SECOND ESSAY DUE
Write your second essay explaining what the connection between language and politics is, what it should be, and the implications of the (dis)connections.

Read
“On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” by Friedrich Nietzsche, available at http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Nietzsche/Tr... and elsewhere

“Political Language and Political Reality” by Murray Edelman, PS vol 18 no 1 Winter 1985

Discuss
Your essays and the possibility of reality inside and outside of politics.

Oct. 9 Read
“Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Journal of Philosophy Vol 77 No. 8, Aug 1980)

Lakoff, “Metaphor, Morality, and Politics or Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals in the Dust.” Social Research, Summer 1995 pp 177 – 213

“Block That Metaphor!” by Steven Pinker, The New Republic, Oct. 9, 2006 pp 24 – 29.

Discuss Lakoff

16 MID TERM

23 Read
“Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning” by Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, (PLoS ONE 6(2))

Discuss metaphor and crime

30 Read
“The Meaning and Measure of Policy Metaphors” by Mark Schlesinger and Richard R. Lau, (The American Political Science Review vol 94 no 3 Sept. 2000)

“Policy Frames, Metaphorical Reasoning, and Support for Public Policies” by Richard R. Lau and Mark Schlesinger, (Political Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2005).

Frank Luntz health care messaging memo

Discuss health care policy metaphor

Nov 6 Read:
“What Should This Fight Be Called? Metaphors of Counterterrorism and their Implications” by Arie W. Kruglanski, Martha Crenshaw, Jerrold M. Post, and Jeff Victoroff (Psychological Science in the Public Interest Vol. 8 No. 3, 2008)

Discuss metaphor and terrorism

13 THIRD ESSAY DUE
Write about the relationship between metaphor and a public policy

Read
Michel Foucault, “The Order of Discourse” in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader ed. By Robert Young, 1981, Routledge Press and elsewhere.

20 Read
Selection from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation

27 NO CLASS –THANKSGIVING

Dec. 4 FINAL PAPER DUE
NO LATE PAPERS WILL BE ACCEPTED

Final Exam due at the end of the scheduled final exam period for the class

Advice for Advocates from a Soccer Player

Last week I offered advice for managers from a soccer coach. Today I offer advice for advocates from a player. Unlike last week’s post, which was informed by someone who coaches a professional team and played in the World Cup, this week’s post is informed by a middling recreational league player (me). There are a lot of lessons advocates can take from the pitch, below are three.

Just because you’ve been doing something for a long time doesn’t mean you’re doing it right
A common refrain from advocates and players is: “I’ve always done it this way.” Just because you’ve done something a lot, doesn’t mean you’re doing it right. On a soccer field I tend to drift out wide, because that’s what I’ve always done. But that isn’t always the best approach, pinching inside often makes more sense. The best advocates know their habits may be bad ones, or that at least there may be better ways to do what they have always done given the situation at hand.

Everyone needs coaching
A corollary to the above is that everyone needs coaching. I’ve been playing soccer for most of my life, I try to play two or three times a week, I’ve had season tickets to D.C. United from day-one, and I try to watch at least one international match a week. That’s a lot of soccer. And every time I step on the pitch I count on those around me to help me improve my game. I can always do better, and count on those around me to help me learn how. The best advocates seek out coaching as well. They ask those around them how the meeting could have gone better, how the tactics can be improved, how they can do a better job. A corollary to this corollary is that everyone is a coach – seek input from everyone, not just the person in charge.

Do what needs to be done
A truism of recreational league soccer is that sometimes you don’t have enough players. Sometimes that means a player has to cover two slots on the field to try and compensate for a missing person. Sometimes that means you have to take a turn as goalkeeper. Last Sunday my team was missing our keeper and our backup, which meant for half the game I volunteered to put on a pair of gloves (which I own for just such situations) and did my best because it’s what needed to be done. The best advocates behave the same way. You may hate making pitch calls to the press, but if pitch calls need to be made then make them. You may not be a social media expert, but if no one else is feeding the Twitter beast you have to step up and give it your best shot.

Bridging the False Divide Between Theory and Practice

While studying political science in graduate school, I was told that being a state director for a presidential primary candidate would work against me – “we don’t do politics, we study it” was the line.

Academics tend to dismiss political professionals as morally corrupt hacks doing bad politics in the name of bad policy. Political professionals tend to dismiss academics as naïve nerds proving either the irrelevant or the obvious. This easy dismissal misses much of what each has to offer the offer. The best professionals learn from academics, and vice versa.

