Putting Citizens on Par with Lobbyists

The Transparency and Open Government memo states that “Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policy making and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information.”  While this is an important goal for the Executive Branch, it is just as critical that we do the same for the Legislative Branch.  Currently, most would agree that lobbyists have significantly more influence than citizens in crafting legislation.  An essential goal for the Open Government community should be to find ways to increase citizen influence on the legislative process to be on par with lobbyists.

While lobbyists certainly influence policy through campaign contributions, they have other methods that are often far more persuasive  – they build up credibility as a trusted and useful subject matter experts with their counterparts on the hill.  Slate’s John Dickerson talks about this in his 2006 article, Lobbying and Laziness:

…the dance of influence is subtler than people think. If it works right, a member never has to say, even to himself, “I have to vote for this subsidy because lobbyist Jack (Abermoff) has just put a check in my pocket.” That happens on occasion, but usually only when a piece of legislation comes up suddenly, or if a lobbyist goes off script. The more effective scenario, for everyone concerned, involves the lobbyist becoming friendly with members of the Congress member’s staff, who research issues and advise him or her what to do and how to vote.

When the member of Congress goes to staff for information, he wants it fast. A staffer can read all available material on the issue, think through the policy, and balance what’s right against the member’s political interests—or he can call his friend Smitty the lobbyist. Smitty knows all about this complicated stuff in the telecommunications bill…Smitty has a solid, intellectually defensible answer to every question. He also knows how an issue is likely to play out politically for the member back in his home district. In a hectic day, Smitty makes a staffer’s day easier…It’s easy to rationalize relying on lobbyists for this kind of help. In asking lobbyists to help them understand technical issues, staffers are doing the same thing journalists do every day—and in fact, journalists often call the same lobbyists for the same reason. They find someone who understands the issue, figuring that they’re smart enough to use the information that rings true and discard the spin.

While there are already armies of citizen interest groups combating the corruption problem, far less scrutiny has been devoted to addressing the lobbyist access and trust issue.  In truth, the world of crafting legislation has become so complicated that lobbyists often play a valuable role in providing context and subject matter expertise on a given issue.  Staffers, who are often working under tight deadlines, can use the old “Crossfire” method of gaining information, where they ask opposing lobbyists for their opinions in order to become informed on an issue.  White papers and research are provided by lobbyists, which help the staffer construct an early draft of the proposed language.   While competing lobbyists might be a useful way of gathering detailed information in a pinch, it leaves the American citizen out of the process.  Far too often, issues critical to the public at large are never included in the initial crafting of the legislation.

The Five Day Review and Comment Period is Not Enough: The press has been awash with President Obama’s pledge (and whether he has already broken it) to give the public the opportunity to review and comment on non-emergency bills via a five day waiting period.   Even if we institute and follow this pledge, at best we are only providing the public the opportunity to galvanize enough outrage for really horrid breaches of trust.  At the point the waiting period is enacted the legislation is all but finalized.  If we truly want to include citizens policy making, the low hanging fruit starts at the beginning of the process.  Once the legislation has been crafted, the best the public can do is do slight modifications the general trajectory that is already largely set.

Staffers Aren’t Lazy – They Need More Help: While Dickerson’s article describes the general problem, I don’t agree with the assessment that lobbyist influence is largely due to laziness.  I think staffers are often posed with an overwhelmingly complex environment which they must boil down to actual language in obscenely short time frames.    The rule of thumb is when you are worried that everyone involved in a process is corrupt and unethical, chances are there’s something systemic going on.  Here’s my sense of what’s occurring:

Drafting Legislation

In describing the situation, the problem goes something like this:

  • Representative A tells her Staffer X a problem she wants to solve, and provides the broad outlines of what she is looking for.  She then gives the staffer a set time frame to get the first draft done for her to review (often at the end of a congressional recess period, for instance).
  • Staffer X has a short window to complete the initial draft.  The clock is ticking.  She immediately goes to her trusted sources.  This includes both knowledgeable colleagues (other staffers, for instance) and online sources.  It just so happens that her trusted sources also include lobbyists, who not so coincidentally, often have already thought about Representative A’s issue, and are eager to provide ready white papers to help the staffer understand the larger context.
  • Staffer X does her level best to meet their Representative’s direction, but her performance is limited by what she can find in the required time frame.
  • With the help of her trust sources, including lobbyists,  initial draft language is written for deliberation and review, and quickly shows up in a more formalized review process.

When Do We Participate? In looking at the public’s input, early on it’s pretty much non-existent.  Funded interest groups have a seat at the table, but Joe Citizen does not.  While it is very likely that Representative A’s original goals came from perceived public problems, the public was not involved in crafting process.  What if as an additional resource, groups in the public self-organized to create a “public-policy-development.org” site (hopefully they pick a better name), which allowed citizens and interest groups from across the nation to participate in wiki-like fashion (along with discussion areas, prioritization and polling areas similar to WhiteHouse2.org) in crafting sample language and white papers to address clearly laid out problems?  This site could have a mashups from OpenCongress.org that automatically shows the existing statute for each content area so that citizens can quickly determine what needs to change.

