On July 10th ALIA released The Library and Information Agenda, intended as a lobbying document for political parties and candidates running in the Federal election (announced yesterday as happening on 7 September). This document outlines ALIA’s vision for libraries and information in Australia over the next three years and asks candidates and parties nine questions. Or rather, in the fashion of these types of documents, it asks them to pledge support for ten goals, couched as nine questions.
I think ALIA has captured the aspirations of Australia’s librarians fairly well, as much as one can in such a disparate profession. This document does, however, raise some questions about ALIA and what exactly The Library and Information Agenda is trying to achieve.
How to lobby political parties
In 2007 I was the local campaign manager for a candidate in the Federal election. We didn’t manage to win that year, but did increase our party’s vote by a large margin and received more media attention than the average seat. From a couple of weeks before the election campaign was expected to begin, right through to the last week of the campaign, I had to deal with dozens of emails every week (sometimes every day) wanting to know the position of my candidate and our party on a range of questions. The organisations sending these questionnaires and manifestos ranged from angry fathers from ‘Abolish the Family Court’ to earnest enquirers from Friends of the Earth. As I assisted my candidate to respond to these questions, I felt the same exasperation as I did on July 10 reading ALIA’s statement. All these organisations have their own ‘agenda’, but they have all gone about achieving their agenda in a very ineffective way. If you want to lobby a politician, and particularly if you want to lobby a political party, you need to ask yourself a series of questions:
WHAT do you want?
This seems like a pretty obvious thing to ask, but the first mistake made by many organisations lobbying political parties is a failure to clearly and strongly state what they want from an Australian government. ALIA has also made this mistake. A question like ‘Will you consider introducing legislation in favour of open access for government-funded research?’ is ultimately pointless, because it equivocates. Does ALIA just want the next government to consider introducing legislation? In what way should the legislation favour open access? Any politician can answer ‘yes’ to this question without actually committing to do anything. Even if they do introduce legislation, what does ‘favour open access’ mean? There are many ways to favour open access, and many flavours of openness.
WHEN to lobby
When you lobby politicians is also crucial, and it is this more than anything else that frustrated me in 2007 and again in July this year. Most people living in representative democracies seem to believe that political parties generate, decide upon and announce their policies during, or just prior to, formal election periods – in other words, at the time the general public takes an interest in politics. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how political parties work. Most people don’t think a great deal about our political process until an election is called – members of political parties think about it all the time. They may wait to make policy announcements in the few weeks before the day of the election, but the development of those policies has usually taken place months or sometimes years beforehand. A party like the Labor Party or the Greens has to have its policy platform agreed at a National Conference many months before the election date – if you are asking for a policy commitment six weeks before the election, it’s too late.
WHO are you representing?
Often this is obvious, but sometimes it is easy to get confused about what message you are sending the politicians you are lobbying. ALIA’s document states that it represents the views of ‘people who work in the library and information field’, but it confuses this message on the very first page with any writing on it, stating that there are 5,500 ALIA members, 27,500 library and information workers, and 11 million plus users of the services provided by them. So whose aspirations does this document represent? The 5,500, the 27,500 or the 11 million? Should political parties listen to an industry organisation that can only convince 20% of workers in the industry to join? Do half the population really share these demands? How much notice politicians take to your message depends on how you can credibly clarify who and how many you represent (and, to an extent, where they live).
WHY should they care?
This actually applies to all of the previous questions. Why should they care about the thing you want, why should they care about who you represent, and why is it important right now? Just as importantly, why do you care? That is – why is your agenda so important?
Simon Sinek, in his famous TED talk and the book ‘Start with why’ (available from all good libraries) points out that if you ‘start with why’ when asking someone to do something, you will be much more convincing. In the Sinek triad, you should start with why, then describe how, and finally explain what. So if you have a Library and Information Agenda you should start with what you believe about libraries and information in a modern democracy (why), how it is best to act upon those beliefs and then what you would like to see specifically done by government.
ALIA, like many organisations, has unfortunately written their very attractive document in the wrong order. It starts with a few statistics, then (being a document by librarians) a Contents page, followed by a list of WHAT is being asked of politicians. Next comes a page on ‘Our Values’ (WHY) and then a section ‘About Us’ (HOW).
A beginning not an end
If you get the what, when, who and why right in your document, you should have a lot more success when lobbying politicians, but as an ALIA member it is not clear to me what The Library and Information Agenda is designed to achieve. I do not mean this post to be a criticism of the current ALIA board or staff. I think the document looks great and the Agenda itself is certainly something I (mostly) agree with. It is, however, unclear who the intended audience is, and what ‘success’ might look like. Is this really an attempt to lobby political candidates to support the Agenda, or is it a candidate/party survey designed to guide ALIA’s members in how they vote when each party’s answers are published somewhere? If it is the latter, then the timing of the document is reasonable, but it is arguable that the purpose would be better served by simply analysing the parties’ announcements and documents as they are released, since anyone answering a survey will be careful to put a positive gloss on it and give the answers they think ALIA are looking for. We are information professionals, after all – it shouldn’t’ be too hard to find and analyse such information. If it is a lobbying attempt on the other hand, then the timing is far too late and the demands far too vague.
I congratulate ALIA on taking the initiative to create a Library and Information Agenda – I just hope this the beginning of efforts to see it realised, and not the end.