A lot of those in the political-industrial complex unreflectively do what they have always done. They turn to Politico for insight and repeat what they heard on the Sunday shows. The hacks repeat common wisdom and as a result repeat common mistakes. They read This Town and Mike Allen, and dismiss The American Political Science Review and Aristotle. And when the hacks do find work by academics, it tends to be watered-down, minimally footnoted, ideologically driven, slop.

The professionals are right as well. Academics are too often drunks looking for their keys under the lamp post. Qualitative analysis is out of fashion and unlikely to get one published in leading journals, thus making tenure harder to secure (academics and hacks share the same goal: keeping their jobs). It is easier to keep squeezing the last drop of juice out of an old dataset than it is to try to explain the lumpy oatmeal which is Congress.

The best academics and advocates reach beyond the glib dismissals and learn from each other. The work of political scientists like Frank Baumgartner on policy change is tremendously useful for advocates. Research into human behavior offers invaluable insights for practitioners (Thinking Fast and Slow and The Signal and the Noise are two terrific popular/academic books). Work on metaphor and policy by Mark Schlesinger brings rigorous research to clever claims that there are metaphors we live by (and in so doing is much, much more useful). Brendan Nyhan’s writing on politics is interesting, insightful, and important. The Monkey Cage is a great example of the intersection of good academics and real policymaking (on Twitter @monkeycageblog). Even the most obscure-sounding theory can shed light on politics (one of my favorite examples is James Der Derian’s The (S)pace of International Relations: Simulation, Surveillance, and Speed).

Just as practitioners can learn from academics, academics can learn from the practitioners. Most of the people I know in politics are smart, many are very very smart. They work insanely hard, believe in what they do, and moreover believe deeply in the American experiment. They want to do good, and they want to do it well. And those with long careers have been doing something right, otherwise they wouldn’t be working at all.

Doing politics right requires studying it. And studying politics right requires talking to those who do it.

An Appeal for Better Rhetoric

As someone who has spent more than 20 years at the intersection of communication, politics, and policy, I have committed more than my fair share of intellectual nonsense. But I have tried to be intellectually honest, and keep trying to find ways to persuade that use well-constructed, consistent, and defensible arguments. This is a plea to my fellow political professionals to do the same. Make passionate, compelling, moving, and jarring appeals – but do so in ways that are consistent, that don’t appeal to base emotions, that advance debate, and that are smart. Don’t go for the easy gag just because you can.

My twitter feed is full of political appeals that the authors know are intellectually dishonest, at best. I know because some of those authors are friends and/or former students. I have had conversations with friends whose bosses tell them to push out political messages, usually to the base, that they know are untrue. Friends happily cite the Congressional Budget Office when the numbers match their political agendas, and dismiss CBO as partisan hacks when the numbers undermine their claims. For many of my liberal friends the Heritage Foundation is a bastion of evil – except when it comes to the idea that all Americans should be mandated to have health insurance, and many of my conservative friends praise Heritage for their (current) views on health care mandates, ignoring the previous and opposite position.

Mid/late 20th Century rhetorical scholar and conservative commentator Richard Weaver argued that ”language is sermonic.” For Weaver “we are all of us preachers in private or public capacities. We have no sooner uttered words than we have given impulse to other people to look at the world, or some small part of it, in our way.” Rhetoric, for Weaver, is an ethical art that should raise men up; rhetoric should speak to our better angles. Weaver saw the rise of moral relativism and science, that denied the inherently ethical nature of rhetoric, as morally and politically dangerous. Weaver appealed for return of the practice of rhetoric to that of a man of good character using the tools of language to elevate the listener.

These views, expressed in 1963, were not of course new. In Protagoras Socrates admonishes the young Hippocrates to be careful when studying with the sophist Protagoras because knowledge is the “food of the soul” and when the soul is in question one must be especially careful. And the claim that a rhetorician is a “good man speaking well” belongs to the Roman scholar Quintilian.

I mention all of this not to push the (politically) conservative agenda implied by Plato and Weaver – in the debate between Plato and the sophists I tend to side with the latter – but rather to remind my fellow professional advocates that ethics and honesty (intellectual and factual) matter and to call for a higher bar for all of us.

One doesn’t have to adopt Weaver’s conservative agenda to agree that intellectually honest appeals are better than base appeals rooted in fear (though if my friends who side with Weaver’s politics would also adopt his rhetorical ethics at least half the problem would be solved). One does have to accept that intellectually honest debate is important, and even if the ideal is impossible it is worth striving for. That I will never be as good a right back as Bacary Sagna doesn’t prevent me from trying.

