Earlier this summer I was asked by Jennifer Diascro at the American Political Science Association to attend one of the pre-conference mini courses. The course was on “Educating Congress: Translating academic scholarship into public scholarship.” I was attending APSA anyway and this is a topic that interests me. I’ve complained in a number of settings that we (political science) are part of the problem. Our research is first rate, important, but lost because it is not translated into the public domain. It is especially lost on those in positions of authority who authorize and oversee the money we get through grants.
I attended the course and I learned a great deal. I’ll share some of what I learned. APSA commissioned the Graduate School of Political Management to put together the mini-course. Lara Brown from the GSPM put together a nice program of former Members of Congress (MoC), current staffers from the Hill, lobbyists and faculty from GSPM. The format was such that interaction from the audience was encouraged (or else I am not shy about interjecting and kept it up throughout the day). So what did I learn?
The Hill is a small place and the flow of messages overwhelms MoCs and staffers alike. We all believe that our message is extremely important. If it is well argued and/or presented, it will resonate. We believe this is true with our students, a group that should be motivated to be attentive, and we are always shocked when we grade their exams. Why should we expect our message, no matter how well crafted, to attract attention? We are competing with millions of other messages. Leaving it to a white paper, a one-pager, a reprint of our article or an Op-Ed piece is simply not going to be sufficient. My message is competing for attention. I better figure out how to get it to stand out. And I better not depend on it to matter.
When crafting a message, consider the receiver. Staffers are like our students. They are a bit older, but most have just finished college. What do they read? Where are they likely to get their information? Many are consuming information in small bites. A friend points them to a piece in the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post. Social media is important, but we’re not part of their network. Write for your audience. MoCs may read differently, but they are so crunched for time it is unlikely they are going to want to read some long and dense. This is especially true if the topic is far removed from their own interests.
Establish a relationship. This may seem like cronyism or impossible. But it is possible and you are not trying to become a MoCs BFF. We all teach and for those of us who are political scientists, we teach politics. Ask your MoC to teach one day in your class. If it goes well, invite him/her to teach in your class each semester. If you’re lucky, like me, you may have 8 MoCs in your city. Spread them around. MoCs might be flattered to teach at your prestigious institution. Help arrange a press release with the local staff. They’re in their district, they’ll be comfortable, and you’ll have a bit of time with them. Even if you don’t teach American politics, figure out if your MoC has a committee specialty that can link with you class. Do they deal with foreign affairs or defense? Do they have special interests in trade? Somehow you can make the link to something you are teaching and whatever the MoC says can be treated as a case study for the theoretical point you want to make. What if the MoC is too busy? Get one of the local staffers to substitute. They’ll have insights too and it will never hurt to cultivate that relationship.
Be nice. When you contact your MoC, of course you will not get through. The role of staffers is to protect the time of their MoC. Use lesson 3 when dealing with staffers at all levels. Cultivate a relationship with each of them. Be nice to all of them. You have no idea who is going to control access. You have no idea which staffer may eventually become a key ally. There is going to be an enormous amount of turnover among the staff. They get burned out and they are not well paid. But you have no idea who will help you out. Thank them and follow up. Treat them the same way you should treat your Department staff. Everyone is important.
In descending order, what resources are used by staffers working on behalf of their MoC?
- Internet searches (just like your students, it’s the first place they go).
- Congressional Research Service (CRS). This is the research arm of Congress.
- Relevant Federal agencies. They report information all the time.
- National press.
- Inside the beltway publications
- Academic/issue specialists
Note the problem with this list. Your PhD is not going to help. There is a lot of information out there (lesson 1) and staffers are not going to reach out to consult with you. There are a lot of other sources to consult before getting to you. If you can figure out how to get you work to be the top hit on Google, great. Otherwise your piece of advice is likely not going to register on the first 50 page of hits. If you have something to add to the issue you find important, you might cultivate the appropriate researchers at CRS.
Use your own students. Many of us have taught students who have gone on the the Hill. Reconnect if possible. Cultivate that relationship. Bring them back to the Department, if you can, and have them talk to your current batch of majors. Build on the relationship.
Avoid the “ask” (at first). Most of us don’t want to lobby a MoC or staffer for something tangible. I would simply like people on the Hill to take social science seriously. In initial meeting, decide what you want to say and stick with it. As with most early relationships, it may be little more than establishing commonalities.
Make your point, when you speak with someone on the Hill, in their language. Rather than talk about efficiency, talk about tax savings. Rather than talk about institutional structure and mobilization, talk democracy. It’s a matter of knowing your audience. Don’t get trapped in defending what you do. While I rail constantly that political science is rigorous and systematic (and not idle opinion), this is not a fight I want to get into when dealing with someone on the Hill.
I believe I learned a lot more than this. But, I’ll save it for future posts. I was pleased with the APSA for putting on this program. I was less pleased by the very low turnout. I was the only senior political scientist from an academic institution. There were a number of advanced graduate students and that made me feel good about the future of the discipline. However, it is up to all of us to begin educating Congress of our value.