Fascinating stuff; a great primer. One point in particular I want to comment on:
I love the Brennan Center and they do amazing work, but they suck at promoting their scholarship. Hell, one of the things we are working on right now is just turning their reports into HTML.
Bam thwock, damn!
Now, I am biased here: I interviewed for a job at Brennan, and I was really excited by the opportunity to do exactly this -- help make their reports and materials more accessible for, and disseminated through, the netroots. After the interview, I sent many follow-up emails that all went unanswered... and hey, maybe I just wasn't the one to get the job done. But more than half a year later, their site is still little more than a PDF tree.
I hope their communications department gets its act together, as the Brennan Center resources could be a great contribution to the progressive web.
This looks like it was a great event, and I'm disappointed to have missed it. It was clear last summer that RootsCamp had great potential, and it looks like that was exceeded by NOI people and everyone involved. Hopefully it's the first of many!
I'm glad I had the chance to finish it up -- I will be leaving tomorrow for a long-anticipated trip. I will have semi-regular email access, so please be in touch (greg[dot]bloom[at]gmail) if you have any comments or ideas, or if you'd like to be put in contact with others who are discussing the best ways to get organized.
Next year, we hope to consolidate this work, along with a set of concrete proposals for improvements to the model, into a web site.
There have been a few instances of people organizing groups but nothing seems to have advanced farther than the first step. (I don't really like the Facebook groups feature, but I expect they'll be getting around to that soon enough, as they usually do...) You're right though -- Facebook would be a key front of an organized campaign.
if an engineer working for a company hears about another company that needs a particular product his company makes, and instead of working with his company to provide it, does it on his own.
So, if Phelps had PIRG organizations "hire" Telefund instead of using TOP, in order to keep money flowing through the for-profit off-shoot, that could be problematic. But if there is a definitely legal way to do it, then Phelps probably would have done it like that, something like making the Fund or whichever board sign off on the deal in advance. And I have a feeling that GVO made the Fund-to-GCI non-partisan-to-partisan staff switch pretty airtight when it comes to the legal.
Of course, that doesn't mean the alumni or funders would be happy with it. It's just a question of whether the people who matter can muster the chutzpah to stand up for the sake of this cause/company to which they've devoted themselves.
there are much more direct and substantive ways to assess the merits of the organization.
That's true. I didn't write the post to directly assess the merits of this organization, and I think this is a bit off-topic (not that I mind, it's interesting!). But you know, I do think that someone involved in the solar power industry is exactly the kind of reliable source to comment on the effectiveness of ECal's solar energy lobbying; and specifically, in our conversation he made it clear that he had been following the bill in its many different forms. Look, in the end, he even made it clear to me that he gives ECal some credit for that campaign, despite his larger doubts about the viability of the entire machine.
In the meantime, I went back to my interview notes from my talk with the professor -- he's a consultant to several big NGOs, wrote speeches for some of the most important environmentalist politicians in the last 30 years, and was once a keynote speaker at Earthday. I think he's qualified to speak about the viability of the PIRG machine in general, although I'd give the solar industry man more weight with specific regards to ECal.
I do have other sources who are arguably relevant, but they called people names and were generally kind of mean about it all. So I'll keep that out of it.
gobears, I agree with you in part: it's not helpful to the conversation to scream and yell that this entire system is one big scam that is stealing from its workers and its members. The truth is much more complicated.
But I hope you understand why people get so angry about this, and who they are getting angry at. This work is hard and important, we all know that. Many people in these discussions have been in numerous campaigns, and they know the difficulties that come with the territory -- and yet they also know that the experience in a PIRG campaign is, for a majority of participants, uniquely frustrating and alienating. In large part, this is because of the PIRG mentality that holds that "we have campaigns to win, and the campaign is more important than the people working on it." That precept is problematic in a number of ways.
Ultimately those problems fall into two camps: the ends are unknown and potentially compromised (the question of "what work is actually being done, and how effective is it?" -- james can assert, but that's all he can do, and neither he nor anyone else has any way to affect positive change if the work is in fact not being effective), and the means are very costly (i.e. an inordinate amount of canvassers walking away from the job not just saying "that's not for me," but "that took advantage of me and I don't think anything came of it and I might as well not bother with this any more").
