Improving the Democratic Dialogue

Bradford Fitch
Bradford Fitch

By Sandra Cyr

The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) is perhaps one of the most impactful organizations you have never heard of. And yet, their relationship with the US Congress may be closer than any other institution in America.

Founded by former congressional staff members seeking management support, CMF has been working since 1977 to improve Congress and our democracy. Their mission is to create a more accountable, transparent and effective Congress, as well as a better informed and more engaged citizenry. CMF is a nonpartisan organization that focuses on the process in the democratic dialogue. “We help Congress do a better job of operating their individual offices in the institution, especially with how they interact with citizens, and we also train citizens on how to build better relationships and communication and understanding with their elected representatives,” says Bradford Fitch, CMF’s President and CEO. “And if we do our job right, then better laws are made.”

Cynicism and a lack of trust in democratic institutions has grown increasingly higher over the last several decades, and the messaging from media – from news outlets to television to Hollywood – perpetuates the distrust. We are led to believe that individual voices do not make a difference, especially when perceived to be up against people who operate at the will of special interest groups and deep-pocketed financial backers. Rare are the stories focusing on positive news about the way Congress operates. In order for democracy to work, there needs to be participation, both on the side of those in power, and of those they represent. CMF’s mission is to ensure that participation happens in an effective manner.

cmf-logo-smManagers on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC are CMF’s primary stakeholders. About 60 percent of their programming involves working directly with Congress. CMF offers training for almost every member of Congress, with over 1000 staff members from over 300 offices participating in their programs annually. Professional development, and the time invested in professional development for congressional staff is very sparse, so CMF provides high quality training and resources to enhance the effectiveness of their operations and interactions with constituents.

While offering a path to improvement is important, building trust among their stakeholders is paramount. “You have to demonstrate that you have their backs,” says Fitch. “And I think that we try to do that as often as we can.” CMF views themselves as explainers of the Congress, rather than defenders of the Congress. For the general public, CMF shares research on their website on how Congress works through a variety of different reports, such as their Communicating with Congress series.

“Our mission is not to study Congress. It’s to change Congress. Our mission is not to study citizen engagement and citizens, it’s to change citizen engagement and citizens.”

Roughly 40 percent of their work is with citizen groups, working almost exclusively through associations, nonprofits, and companies seeking training for their members on how to be effective citizen advocates. In order to connect with people who want to be citizen advocates, most of CMF’s content is delivered to individuals through the subscribing organizations through A Partnership for a More Perfect Union. According to Fitch, “we’re agnostic on advocacy. I have had environmentalists that I have trained, and oil company executives. To us, we just want to see people exercise their first amendment right to petition government for redress of grievances.”

Results from a survey question asking, "If your Member/Senator has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue, how much influence might the following advocacy strategies directed to the Washington office have on his/her decision?"
Results from a survey question asking, “If your Member/Senator has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue, how much influence might the following advocacy strategies directed to the Washington office have on his/her decision?” (Click to enlarge)

Better advocacy results in better public policy. Nonprofits have great stories to tell, and legislators want to hear it, but in order to be effective, they need the right tools to promote meaningful democratic dialogue. Since 2014, over 35,000 Americans have participated in one of CMF’s programs on how Congress works.

CMF offers an incredible opportunity to better understand how citizen engagement works, as well.  What makes a difference on Capitol Hill is building relationships. When constituents get involved, and when people are passionate about an issue and are willing to talk to a member of Congress about it, that is what is effective on Capitol Hill. CMF offers the tools and training for citizen engagement to be better prepared and more effective in working with congressional offices. Demonstrating commitment to their community, having that level of trust and building a relationship with elected officials is essential for nonprofits to better serve their own stakeholders.

The key to better policymaking is not just communication. It is about communicating effectively. CMF provides research, training and resources for both the Congress and citizens to be able to better communicate with each other. Effective communication builds trust, and trusts build relationships. And it is this trust and these relationships that push democracy forward.

The Congressional Management Foundation enhances the effectiveness of congressional offices, promotes transparency and accountability in Congress, educates and motivates individuals to become active and informed citizen-advocates, and enhances the public’s understanding of how the Congress works.

Sandy Cyr is the Managing Editor for the Philanthropy Journal, and a fan of all things related to the nonprofit sector.

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