Marc Porter Magee Ph.D is the CEO and founder of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

We launched this series as part of our effort to help grow the education advocacy movement by removing the barriers for aspiring local advocates to get involved. Last week’s post explained the framework we use to build campaigns. In this third post in the series, we will take up the question of why we believe it’s so important to follow an open approach to advocacy.

The art of war?

An underlying assumption that informs many professional advocacy efforts is that secrecy is an essential element of an effective campaign. This thinking is usually grounded in a military metaphor: if you surprise the enemy, you are more likely to be successful in battle. It might even be reinforced with a quote from Sun Tzu’s military treatise The Art of War “O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.” 

But are war metaphors really the most helpful way to think through advocacy campaigns? Are the opponents of your policy change really enemies? And if the element of surprise is something gained from all this secrecy, what are you giving up in return?

Over the past ten years of education advocacy campaigns, we have found that there are three big advantages to open advocacy.

1. Openness strengthens accountability

When you embark on a new campaign, you know that the most likely outcome is that you will fail (Sorry! It’s true). But you have a much greater chance of overcoming that initial setback if you call a loss a loss, you collect good information on why you failed and you are highly motivated to do better next time.

By building a campaign out in the open, with clear public goals, strategies and tactics, you increase the number of people (both friends and critics) who can honestly report on your work and hold you to high standards. This can be incredibly helpful in reinforcing the candid conservations about what is working and what isn’t that make your advocacy efforts better. As former Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe puts it, “Problems are not the enemy. Hidden problems are.”

2. Openness accelerates learning

Advocacy campaigns are complex endeavors. There are so many different elements that need to be carried out successfully for the enterprise as a whole to succeed. One of the biggest challenges of running a successful campaign is knowing enough about all the different varieties of goals, strategies and tactics that are possible, how to weed out the ones that won’t work, and the complementary combinations that will ensure that your campaigns thrives. 

Your best hope for success is to share what you are trying to do as widely as possible so that you can learn from as many people as possible and expose your own ideas to the sunlight of open review and critique. The only practical way to do that is to give up on the idea that you must build your plans behind closed doors. As the famous formulation in the tech world puts it, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

3. Openness promotes trust

In “The Activist’s Handbook,” Aidan Ricketts argues that the most important stage in any advocacy campaign is at the very beginning, when leaders make the case that the changes they seek are actually in the public interest.

This is particularly true in the world of education advocacy. The stakes are so high for many people involved—including millions of students, parents and teachers—and the debates often become heated. Taking the extra steps in the beginning to openly share your views on what should change and really listening to students, parents and teachers about their hopes, dreams and concerns can go a long way to ensuring your campaign can grow in the fertile ground of mutual trust.

In the next post, we will return to our efforts to reduce the barriers in education advocacy by sharing what we have learned about step one in building any advocacy campaign: choosing the right goals.

Twitter: @marcportermagee
Facebook: 50CAN


Recent Posts

More posts from Open Advocacy

See All Posts