Why are “public interest” events so ineffective? (Or: How we can learn from Powershift09)

March 14, 2009 at 2:59 pm Leave a comment

whistleblowerI feel slightly guilty for writing this post. After all, I work at a public interest non-profit. I willingly admit I’m a huge geek when it comes to government accountability and transparency. But I simply cannot get excited about “event weeks” dedicated to this subject.

What “event weeks” am I referencing, you ask? Well, we’re just coming off the heels of the National Whistleblower Assembly, a.k.a. “Whistleblower Week,” and Sunday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week. And that’s not all. Monday is “FOI Day,” and there’s even a “Law Day” May 1.

One of the biggest issues I have with these types of events is their scope: How many people outside the beltway actually know about them (lawyers don’t count)? And do these events really educate the public as effectively as their sponsors proclaim?

I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker a few days ago regarding these questions. She’s a lawyer, and helped establish a Public Interest FOIA Clinic that assists other organizations seeking government information. In all respects, she should be a huge fan of FOI Day. However, she said one of the inherent problems of these events is that the only people who attend them are people who already know about the subject at hand. The majority of people at FOI Day, she said, already know oodles about FOIA. They talk to other people at the event, who also already know oodles about FOIA. The type of person that could stand to benefit from this type of event – for example, a citizen who wants to know more information about a development project going on in his neighborhood – doesn’t reap any benefits, unless he knows someone who attended FOI Day or happens to stumble upon the minimal press coverage this day will receive.

Before writing this post, I glanced at the calendars of events for Sunshine Week, FOI Day and Law Day. Many of the events for Sunshine Week had a registration fee of $15 or more. Somewhat ironically, a tutorial on FOIA and state FOIA laws offered by The National Press Club is limited to just 24 people – hardly a large enough scope to make a significant impact. What’s more, Law Day events are only taking place in six states (plus Guam).

So, I guess one could argue that if someone’s a lawyer, works inside the beltway, has money to toss at registration fees, is able to squeeze into “space is limited” activities, or feels like taking a trip to Guam, Sunshine week, FOI Day, Law Day and Whistleblower week do have an impact. But what about the worker in Idaho who sees fraud and abuse at her company and doesn’t know if she has whistleblower rights, or to whom she can turn for help? What about a citizen in a small town in New Mexico who wants to know why a development project is taking so long and costing so much money? These are the people who really need to attend these public interest events, and are also the people who most likely won’t be able to.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit in my apartment at my computer and point out all the flaws with Sunshine Week. It’s not as easy to propose a working solution. But there are examples of events that have broken through some of the inherent difficulties I’ve just discussed. A great example is Powershift09, sponsored by the Energy Action Coalition, which brought 12,000 people to Washington, D.C. earlier this month. The organizers of the event enacted an impressive and extensive integration of social media and offline organizing – there’s a great summary of these efforts here.

By combining traditional offine organizing with new media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Google groups, YouTube, and a dynamic landing page, the event reached a much broader audience. This isn’t a surprise – best practices now dictate that the most successful way to organize is by integrating offline and online methods.

The organizers of Sunshine Week et. al should study Powershift09 and learn from its success. Because there’s really no benefit to a special day dedicated to a particular issue if the only people who know about that day and participate in that day’s events are people who already know about the issue in the first place. These types of events should spread the word to others who perhaps don’t know about FOIA, or know their rights to get information from the government. These types of events shouldn’t educate people who already know about whistleblower rights; they should educate people who might not even know what a whistleblower is.

Returning to the conversation I had with my co-worker, she made one point that really stands out in my mind: Most people who could use FOIA, and who stand to benefit it, don’t realize their rights until it’s too late. The most important thing her clinic does is educate organizations and people about FOIA before they actually have to use it, so when a situation arises in the future, they already know their rights and how to pursue the information they need.

If many of the special event days kept my co-worker’s statement in mind, perhaps I’d like them more.

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