Running Ethical — And Winning — Campaigns

Photo By Marc Johnson
Photo By Marc Johnson

I’m in the middle of a four-day bipartisan candidate training program that is put on by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. As far as I know, this program is unique. It is relentlessly bipartisan, for one thing. More important, though, is that it is entirely ethics-based. I was one of the people who helped design the program in the late 1990’s (when I worked at The Institute for Global Ethics) and I have been involved ever since.

The concept is simple: We take the very best political professionals in Virginia and ask them to come to the program and address their specialty. Over the course of four days, candidates learn everything from how to develop a campaign plan to fundraising, polling, direct mail, crisis communications, how to deal with media, image, and more.

But the difference is that we wrap this in a strong emphasis on ethics. The program begins with a half-day session  on campaign ethics (which I lead), and then after every few sessions, we bring the candidates together in small groups to debrief what they have been hearing. It’s been my experience that many first-time candidates become increasingly anxious about just what it takes to run a winning campaign. Being able to air potential dilemmas and think them through in a retreat atmosphere is invaluable and allows them to make better decisions later.

This work really allows me to bring together everything that I learned while working in government and politics, then at the Institute for Global Ethics, and later at The Harwood Institute For Public Innovation. It’s all about how to win, but win while running a race you can be proud of.

And, just in case you might be thinking that this is some nice foundation-funded program that teaches candidates how to be nice losers, nothing could be further from the truth. Candidates apply to be a part of it and pay to be there. Over the years, 300 candidates have gone through the program. 100 are currently in office. I’ll take those odds.

I am grateful for my friends at the Sorensen Institute who continue mounting this program for allowing me to be a part of it.

Many Agencies Miss Obama's Deadline For Openness

Alarm Clock 3 by Flickr user alancleaver_2000
"Alarm Clock 3" by Flickr user alancleaver_2000

According to Doug Ward’s excellent OpenGovBlog, the first deadline under President Obama’s “Open Government Directive” has come and gone with 26 agencies failing to meet the Directive’s requirements. Here’s what Obama is requiring: “Within 45 days, each agency shall identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets and register those data sets via These must be data sets not previously available online or in a downloadable format.” The deadline was January 22.

What’s more, in many cases what counts as “meeting the requirements” is just lame. One agency took data that had been available in PDF form and posting it as an Excel spreadsheet with headers. Another agency reposted data that had been available since 2004, just labeling it with a more specific timeframe.

The Sunlight Foundation, which focuses on this issue relentlessly (and well), has written a piece recapping what they are seeing so far as they sift through the data. Their take:

As a first step toward making agency data available in more accessible formats for sophisticated users, the open government directive is so far somewhat successful–plenty of data sets that had been available only as PDFs, or had to be pulled down by scraping Web sites, are now there for the taking (we’ll have better counts of this later in the week). But new data sets are not predominant: the major agencies covered by the directive released 58 data sets, of which, by our count, 16 were previously unavailable in some format online.

That sounds like progress, I suppose . . . but a long way to go before we have real “transparency.”

State Of The Union: In Name Only

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

State Of The Union: In Name Only

Tonight, Barack Obama delivers his very first State Of The Union message to Congress. As is the custom with newly-inaugurated presidents, President Obama did speak to Congress last year, but that is not considered an official “State Of The Union.” The Constitution requires the President to make a report on how things are going “from time to time.”

Chart by Brad Rourke (click for full size)
Chart by Brad Rourke (click for full size)

As I thought about it, I found myself wishing that President Obama might take the tack Jimmy Carter took in in his last days in office in 1981 and mail it in — literally. It was a written report that year. In fact, while our first two presidents gave speeches, for a hundred years beginning with Thomas Jefferson the State Of The Union was a written report ranging from about 2,000 to about 24,000 words (Lincoln’s averaged 6,800 words). Woodrow Wilson ended that practice and ushered in the modern era of giving speeches.

I still think the first State Of The Union was probably the best. We don’t know how long it lasted, but we know that it was the shortest State Of The Union on record: George Washington’s first such address was just 1,089 words. I’ve written memos longer!

As I reflected on the fact that a speech would be inevitable, I then found myself hoping President Obama might take a page from Richard Nixon’s playbook and give a very short speech. Nixon gave a speech of just 28:30 in 1972. (The next year he sent a written report.)

But in the television era, we are by and large stuck with speeches that average about 48 minutes — long enough to take up an hour programming block, but short enough to allow time for pundit reactions. President Obama’s speech last year was right on the money in that respect, at 51:44.

For a political junkie, I have always felt guilty around State Of The Union time. I feel alienated from my fellow politics-watchers. Because I dread these speeches. It seems too short to say anything of value, too long to inspire, too worked-over to offer me anything new.

The state of the union is strong, I will hear. There will be shout-outs to “ordinary” people in the audience — a practice that has long since jumped the shark. There may even be a new initiative or two announced — perhaps a surprise.