Congressional Staffer’s New Resource – Us! If such a site were created and gained critical mass, when the staffer’s time constraints kicked in to develop draft language, they would notice that the public has already commented extensively on that issue, and might already have their version of research and white papers written to aid the staffer similar to the lobbyists. Over time, as with lobbyists, the staffer might learn to trust this input and engage in informal discussions with the public to gather additional information.  In modifying the last diagram, it might now look something like this:

Staffer Resource - Acessing the Pubics Expertise

In the above example, the public has banded together through one or more sites (perhaps many sites) to engage in sensemaking around the issues and their impact on congressional legislation.  Similar to lobbyists, they are producing resources for congressional staffer consumption.  Ideally, they are engaging in informal communications with the staffers as they work through the set of complex issues in order to construct draft language.   So how would a system like this actually look?  Here’s an initial cut:
Staffer Support System

Performance Support System for Citizen Participation: When entering such a site, Citizens could begin either by looking at the current laws of the land, broken into logical chunks, or they could start discussing the issues and problems that they think Congress needs to address.

  • Current Legislation: When citizens attempt to look at current legislation,  citizens should have the option of learning the basics of Congressional Language, and perhaps, have (wiki-based) plain English descriptions of what each part of the legislation actually means.
  • Issues/Problems: In examining and commenting on the issues with current legislation, citizens should have the option to propose new language  or propose modifications to existing language.  Research and white papers should be created and linked to support each proposed change.
  • Discussions with Congressional Staffers: When congressional staffers are in the process of crafting legislation, they should have the option to ask questions of citizen subject matter experts similar to how they do now with lobbyists.

If such a system were created, congressional staffers would have access to a new resource – Us!  Citizens engaging in mass collaboration could participate on par with lobbyists in providing a trusted resource for staffers. The best part of all this is this system would sit completely outside normal government interactions. The government would neither need to fund it, nor would it be constricted with current rule sets.  The ONLY issue to address would be to ensure that both staffers, representatives could come to this site and participate in a fact finding method.  As long as the staffer could ask fact finding questions along the line of, “Representative A asked us to look into crafting policy in to address the following problem.  I have some questions about the nature of the problem and want to solicit ideas about possible solutions…”, a system similar to the above approach could begin to reduce lobbyist influence.

Can This Approach Also Work for the Executive Branch? This same idea could be used for program implementation evaluations.  So for instance, when we revisit S-CHIP in a few years, perhaps there already could be a thriving online discussion involving state and local healthcare policy makers – HHS wouldn’t have to pay to set this up, but could participate.  Doing it this way also gets around the problem of citizens not being allowed to provide free work to the agency – in this case the citizens self-organize and the govt also gets the benefits.

Download & Modify my Graphics File: If you’re interested in improving on this idea, feel free to use my Visio file as a starting point.

About The Author


51 Responses to “Putting Citizens on Par with Lobbyists”

  1. Lot’s of good thinking here. What would the input process for citizen comments look linke? Could a site like change.gov be inserted in the process?

  2. Kevin Dickover says:

    Mostly I love this but I wonder why a wiki is the right way here. I worry that there will be wiki wars that reduce the quality of feedback. If you are familiar with stackoverflow http://stackoverflow.com/ and its reputation model that might help.

  3. NoelDickover says:

    Hi Gwynne, great question. The short answer is I’m just the idea guy. 🙂

    Seriously though, I’d love to have a discussion about this at Gov20Camp. I’m guessing that if we have a room full of smart people we can come up with lots better ways of architect it than I came up with. My big thought is that staffers need more help, and citizens should be the ones to do it.

  4. NoelDickover says:

    Hi Kevin, I hadn’t seen Stackoverflow, but lemme call you in the next day or so to discuss.

  5. wikis are definitely the right way. When i contacted jim about putting wikis on wh2 he asked a few questions about how i saw them and one point which we thankfully managed to get right away is that our wikis can’t be wiki warred like wikipedia et all because
    each “side” has articles and the other side isn’t supposed to touch them. that way you can build as a team- without as much fighting.

    Jims more or less original vision in my opinion is and was a necessary element, it just needed the wikis. It still kind of needs an image gallery, but he got the wiki up in amazing record time and I assume i am not the only person in the world hes looking to please. lol.

    I would suggest that hes incredibly good at listening and creating new features, we need your input, please join us.


  6. NoelDickover says:

    Hi prometheuspan, I actually contacted Jim last night about this post. If this all get wrapped into wh2, that would be more than fine with me. The only potential thought there is potentially to have another area of wh2 listed as congress stuff, so the staffers would know that this is for them.

  7. Thanks for contacting jim. I hope that you will come over and wrap it into wh2 yourself…
    Then we can add stuff via wiki until it becomes an uberpowerful white document…

    I have a few thoughts about things which i sort of need a good bouncing board before running past jim. One idea i had was that we should have some sort of meritocratic
    sub section where those priorities which have actually got deep useful information in them could be collected. I don’t know about specifically for staffers, I would think that the best way to run the site is to assume that all of the priorities are in some stage of development to either get dropped or become useful information tools for anybody on that issue.

