Learning from Stop the Pipeline campaign

The Stop the Keystone pipeline campaign is one that may have passed many in the UK by but in the US its resulted in a huge victory for environmental campaigners.

In brief, the campaign was looking to halt the construction of a pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada across the Midwest of the US to the Gulf of Mexico. You can read more about the pipeline here, and a few weeks ago President Obama announced that he wasn’t approving the go ahead of the pipeline.

It’s a real success for the campaign despite the fact that the campaign believes it was outspent by approx. $60m to $1m by the oil companies behind the pipeline, and research has shown that spokespeople for the pipeline were much more likely to be featured in the media. Although those involved are keen to point out that the fight isn’t over.

One of the most striking tactics that the campaign used was a fortnight of action in Washington DC where over 1,000 people were arrested for taking part in illegal sit-ins. Watching some of the films from August are incredibly inspiring and moving but in many ways these actions were the culmination of over 2+ years of campaigning.

On Thursday, I joined a ‘Debrief’ organised the New Organizing Institute which featured speakers from a number of the organisations that had been involved in the campaign. It was a thought-provoking session, and I came away reflecting on the following lessons learnt from the campaign.

1 – The importance trusted leaders – One of the speakers, spoke about the importance of bringing Bill McKibben into the campaign. McKibben is the founder of 350.org and was one of the first to write about climate change for a general audience over 20 years ago. The speaker suggested that his involvement changed the dynamic of the campaign, as he was perceived by many as a trusted leader who brought credibility to the urgency of the campaign message.

It’s a reminder that as well as friends and family who remain the best ‘messengers’ for any issue, some authority sources can be incredibly powerful at mobilising a group of individuals. Who are these in our movements?

2 – They called for a bold action – Bill McKibben is clear that the arrests outside the White House was a key tool in moving the campaign from a local one in the states effected to a national one. The called for a bold action, for activists to do something very real and something powerful.

Social media was used to mobilise people to attend the sit-ins in Washington. Many of those who got arrested had not done so before, and the photos and visuals helped to define the issue – make it a visually compelling action, while running the event over two weeks helped to create a political drama that draws out the story, providing an ongoing story that reporters could focus on.

Watching the films from the fortnight you get an incredible sense of a community amongst those involved in the campaign.

3 – Building locally and ahead of time – Although the peak of the campaigns activities appears to have been in August, listening to speakers from both the Energy Action Coalition and Sierra Club, it’s clear that important work that was done over many years to build campaigning activities in local communities.

In the case of the Energy Action Coalition starting on campuses during the Bush administration, knowing that their would be a day when a group of trained and mobilised young people would be needed. While for the Sierra Club it was going to communities in Nebraska and other effected states, talking to people, sharing stories and mobilising them as part of the campaign, long before the attention was focused on Washington DC.

4 – Using political donors and volunteers – The campaign realised that they couldn’t counter the influence of the significant financial donations that the energy industry makes to elected officials in the US, but they could mobilise the tens of thousands of individuals who had made small donation to, and in many cases worked for the Obama campaign in 2008.

Using this tactics they were able to demonstrate the level of concerns amongst a critical ‘base’ that the president needs to re-engage ahead of the 2012 elections. Meetings at regional offices of ‘Organizing for America’, the Presidents election organisation, as part of a Obama Check Up Day also helped to demonstrate this. Although, we don’t have a similar culture of politician donations in the UK, I can still see opportunities in approaching an issue in this way.

5 – Collaboration and coalition – This wasn’t simply an outsider campaign strategy, the coalition was an especially broad one, with insider meetings happening with the White House at the same time that people were getting arrested outside. The campaign was able to bring together environmental groups, alongside farming groups (whose land was threatened by the pipeline), First-Nation communities, unions and other.

A number of speakers highlighted the importance of this, while recognising the challenges of holding it together, especially around the issue of the  ‘jobs and growth’ agenda that is critical to many in light of the economic crisis . Weekly coordination meetings were held, but interestingly the campaign appears to have remained a ‘loose coalition’ as opposed to a tightly and more formally constituted one.

The 350.org folk have also written their reflections which are well worth a read.

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What makes a policy success? Lessons from inside government.

Most campaigns are looking to get government policies changed, but what can we learn from those working in government about what makes a policy success? 

The Institute for Government has recently published a fantastic paper, which looks at what makes a ‘policy success’, drawing on insights from number of ‘policy reunions’ that were held with senior civil servants and government ministers involved in a range of ‘policy successes’ over the last 30 years.

These success including the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, to the Climate Change Act, and Privatisation in the 80s (I appreciate some readers wouldn’t see this as policy success!’).

The report defines a ‘policy success’ as “the most successful policies are ones which achieve or exceed their initial goals in such a way that they become embedded; able to survive a change of government; represent a starting point for subsequent policy development or remove the issue from the immediate policy agenda”.