But I know what the state of the union is, as does everyone from Skid Row to Main Street to Wall Street. Things are tough. There is little will from Washington to make the changes that we need. Political leaders are out of touch with the concerns of Americans.

A good friend told me earlier that he was despairing  that our political institutions could do anything anymore. This is the true state of the union: It sometimes feels a union in name only.

Yes, there are glimmers of hope. Each time I dare, though, my hopes are dashed. It’s not that my favored policies aren’t getting enacted, or that people I disagree with are in power. That’s just window dressing.

It’s that the structures aren’t working. We used to look to politics as the forum in which we solve the problems that arise when people live together and try to self-govern. Now we view politics as the problem and we try as best we can to live a life where we never encounter people unlike us.

Maybe I will hear something from this year’s address that lifts me.

But more likely, I will get over my funk. I will pull up my socks and get on with life, doing the work that must be done in our community irrespective of what messages drip down from the District of Columbia. That, after all, is the story of America.

In the end, when pushed up against the wall, we get to work. But just now, before the dawn, it’s quite dark.

Donate Services To A Candidate?

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Donate Services To A Candidate?

A good friend asks:

In your experience, are most services used by local candidates donated? A candidate for the . . . State House, whose staffer attended my recent social networking class, asked me today if I could provide free services. . . . I know that this candidate is getting some services for free. For example, a large and expensive web design company is donating her website. I would like to see this [person] elected, but I’m not in the position to spend a lot of time on a volunteer job. Reduced cost, yes, but free, no. I know I could make a case that my services are necessary to her and worth the money, but there is no use making the point if campaigns for State Houses are normally run completely by donations and volunteers. Any thoughts about this?

This is the dance that all campaigns (even national ones) play. Political campaigns are inherently time-limited and relentlessly focused on one thing: winning. Any money spent that does not have a clear and direct impact on votes is avoided at all costs.

Donations by Flickr user freakapotimus
"Donations" by Flickr user freakapotimus

So, campaigns know they need to pay for media time, there is no way around that. They know they need to pay for mailings. Everything else is fair game — staff time, phones, office space, Website (as you note), and social networking consulting services.

However, just because the campaign would like services donated does not mean that you have to provide them gratis. It is up to each individual person. Any free consulting work is a contribution in kind to the campaign (and would need to be valued and reported as such). So, not only is the campaign asking you to work for free, but they are also asking you for a donation.

And so, what is “normal” is not the issue here. The issue is: Do you want to make this campaign contribution?

People make campaign contributions for a lot of reasons. Some do it because they really want a person elected. Others do it because they want to be noticed later, if that person is elected. Some do it to feel closer to power. And, some companies donate their goods or services in part to market them to others, or in hopes that they will be retained on an official basis once the candidate wins.

Whatever your own decision, just make sure you follow all the relevant campaign finance rules for your state.

Cooking With Brad: Farfalle With Chicken In Dijon Cream Sauce

Farfalle With Chicken In Dijon Cream Sauce
Farfalle With Chicken In Dijon Cream Sauce

Here’s a dish that sounds like it might be complicated but is really, really easy to make. Lots of times I will want to make a cream sauce for pasta, but I get sort of tired of the usual. This has a slight tang to it and it’s tasty.

Here’s what you need:

  • 1lb Farfalle pasta (or penne)
  • 1 Onion
  • 1.5lb boneless, skinless Chicken Breasts
  • 3/4c Heavy Whipping Cream
  • 3T Butter
  • 1T Dijon mustard
  • 3T Rice Vinegar (or white wine)
  • 1.4c grated Parmesan cheese
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Pepper

If you use your time wisely while the pasta water is coming to a boil, you can get it all done pretty quickly. The trick is to get ready while the water is boilng, and then do everything at once. Here’s how to make it.

Get ready:

  1. Start the salted pasta water boiling
  2. Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces, each about the size of a small walnut. Season aggressively with salt and pepper
  3. Dice onion (use this onion slicing method)
  4. When the pasta water is at a rolling boil, heat a saucepan over medium high heat. When it is hot, add olive oil to coat the bottom, and let the oil heat until it shimmers. Toss in about 2TB of butter and let it melt.

Up to this point you can take it easy. But now that the oil is ready, it’s go time! Tell everyone you’ll be eating in about 15 minutes.