Our political system is one of words. Those of us who manage those words for a living have a responsibility to use them wisely.

Advice for Managers from a Soccer Coach

If you’re lucky, you are surrounded by friends who also serve as mentors. I’m exceedingly lucky. One of the friends from whom I constantly learn is Ben Olsen, head coach of D.C. United. In his third season as D.C. United’s head coach, Ben is in charge of the worst team in Major League Soccer. Ben spoke to ESPN last week, and his comments offer a number of lessons for advocates, several of which I offer below.

Be honest about your successes and failures.
"This has been the longest, most stressful, disparaging year of my life," …The raw honesty in his admission is a prevalent theme of Olsen's character.

Ben doesn’t take credit for his players’ success last year, and doesn’t make excuses for this year’s failures. Ben is honest in saying his team over-performed in 2012, and that he can do better as a coach.

The best managers set clear goals for their organizations, for themselves, and for their staff. They then hold everyone, including themselves, accountable.

Learn in crisis.
Throughout the adversity though, Olsen has remained optimistic, believing he has learned more in this season in sitting 'Crisis Management 101' as he puts it, than the previous three at the helm.

The best managers learn in adversity. They work on getting better, finding solutions, and understand the role luck plays in both success and failure.

Your obligation is to your organization’s mission and those it serves.
"I feel a huge sense of burden with this club because of my connection to it and my connection with the fans..."

Ben doesn’t talk about his commitment to the owners of the team, or to the press, or to his staff. His commitment is to the organizational mission (“Win Championships and Serve the Community”) and to the fans.

The best managers know their commitment is to the organization and those whom the organization serves. They keep a clear and relentless focus on the goals and achieving those goals – nothing else matters.

The graveyards are full of indispensable men. – de Gaulle
"You're hired to be fired if you're a coach."

As passionate as Ben is about the team with which he has spent virtually his entire career as a player and coach, he knows he is expendable. His name is on banners at the stadium and on trophies in the team’s offices. And the odds are exceedingly slim that he will keep his job – he’ll take a new position or get fired – and the organization will continue without him, and that is how it should be.

The very best managers know their success is determined, in part, by how well the organization does without them. If an organization cannot survive without the current person in charge, the current person in charge needs to make structural changes to make himself or herself expendable. No one person, from intern through CEO, is bigger than the mission and the people the organization serves.

Modified Advice for Advocates: Account for Congress, Go Local

Yesterday I suggested smart advocates ignore Congress. But as much as we may all wish that were possible, it isn’t. Congress still matters, even if it doesn’t work very well. A better approach is to account for Congress and pressure it from the outside. By accounting for Congress rather than relying on it, the best advocates foster change locally and help encourage it nationally.

States and localities are where decisions are getting made and policies implemented. State and local governments are where the next round of members of Congress are building their political bases and establishing their policy portfolios. And in an era of diminished power in Washington – leadership can no longer promise or remove earmarks, committee leadership term limits for Republicans, and so forth – federal policymakers increasingly look to local cues for how to act and vote.

The best advocates take advantage of this dynamic and target states based in part on what can be accomplished at the state level, and in part on who the federal representatives from those states are. For example, Hopkinsville, Kentucky matters more to those working on energy issues than New Haven, Connecticut does, because the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power is Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY-01), and he has a district office in Hopkinsville. That means the Kentucky New Era matters more than the New York Times and Mayor Dan Kemp matters more that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Some states have several important federal policymakers – a key Senator as well as a key Representative or two; it becomes a bird/stone issue.

A second state dynamic is local policy change. Some states, counties, and cities are pursuing interesting - and sometimes surprising - policies. If policies you support are moving, or could move, locally, that matters for targeting.

A final consideration is your infrastructure. Odds are good that you don’t have strong relationships with all the local mayors, state legislators, and newspapers in all the towns represented by the dozen members of Congress most important to your federal policy success. But you may have, or can quickly develop, a strong local infrastructure in half a dozen places that send powerful policymakers to Washington and that are open to (or doing) the change you support. You can find local elites that share your views, identify important political donors on your side, and engage local activists in your cause.

Your targeting model then has several layered elements:
Federal policymakers with power
State and/or local policy or policymakers
Local organizational infrastructure

In most cases, mapping these elements will reveal a half-dozen overlapping areas in which you can use local resources to promote local change and work with local media, which you will then promote with federal policymakers. Your D.C. people will talk to your federal targets about all the great work and leadership being done locally, and how that local success can be a national model. Your local activists will involve the district office(s) of your federal policymakers with an eye to pushing them to lead from Washington.

Syndicate content