Then sets out to identify some common factors which lie behind these successes, before providing detailed case studies for each of the issues. I’d recommend reading the paper for anyone who is interested in getting the perspective from the ‘other side of the fence’ about how ministers and civil servants perceive who successful policies come about.

For campaigners, I’ll concentrate on three of the factors that I think our noteworthy for our planning;

1 – Need for strong leadership. The paper suggests that in all of the cases they have benefited from a senior minister who has taken a personal interest in passing the legislation, in some cases staking their personal reputation on it coming about, but also having officials with credibility working on the issue.

In the case of climate change the paper cites the role that David Miliband played when he joined DEFRA and also the role of Sir David King, the Chief Scientist in highlighting that the issue was a bigger threat than terrorism.

For me this is a validation of the strategy that some campaigns use to make a particular minister a ‘champion’ for the topic, but also raise a note of caution of the difficultly of getting an issue on a ministers agenda if they’ve already decided what their priorities are going to be.

It also suggests that campaign can do more to make use of those posts within Whitehall, like the Chief Scientist, Chief Medical Officer, etc who are able to give independent advice from a position of authority within Whitehall.

2 – It takes time. Those involved in the discussions that helped to inform the paper are all quick to suggest that for most of the policy success the groundwork and ideas had taken significant amount of time to develop.

For example, the paper argues that much of the work that lead to the creation of the Low Pay Commission that brought in the minimum wage was done while the Labour Party was in opposition in the mid-90s, where some of the most contentious issues were raised and began to be addressed. This meant that when they won the 1997 election they were able to give extensive proposals to officials.

This lesson, coupled with the suggestion from some in the paper that the first year or so after an election are the critical window of opportunity, suggest that organisations that are looking to achieve policy change in the medium to long-term, perhaps because a proposal isn’t getting traction with the current government, would do well to engage in the ‘long game’ of opposition policy making.

3 – A robust evidence base – This factor is unlikely to come as a surprise to most campaigning organisations, whose campaigning is grounded in policy work, but the paper affirms the need for good evidence and analysis, but it also goes further by highlighting that the creation of an independent group/individual to look at the issue, like the Pension Commission or the Stern Report on Climate Change, were critical in providing the evidence that allowed governments to act on the issues, and providing a basis for the consensus necessary from all involved.

In the case of the Climate Change Act and the Ban on Smoking in Public Places, the paper has much to say about the important role that organisation like Friends of the Earth and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) played in influencing the final outcome and providing ideas from outside government.

For learning from the ‘other side’ I’d strongly recommend a read of this report, as it provides some excellent challenges for the way in which we go about trying to get policies changed. If you read it, I’d welcome your comments and reflections.

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Five for Friday…..20th Jan

Here we go with the first ‘Five for Friday’ post of 2012. These are 5 great articles on campaigning that you should be reading this week.

1 – How disabled activists took to social media to disseminate their research ahead of this weeks vote on reforming the DLA.

2 – The Engaging Volunteers blog asks if we should reconsider the role that clicktivism in engaging supporters.

3 – Three top tips for good political communication from Regan’s former speech writer.

4 – These tips about how to get your views into a newspaper as an academic are also useful for campaigners.

5 – Leadership lessons from Martin Luther King.

And if you didn’t see it earlier in the week, have a look at my post on getting your email updates read.

What would you add to the list?

The beginners guide to getting your email updates read

While I’m certainly not an expert in e-campaigning, occasionally in my role I get asked to share (or offer to share!) some thoughts about what makes an effective campaign email.

I did this last week while in Geneva with Micah Challenge campaigners from across Europe, or before Christmas with some inspiring campaigners involved in this campaign in Brazil work to stop the sexual exploitation of children during the 2014 World Cup. In both cases, the campaigns didn’t have huge budget or capacity, so they were looking for some simple and actionable ideas.

From working alongside some fantastic e-campaigners over the years I’ve picked up a few tops tips, so here are my top 5 thoughts about what makes a good campaign email. I’d welcome comments or links to other useful resources.

1 – Send your message at the right time – There is a whole bank of evidence about when emails are open and action and while I’m sure this is likely to differ a little from country to country and issue to issue, this research from Mail Chimp is a good place to start. They looked at the open rates for millions of emails and found that more messages were opened between 2-5pm and that midweek lead to the highest open rates, with the weekend, perhaps predictably the worse time.

2 – Opened emails are read emails – The reality is that if your email remains unopened in someones inbox its not going to lead to the action that you’d like to see. As such it’s key to think about the subject line that you use and the ‘from’ field.

Go for a subject line that intrigues the reader into open in but also let’s them know what to expect, and make your ‘from’ field from a real person not an organisation, even if you end up going for ‘Joe Bloggs (Make Poverty History)’ it making an effort toward greater personalisation.

