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Scrapbook: Keeping a Watchful Eye in Hawaii

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Sierra Club Scrapbook

August 30, 2011

Keeping a Watchful Eye in Hawaii


By Anthony Aalto, the Oahu Group of the Hawaii Chapter

One of our success stories is the The Capitol Watch, a team of volunteers who monitor, report, and advocate on statewide environmental legislation. It encourages greater grassroots involvement in the legislative process and helps volunteers develop leadership skills. As a result, we've further cemented the Sierra Club's reputation as the most effective environmental lobbying organization in the state.

Before the start of the most recent legislative session, we organized a "Forces for Good" symposium as a recruiting venue at which experts briefed participants on the top statewide environmental issues and taught the rudiments of lobbying at the Capitol. The Chapter Director then examined every piece of proposed legislation and posted all relevant bills on an online spreadsheet that was available to the public and updated in real time.

Volunteers recruited at the symposium were handed the title of "Captain" and given responsibility for a specific area of expertise, whether it was energy, agriculture, marine, etc. Captains monitored the progress of bills in their area and compiled reports twice a week on the ones they considered top priorities. These reports were then assembled into a bi-weekly newsletter, called The Capitol Watch Insider, and emailed to subscribers.

The symposium was sold out -- more than 100 people attended and half as many were turned away due to limited seating capacity. Ten attendees became Capitol Watch Captains. We produced 26 issues of the bi-weekly newsletter and more than 400 people subscribed. This led to a discernible increase in the number of people lobbying the legislature on environmental issues.

One factor that led to success was that we didn't pretend to be unbiased, but we didn't hector our subscribers either. We showed them how to participate if they wanted to -- rather than the tradional model of directing them on what to say and to whom. One recipient, a major alternative energy supplier in the state, told us that our reports were superior to anything he was getting from his paid lobbyists!

Due to this success, we asked ourselves how far we should go with using Capitol Watch as a platform to lobby without alienating subscribers who merely wanted updates. We've addressed this by proposing that there will be a "Champion" paired with each Captain. It will be the Champion's role to advocate pointedly for and against specific bills, leaving Captains free to focus on ensuring the information is accurate -- similar to how newspapers divide news pages with opinion pages.

A number of recipients wanted us to facilitate "clicktivism" -- they wanted us to prepare a message on the bills they were following, which they could send their representatives with a single click. However, legilsators are less impressed by 100 people clicking on the same canned message then a dozen individually drafted, heartfelt messages. We must expand the number of recruits prepared to use the information we produce to generate their own individual message to their elected officials.

Looking ahead, we plan to continue developing web tools for our outreach efforts so that our work will post immediately to Facebook and Twitter, which will expand our reach. One idea that we didn't have time to develop was to use the Capitol Watch as a way to reach other environmental groups. We plan to forge stronger alliances for the next legislative session and further the Sierra Club's leadership and presence in Hawaii.

Have a success story to share? We'd like to hear about it. Go to the Success Stories project on the Sierra Club's Activist Network and let others learn from your experience.


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