Real Citizens Are Not ‘Astroturf’

The Saint ReportEnergy, Health Care, saintblogLeave a Comment

By Jay Vincent,
Senior Vice President for Energy, The Saint Consulting Group

crowd debateAfter reading my daily dose of coverage this morning about various special interests “astroturfing” the climate change legislation, I figured why not add from the ink well a bit myself. The astroturf histrionics via press, blogs and tweets around the for and against advocacy campaigns concern me because its giving legit outreach and grassroots services a bad name.

No question about it, faux letters (we all know who and what we’re talking about), deceased petition signers, fraudulent letters to the editor: Unacceptable, with a capital U.

But allocating resources — or in layman’s terms, “picking up the tab” — to identify, educate and mobilize citizens to demonstrate real people power behind an issue (yes, predominantly to help your cause): Acceptable. And Universal.

Universal, as in environmental groups, unions, faith-based institutions, corporations, not-for-profits, cause-driven groups, and on and on. They all do it and they all know how to do it well. This is why I chuckle at gotcha claims of “mirror, mirror on the wall” moral superiority in efforts to fight it out over the energy bill. As if members of the support coalition behind the bill never pulled out the credit card at a rally, public forum or BBQ that was meant to send concerned citizens into the offices of elected representatives, or as if opponents aren’t communicating and pushing employees to get involved in the process. They all have budgets for these activities.

Although each actor in the political theater we call government makes their own decision about the extent to which they will go to utilize the grassroots for their interest, it’s a common practice — and not necessarily a bad one. For us in the grassroots biz, we are constantly pressured to perform more competitively, but also more credibly. If you are a reputation-based professional service firm like Saint Consulting, one false move could ruin 25 years of building a business. As a management consulting firm, we’re also guided by our membership in the Association of Management Consulting Firms and the ethical guidelines it has incorporated into its charter. We also now incorporate many quality assurance mechanisms (i.e. video petitions) into our grassroots campaigns on land use projects.

In our 25 years-plus of experience, we have found that many of the “silent majority” citizens from towns and cities across America become more active members of their community on all issues after participating in a land use political campaign first hand. Some go on to run for local office after they’ve come to understand the power of civic engagement and its impact on local decisions. Without that nudge into the process, some may still choose to catch their favorite TV show on a Wednesday night rather than attend the latest round of local budget hearings in the municipality they live in.

Like all politics, grassroots organizing can be made to appear less than savory. However, I can think of no issue, movement, or major political debate that hasn’t benefitted by more voters being pushed into the debate. Free lunch, or not.

It’s not just the climate change debate that is spawning histrionics about astroturf politics. Ryan Sager has an excellent analysis of  allegations of ‘astroturfing’ in the fight over President Obama’s health care reform plan in Wednesday’s New York Times — link.

“Organizing isn’t cheating,” Sager correctly concludes. “Doing everything in your power to get your people to show up is basic politics. If they believe what they’re saying, no matter who helped organize them, they’re citizens and activists.”

Jay Vincent is senior vice president for energy for The Saint Consulting Group, email, phone 312.970.5770 Ext: 7502

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