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Capitol Update: Advocacy Is Like Changing a Dirty Diaper

Capitol Update

Dear Apartment Industry Colleagues,

One recent afternoon I was enjoying some quality time with my 9-month-old daughter watching another hilarious adventure of Sponge Bob Squarepants when the most interesting commercial ran. The product is called “Diaper Surprise” where a doll, after being fed water, “deposits” a charm in its diaper which the doll’s owners can then wear on their wrists. After lamenting the fact that my own diaper change experiences do not end this way, it struck me that similar lessons can be drawn between them and conducting an advocacy campaign. Here are just a few.

Stay Focused on the Goal
One the most important rules in advocacy is to clearly identify the outcome you want and then stay focused on it. On the changing table, the goal for parting ways with a polluted Pampers is straight forward – remove dirty diaper, perform clean up, attach clean diaper. Typically just as messy, legislative campaigns can also feel pressure to change their goals. Other industries or advocacy groups may want you to amend or modify your objective so as to broaden its appeal or as a condition of their support. Or, because of a set-back you may be tempted to change your request to accommodate the new playing field. While you may have to ultimately compromise, do so only when you have to and only then if you can preserve the core of your desired outcome. Don’t negotiate with yourself.

Do Your Homework
In any campaign, whether it’s changing Huggies or changing the tax code, you want to understand the environment in which you will be working. Is this a number one or number two event? Has there been a blowout? Is there leakage? What is the mood of the “subject?” Are you in the nursery at home or in the men’s room of a rest area off of Highway 94 in Minnesota during the summer of 2014?

Similarly, what is the mood of the Congress about your issue? Who will be the winners and losers as a result of the change you are proposing? Will there be other industries or advocacy groups working against you (or potential allies)? How much does your proposal cost and how will that cost be paid? Before you get your hands dirty – in the nursery or on the Hill – gather as much information as you can. 

Have a Plan
Good diaper changes and advocacy efforts are guided by a plan. That goal you set and the intelligence you gathered should guide that plan – it’s just a matter of putting all of the pieces in place. For example, you know baby is excited or crabby and won’t sit still. You’d better have a bright, shiny object to provide some distraction so you can get the job done. Depending on the scale of the task before you and where the change is taking place, you might need additional supplies or have to perform a total costume change. Whatever the scenario, have a plan and be prepared.

For advocacy efforts, even though YOU understand the goal and rationale for the change you seek, members of Congress and their staff may not. You need quality information and collateral (fact sheets, talking points, presentation decks, data sets) that can explain why your goal is worth pursuing. If you know who opposes your proposal, anticipate the questions and criticisms they have and prepare your rebuttals. If there is a public or consumer aspect to your issue which may attract media inquiries, be prepared to manage that. Finally, and this is not always possible, if you know your proposal will cost the Treasury, attempt to estimate how much. Ultimately, the Congress has its own scorekeepers who will price out your proposal, but having some sense of it going in is helpful.

Accept Setbacks and Keep Moving
There are always surprises that even the best-laid plans cannot anticipate. Baby decides that she was not done with her business before the diaper change got started. You had bad intelligence going in and what you thought was a run-of the-mill level one cleanup is really a level four spill that has broken containment. Baby decides to roll over, sit up or otherwise squirm in the middle of the change. You somehow brought the wrong size diaper. No matter what happens, backing up or fleeing the scene is not an option so all you can do is trouble shoot problems and plow forward. That diaper won’t change itself!

The legislative process is fraught with similar, albeit less physically messy, dangers. You lose your lead Congressional champion to legal entanglements and have to find another.  Somehow your issue has become wrapped up in partisan politics and no one wants to touch it. A national or international crisis erupts and everything unrelated to that is on indefinite hold. A major agency of the government is opposed to the change you propose. There are myriad things that can go wrong. Remember that every major public policy success in our history experienced innumerable set-backs on the way to victory. If you want to win, be patient, adapt and keep moving forward.

There is a lot more to share on the topic of diaper changes and new parenting in general. Lucky for you I have a smidge of restraint and awareness of “TMI” moments. However, you can be sure that we will continue to talk about all of the lessons and best practices in advocacy that are learned with every campaign in which we engage. Are there some particularly good lessons that have been imparted on you? Please share those with me.

Thanks for reading. Talk to you next month.