  1. Add the chicken pieces to the hot saucepan. There’s a trick to this! Use tongs to place them one at a time, quickly, so that they are covering the bottom of the saucepan. They should be sizzling. Start the timer so you know how long the chicken is cooking.
  2. Add pasta to the pasta water
  3. Let the chicken pieces sit. DO NOT check them! After four minutes, try turning one over with tongs. If it turns easy and is browned on one side, then you can turn the rest. If not, wait one more minute and turn them all. Do this quickly so they are all pretty much turned at the same time.
  4. Meanwhile, be mindful of the pasta water! When it’s boiling, start a timer for 11 minutes. (This will prbably be about halfway through the chicken part, but it depends on various factors.)
  5. Let the chicken cook for one minute on the second side. Remove them and set them aside in a bowl.
  6. Drain the saucepan of oil and turn the heat to medium
  7. Add 1TB of butter and the onions. Salt the onions so they will break down. Let them soften for 2 minutes. Add the 1T of Dijon mustard and mix it around for 1 minute.
  8. Deglaze the pan with the rice vinegar or white wine. Just a little bit! Scrape up all the bits and let the liquid boil a bit.
  9. Pour in the heavy whipping cream and let it come to a boil so it starts to reduce. (Stir it!) Add in a handful of Parmesan cheese, and lots of pepper.
  10. Once it has reduced, lower heat to low and add the chicken (and whatever juices have drained into the bowl). Let it warm for one minute.
  11. Drain pasta, pour into saucepan, and then turn that out into a large pasta bowl for serving.
  12. Mix the pasta a bit so it is covered with the sauce (but don’t bury the chicken pieces, which should stay at the top when you flip the saucepan). Top with pepper and Paremsan cheese.

Enjoy! This is tasty with some Italian country bread.

Universal Probes For Small Groups

Public leaders often have to lead small group discussions. Here is something that might help.

A lot of my work involves leading conversations. Sometimes that is because I am researching how people perceive an issue. Other times I am leading a session designed to convey content — how to use social media, ethical campaigning, public leadership.

BR_training_143I am preparing for a four-day candidate training seminar that is an initiative of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. I’ve been part of this from the beginning, and it is one of the most rewarding things that I do. (Sorensen’s ethics-based candidate training course is the national model for such things and is highly effective.)

Part of the course involves small group discussions, and as we were preparing the agendas for those, I was erminded of a set of “universal probes” that I have been using for years. These are highly useful questions to ask as a follow up (after almost any initial question) and they typically unlock conversation and allow people to think quite deeply about the issue at hand. They are deceptively simple.

I did not come up with these. Chances are, any good focus group moderator will give you the same, or a similar, set. These are just how I articulate them. They arose out of study with one of my mentors, Rich Harwood, and work alongside of two imprtoant colleagues, John Creighton and Dave Moore.

Here are the questions:

  1. What do you mean by that?
  2. Say more about why you think that?
  3. What would that get you?
  4. What would that look like?
  5. And that leads you to think . . . ?

See? Simple. But ask them, and see what they can unlock. You might be surprised.

Facebook's Stream Moves Closer To The Inbox

If you are a Facebook user, you may have noticed a recent, quiet change. When someone comments on one of your posts, links, or other content, you get an email, as you always have if you keep the default settings. Only now, you can reply to the comment simply by replying to the email.

Streaming by Flickr user makelessnoise
"Streaming" by Flickr user makelessnoise

This is an important change for Facebook, as it is an implicit acknowledgement that, while the Stream is an important place to share information, it is not the only place in which people want to share. Email remains, for just about everyone, the most indispensable communications tool. One of the pioneers of online civic engagement, Steven Clift, has long been almost a lone voice calling on organizations not to neglect their email strategy as they implement fancy social-networking strategies. He points out:

[N]ow that Facebook and Twitter have become so popular, they are now “streams” rather than reliable ways to reach the people who at one point said they wanted to “follow” you. People dip into the stream created by their friends and those they find interesting when they are thirsty
… often in their scarce idle time. They feel no obligation to drink from the end of the fire hose they have friended and followed.

He is absolutely right. This is the logical next step as people get used to “streams” as being a part of their digital life. In an earlier post, I’ve described a few of the nascent guidelines that people are beginning to follow when it comes to the Stream and the workplace:

  • When you are sharing something, if it is interesting but not critical, add it to the Stream (by sharing on Facebook or Twitter, for instance).
  • Don’t get upset if someone misses something you put in the Stream.
  • Try to reserve emails to people’s Inboxes for things you really need them to see or act on.

Facebook’s move to make elements of their Stream more usable form within email are thus a very good idea.

While I do not necessarily want to see every last thing all my friends and others have posted into the Stream, I do want to see if people are interacting with what I have posted or adding comments after me. Those actions are worth seeing in my Inbox and I do want to be able to act on them from within it.

Our workplace (and other) norms are shifting as we get used to the ubiquitous Streams in our lives. For instance, it used to be assumed that you saw all of your friends’ status updates. Now, as people have more friends and as the Facebook newsfeed has gotten a little more selective in what it shows, people have begun to call attention to the shared items they think are noteworthy. By the same token, more people are sharing ephemeral trivia in the Stream rather than clogging people’s Inboxes.

I wonder, in five years and some of these norms have established and settled, what they will be. I am also curious to see how pervasive the new norms will be — will Aunt Edna begin to use the Stream for LOLcats?

Only time will tell.