    I also think we need a knowledge base area which focuses on knowledge in a way that models colleges. So i see a couple of different “areas” that the site seems to still need. You seem to have given more thought to how these processes currently work in reality, I will support you in any way i can to try to communicate about that with jim.

    I’m not sure that i am myself clear enough to put it on the table for him yet, and also,
    hes already worked very very hard for me, so i am trying to wait till he gets around to everybody else before i start raising my hand again.

    We need your voice over there, and the voices of others interested in open source government and radical transparency and government 2.0. We don’t need to wait and we don’t need to plan.. all we have to do is work in a few more details, and the site will exist.

    If you come on over and tell us about what you think is missing and what else it needs…
    i think that could put us over the top. We need your input.

  8. Jim Gilliam says:

    I’ve been thinking about this since you posted. We’ve got a lot of the basic elements at White House 2, particularly now with the wiki-like documents you can add to any given priority.

    To address the part about the name making it seem like it’s not for congressional staffers… What if there was a separate, very simple site that just had a search engine on the front page, and it searched all the documents and talking points people have put into white house 2. And of course anyone can edit and add to the results.

    That site could also very explicitly ask staffers or anyone doing research for what they wanted help with, something you allude to in your post. That’s what a search engine is, after all.. tell me about X policy. Which could then encourage the community at white house 2 to research that more. That’s one of the things prometheuspan asked for (amongst many other things!) — the ability for people to tell him what they wanted help with.

    There’s a “briefing room” tab on whitehouse2.org, which is basically what I’m talking about here, only put it on a different site and add a mechanism for people to ask for research.

  9. NoelDickover says:

    Hi Jim, I absolutely agree that there are a lot of aspects in White House 2 that already accommodate this, but I think more would need to be there than just the search part you mention. Part of the issue is allowing the citizens to recognize, understand and comment/correct the current legislation. This means that something like OpenCongress.org’s content integrated would be important (along with the interpretation/discussion over each part of the laws).

    I think your staffer part makes sense – there has to be some way of engaging in a conversation over their current needs. This is important, but also important I think is to have pre-positioned content in almost “ready-to-access” fashion similar to the lobbyists. However this gets positioned so the staffer sees this as something they can engage in is probably culture/usability as much as it is functionality.

    The other issue Kevin points out above is a way to give credibility to certain posters. Perhaps this becomes a combination of participation, and background.

  10. One thing i considered doing as fluffing was to go raid that content and import it
    over to wh2. I still may, but it seems like it would be something maybe jim could get a bot to do and save me the three weeks.

    Its certainly a good idea to directly have access to and look at the stuff that is currently
    being worked in the current system for reference.

    Jim, i don’t know why you’d put it on a different website?
    Why not just ummm… “insource” it?

    The pc system does give a certain amount of credit to posters. It could be reworked, but its functional enough as is that it is not now at this moment a priority compared to several other things.

    I think the real issue here is merit. My take on issue/priority/ bill x should weigh more
    if I have expert knowledge on relevant subjects than somebody whos just running on populism steam. The ‘due weight” problem is a very difficult one, because you don’t want to give too much, and that is more dangerous than giving too little.

    I’m not sure how to aproach that other than from the formal logic perspective, which says that the truth value of such things can be determined pretty clearly. For instance, today the issue is offshore and anwr drilling. An idea with zero merit and thousands of
    endorsing votes, jim wants to combine two such things together. I can’t beleive we aren’t just throwing the whole thing in the waste basket. Well i can, but i hope the figure of speech makes sense.

    The problem for jim is how does he justify that, how can we continue to call it democracy if we are pulling things down because they are wrong?

    Well, formal logic has the answer to that as well, but the long and the short of it is,
    most people aren’t interested in or swayed by logic and would accuse that its being done “because you don’t >like< the idea.

    Eventually, jim is going to have to deal with the issue of merit, because otherwise the government will never take us that seriously, and perhaps more importantly, it would be dangerous… If we at this moment implemented wh2s assorted majority vote priorities,
    the result would be unmitigated catastrophee. So we have to think about that in the long run, how to add merit to the system. NI4D has a sort of “committee” step built in where things go to a group for oversight and reality checks. Its one way of handling the issue,
    tho it also has its flaws.

    As much as i would like to claim extra credibility based on what i know, the other thing formal logic says is that merit has nothing to do with the person and everything to do with the ideas. So whatever ends up becoming employed should take that into account.

    I am envisioning now tho two forms of pc. “pop” pc, which is like the current system,
    and pc based on group evaluation of merit. Using formal logic as the measuring stick.

  11. Very impressive, Noel. Well thought out and some really exciting ideas.

    Most of what I’ve been working on so far is how to provide functionality to people on the Hill so that they want to engage with the system that I’m developing. It seems that this is one of my parts in assembling the social media government communication system that we are all discussing.

    I look forward to discussing this with you further and at length.

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  14. estetik says:

    Hi prometheuspan, I actually contacted Jim last night about this post. If this all get wrapped into wh2, that would be more than fine with me. The only potential thought there is potentially to have another area of wh2 listed as congress stuff, so the staffers would know that this is for them.

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