Citizen involvement in the political process might have gotten new visibility through Barack Obama's presidential campaign, but while interested civilians have the advantages of passion and sincerity, they also face the disadvantages of limited time and lack of familiarity with government arcana.
Brian Adams, associate professor of political science at San Diego State University, is the author of Citizen Lobbyists: Local Efforts To Influence Public Policy, which explores how ordinary Americans try to influence local government and the issues most likely to generate participation in the political process. Adams spoke with NationalJournal.com's Michelle Williams recently about what we can expect from citizen lobbyists in the Obama era. Edited excerpts follow. Visit the archives page for more Insider Interviews.
NJ: Why do citizen lobbyists exist?
Adams: This term "citizen lobbyist" that I use refers to individuals who want to influence government policy in some way. And they go about engaging in various political activities in order to do that, whether it be writing letters to elected officials or attending city council meetings or organizing protests or so forth. And I call them lobbyists because a lot of activities they do are... analogous to what paid lobbyists do in Washington. They're talking to elected officials, they're attending meetings, they're organizing various different campaigns and so forth.
NJ: What are the advantages and disadvantages citizen lobbyists have in getting their messages across to politicians as compared to registered lobbyists?
Adams: Well, the big disadvantage is that these activities take a lot of time. It's a very time-consuming process to try to influence government. If you're just an average citizen, you probably have a full-time job and you can't spend hours and hours a day working on politics, as opposed to a paid lobbyist, who is getting paid to do it, and they can spend full time on it....
One of the big advantages is that when you're trying to influence government simply because you believe in an issue or you care about an issue, you carry a lot more legitimacy with elected officials than if you're just a hired gun. If you're a paid lobbyist and you're trying to convince elected officials of various things, they can dismiss you by saying, "Well, you're being paid to say all these things."
NJ: You discussed in your book the issues that tend to get people more engaged in politics. What should we expect citizen lobbyists to get most involved in this year and why?
Adams: What I do in that first part of the book is I talk about what issues generate the most activity.... Generally what I found was, issues that have a direct and clear impact on citizens, things that they can actually get their hands around, things that can be conceptualized and articulated where the decision is clear, the decision-making process is clear, and they can clearly identify what effect it's going to have on them -- those are the ones that are going to be most likely, people are going to participate on.
Now, on the one level, that may seem fairly obvious.... But I think this is important to point out because that doesn't necessarily mean that the issues that are actually the most influential issues or the most important issues are going to be the ones that generate the most participation. So you can have an issue, for example, that's very important, that is going to influence people, but in a very indirect way. I found that those types of issues generally didn't get a lot of attention. For example, in the city that I studied, every year the city would have to adopt a budget, and they would have a budget hearing where people could show up and try to influence the budget. Very few people actually tried to influence the city budget even if they're talking about tax increases or service cuts or whatever.... I think the reason for that is that the city budget is incredibly complex. There's a lot of moving parts. There's a lot of different things going on....
However, I did find that if there was a specific budgetary proposal on the table that was very clear and straightforward -- for example, at one point the school district had decided to cut arts programs. That got people out to a meeting, to protest it and to try to influence what government was doing....
Now bring this to current events: I wouldn't expect there to be a lot of grassroots activity on issues like the economy. The economy is just too complicated, there are too many moving parts -- most people have difficulty enough understanding the terms of their own mortgage, much less understanding how we can best bail out the banking system. It's just too hard, even though everybody recognizes that as being the critically important issue we now face. I think it's unlikely that we're going to see too much citizen activity on that issue. I think people will focus much more on issues which are clearer and where they can directly connect what government is doing to their daily lives.
NJ: Do you think citizen lobbying is effective?
Adams: It can be effective. There's two basic factors here. One is how citizens actually go about trying to influence government. There are obviously more effective ways and less effective ways. If you're just going to a city council meeting and yelling and screaming -- not going to be all that effective. If you're talking directly to elected officials, if you're organizing large groups to influence government, that can be more effective.
But it also depends on the issue itself. There are some issues where elected officials really care about the issue and therefore they're willing to resist efforts to try to change their minds. There are some issues where elected officials feel very strongly about an issue and nothing you say or do is going to change that. There are other issues that may be very important to citizens, but may not be as important to elected officials.
NJ: What have you noticed about citizen lobbying since Obama was elected?
Adams: I tend to be somewhat cynical on this point. I know a lot of people have talked about how he's motivated a lot of people to get involved in the political process, and that certainly has been true.... But I don't think it will last. I think that people have a tendency to get very, very cynical. And I think people look at the government in Washington as simply being way too out of reach. And I got this a lot, actually, when I talked to people for my research. They're like, "Well, on the local level, we can actually influence what's going on. On a national level, we can't do anything. It's simply too big and out of reach." Factually, I don't think that's true. I think in fact members of Congress can be influenced through organizing within congressional districts and so forth.
That said, I think that view is very persistent, that people simply don't think you can influence -- and I think, frankly, they're not even sure where to start. Even if people have a commitment and say, "Yes, I want to get more involved in the political process," "Yes, I want to try to have my voice heard in Washington," I think for a lot of people they're not sure how to even do that.... So I don't doubt that there are a lot of people who really do want to get involved and really do want to have their voice heard; I'm just somewhat pessimistic that it's actually going to come to fruition.
NJ: Do you feel the same way at the local level?
Adams: On a local level, I think part of it depends on people's ability to frame local issues that are going to be coming up over the next year or two in a way that's actually amenable to influence. I know this is a big issue in California, where I am -- and I'm sure it's going to happen all across the country -- the big issue in the next couple years is local governments are going to not have enough money to provide the same level of services. Because of the financial downturn, they're going to be talking about either raising taxes or cutting services and having those types of issues. As I said before, it's very difficult for citizens to get their hands around those types of issues.
I think, however, if there were groups out there that would reframe those issues into some way in which citizens could actually get involved with them, I think then you would see people participating on those issues. If the issues were presented in a way that facilitated participation and facilitated people's understanding of how those decisions were affecting them, then I think that you will see [more participation]. So I think the local is a very different situation than the national because people do have more faith in local government. It's easier for them -- simply because of smaller scale -- for them to get their hands around the issues. I mean, it's so hard -- we're hearing talk about an $800 billion stimulus or trillions of dollars for this or that on the federal level -- people just can't even conceptualize what a trillion dollars is.
NJ: Obama has expressed throughout his campaign and even now how he values the voice of the American people. Do you think his attitude about this will help citizen lobbyists with their causes while he's in office?
Adams: It certainly won't hurt. There is a lot of latent desire to actually get more involved in politics. I'm not one of those people who think that the American public's just so politically apathetic that they'll never get involved regardless of what you say. I think that type of encouragement may help in some ways, but by itself it's not enough. It's not enough just to say "you should participate more" or "we encourage your participation." You've actually got to provide the structures to allow people to participate, frame the issues in a way in which people want to participate on those issues, and provide some confidence to citizens that if they will not always get their way, then at least they will be listened to in some respect.