I think you understand canvassing well enough to be able to accept that yes, in a sense, the PIRG canvassers are actually just raising money so that more money can be raised. That's written into the numerical structure of the PIRG/Fund model -- and it's also at least partially true of any modern canvass fundraise models. But other canvass models (like the Greenpeace canvass, for instance) place a much higher emphasis on education and engagement, and they invest in their workers. (We've had the conversations before about what might make for a better canvass.)
Here I'm asking whether the major problems PIRG/Fund has with labor, as well as its limited and narrow canvass model, can be traced back to the management and corporate structure that makes the entire system unaccountable to members or workers. Up until this post, I've mostly talked about the means; here, I ask a number of questions about the ends. And those questions do not imply that PIRG advocates do not exist, or that none of them are effective in any way. But even when I found someone from outside of the organization who was happy to give a PIRG organization that basic amount of credit (and that was not an easy thing to find), he pointed out that the org's lack of accountability made it significantly less effective.
So that's where I want this discussion to be at, and I hope you can meet us there: this work is important, but is it possible that resources are being inappropriately implemented and no one is being held accountable for that waste and negligence?
Thanks for sharing your experience, Matt -- that was interesting to read about.
I need to get meta about this post for a moment: up until this installment, every post I've written has been based more or less within what is known. This is the first post that grapples directly with what is unknown; that is why it's really a series of questions. I will admit up front that everyone I've spoken with has imperfect knowledge of the situation--and of course, my knowledge is only as good as theirs.
That said, I think the reporting I've done also largely corroborates your experience. I specifically chose to focus on anecdotes about the solar roofs bill because i did hear about it from a variety of sources - and the last person quoted in the post, who is a PIRG donor who works in the solar energy industry, is as credible a source as anyone you'd find. He says two things: a) Environment California does deserve some credit for being out there doing work and b) the inherently closed and unaccountable structure that encompassed Environment California, like all of the PIRG/Fund family, ultimately made its effort significantly less effective and even problematic for other groups.
I believe that his assessment, compounded against the Fund's deeply problematic labor practices, makes us justified to question the entire means vs ends equation regardless of whatever good work might be getting done. I recognize that everyone in these organization is busting their ass, and I know that a few of them are doing really good work. I hope that those people can recognize that these questions are about the sum of the parts, rather than about them personally. A failure to make that distinction is, frankly, part of the problem. (Not a jab at you - I think it's ironic that you've been more substantive and thoughtful in this response than anyone who's come here to defend PIRG/Fund itself.)
(Lastly, I'm still not sure what it is that I got wrong about the CALPIRG/EC split - as you said, CALPIRG members were automatically granted a year's worth of membership to the new organization, which they could opt-out of. But if I'm still misunderstanding here, or if there's a specific statement that appears too broad to be true, please point it out -- it's important to me that I have it right.)
I want to respond to this with a clarification of an above point in Lockse's post. It seems like Greenpeace did not drop the Fund because of the union-busting incident in 2002. It dropped the Fund because the donors that the Fund canvassers signed up were dropping off at attrition rates that were unacceptably high.
In other words, you get what you pay for, and from the Fund you get shoddy product.
Human Rights Campaign
Defenders of Wildlife
National Audubon Society
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Save the Children
The Endangered Species Coalition
Toxics Action Center
Natural Resources Defense Council
National Parks Conservation Association
I should clarify. I know plenty of good people working in these organizations, and I'm sorry if my use of the word "PIRGbot" came out sounding like a slur.
I think of it more like a mental condition. Like how a drunk isn't actually drunk every minute of the day. A drunk's still gotta drink to get drunk. Likewise: someone might be a perfectly smart, competent, progressive person, but when they have to answer questions about their organization, they become beholden to a certain logic.
And when a PIRGbot does't know how to answer the questions any more--when the PIRGbot has run out of the raps that give the logic that "answers" the questions, the PIRGbot pulls rank. Or, I guess, if that's not quite working out anymore either, the PIRGbot gets personal, and somewhat vicious.