3 – Be clear about what you want your email to achieve. To many email updates sent don’t have a clear objective to them, before you write it be clear what one thing you want to achieve from the message. There is a reason why organisations like Avaaz and 38 Degrees only ask you to do one thing in their email message, because they’ve found it’s likely to lead to a better response rate.

While making lots of different asks might make it sound like your campaign has got alot going on,  in reality the more choices you give people the more likely they’ll choose not to do any of them. They become paralysed by choice and overwhelmed by the options, so choose to do none.

4 – People scan read emails. Just like webpages, people interact with emails in very different ways to letters or printed documents, so big blocks of dense text aren’t likely to work. In general, people scan a message, so using short paragraphs, bold and underline is key to help people navigate around the email and understand what you’re asking them to do. (For more have a look at this evidence drawn from research into using eye-tracking software into how people read emails)

Try to make the ‘ask’ more than once in your message, and don’t forget that for some strange reason the ‘PS’ is one of the most read lines in any email, so make use of it!

5 – The metrics matter – The best way of knowing if people are actually reading or responding to your emails is to use a website like MailChimp or CharityeMailto send out your messages. They’ll  provide you with a user-friendly ‘dashboard’ of what people are actually doing with your messages by measuring open and click-through rates. Over time you’ll be able to build up a better picture of what your audience responds to and what they don’t.

An example of the MailChimp dashboard

If you’ve got the time invest in testing different subjects, from fields, etc. Sites like MailChimp make this easy to do, as well as taking the hard work out of managing your e-lists as they manage the subscribe/unsubscribe function.

I’m aware that I’m just skimming the surface of a vast bank of evidence, and haven’t even written about how to compose the content of a good action email (have a look at this for a good summary).

I know that a few e-campaigning gurus read this blog so I’d especially encourage them to comment or share other useful links.

Campaigning for the ‘long haul’

We’re told that patience is a virtue, but if we’re honest with ourselves it’s not one that’s always found in abundance within the campaigning world. As campaigners we’re paid to be impatient people, we want things to change now.

But a recent conversation with a colleague who’d been involved in the start of the Australian anti-smoking campaign over 20 years ago reminded me that some times our campaigns are going to take years, even decades to win rather than the weeks we’d like it to!

My colleague was celebrating because just the week before the conversation the Australian government had announced another victory for the campaign, that packets of cigarettes would no longer be able to be sold with any branding on them, a step that advocates on the issue believed would help to reduce sales of cigarettes to minor, another important step in the campaign to reduce the public health impacts of cigarette smoking.

It was a good challenge, as it raised questions for me about how we plan our campaigns for the long-haul. Here are a few thoughts about what we can do, if we subscribe to the belief that sometimes change will be a ‘long time coming’!

1 – Be clear about the steps on the journey to success – I often come across campaigns that are quick to announce their ultimate goal, but are less clear about the journey that they’re going to need to go on to get to it. How much time in our planning do we map out the potential steps that we might need to take on that journey, the policy wins, the changed attitudes or the key individuals that we need to bring on board to be successful. These interim goals are as important to identify as the final goal.

When we do this do we need to do more to communicate our anticipated story to our supporters and donors to give them a sense that we’re on the right trajectory as opposed to demotivating them when the final goal doesn’t feel likes it coming around as quickly as we’d like?

2 – Consider the ‘What If’s’ – Do we spend too much time thinking about a simple and clean liner path to success in our campaigning. We assume that we’ll be successful every step of the way along, but sometimes that doesn’t happen, we find that a target is immovable, or the argument that we’re using isn’t getting the traction that it needs, but how often in our planning do we ask ‘what if’ and come up with multiple options towards eventual victory, anticipating when we might need to shift our plans. The excellent paper ‘The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy‘ has lots of more on the importance of this approach in successful campaigns.

3 – Communicating our ‘signs of transformation’ – We often have stories to share that help to prove that we’re heading in the right direction. Where I work we’re encouraged to capture and communicate our ‘signs of transformations’ to staff and support, these are the tip bits that we pick up in conversation with policy makers, politicians or others that help to justify our decisions. In the long battles for success capturing and celebrating the small victories become important both to those working on the campaign but also those supporting it.

4 – Holding something back – Thinking back to the experience of Make Poverty History, and perhaps to a lesser extent the climate campaigning ahead of Copenhagen, one of the biggest challenges that I observed was that after the main moment their were few people around to keep the campaign going.

During Make Poverty History everyone became so fixated on the G8 meeting in July that their were few people around to keep the campaign going for the second six months of 2005. I’m increasingly convinced that campaigns need to be developing a ‘bench’ of experienced campaigners who can come in to keep the momentum going after these key moments. For those leading campaigns that are going to take time to ‘win’ we need to consider what we have in reserve.

What lessons have you learn’t about campaigning for the ‘long haul’?