Lobbying for IT

Daniel Bennett has never been able to stray too far from Washington, D.C. Take, for example, the time he planned to bicycle across the country. He made it as far as Boston before he threw in the towel.

An Alexandria, Va., native, Bennett is a principal at the e-advocates consulting firm that counsels organizations on how to lobby lawmakers electronically. But it wasn't too long ago that Bennett was on the other end of the fence.

Politics were always part of Bennett's life. His mother once campaigned to be a delegate to the Virginia legislature. Although the thirtysomething has never run for office, he has not been deterred from helping candidates. He has volunteered for political campaigns, supporting candidates such as former senator and past presidential hopeful Paul Simon (D-Ill.). And at age 19, he was a delegate to the Virginia state presidential convention.

After graduating from high school, Bennett took a year off and got his first taste of Capitol Hill. He went to work for Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), a coalition of environmental and consumer watchdog groups, where he worked door to door in canvassing, membership drives and petition drives.

Bennett left PIRG, but he stayed on the Hill, this time delivering mail. He described the job as fun—one in which he got to learn all the ins and outs of the buildings on the Hill and how to get practically anywhere. He also got to work with the U.S. Secret Service, helping agents check mailboxes for bombs before top officials visited Capitol Hill.

In college, Bennett studied film and photography, but it wasn't long after graduation that he ended up back on the Hill. The excitement around the election of 1992, which put President Clinton in the White House, was part of the attraction, he said. But the sprawling executive branch was not for him. Instead, he found work in Congress—a large body composed of a lot of small offices.

"I was looking for excitement in a small environment.... I was looking for a small place where I could really help run the shop from the start," Bennett said.

He suspected that the computer skills he had picked up in his spare time would give him an edge in getting a job on the Hill. In high school, Bennett learned a little of several computer languages. In college, he garnered more computer skills by helping out on desktop publishing projects. And jobs after college gave him practice working with mail databases.

He found a boss in Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who represents part of Silicon Valley, and joined her staff as a systems manager. The job eventually gave him the opportunity to get involved in policy and information technology, getting glimpses of Apple Computer Inc. products before they even had names.

It was in this job that he helped steer Eshoo, as well as other members of Congress, toward integrating e-mail into the process of corresponding with constituents. An earlier method for corresponding electronically with constituents—via the World Wide Web—was too cumbersome, according to Bennett. That procedure required a constituent to use a Web page to write a letter. A member of Congress' response to the letter would appear later as a very official-looking Web page—much in the same way people now send electronic post cards. E-mail made more sense, Bennett said.

"The problem was...you had to come to our Web site to send a message," he said. "People like being able to just use their e-mail to send a message."

Bennett also worked with the committee that oversees administration of the House to come up with procedures for e-mailing and sorting "Dear Colleague" letters. The letters, traditionally written on paper, are used by members of Congress to lobby one another on various issues.

But perhaps Bennett's greatest Capitol Hill achievement was his drafting of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1998, which lays down requirements for agencies in making government forms available electronically and gives legal status to electronically signed documents. Bennett became involved with the legislation while working to develop a "Virtual District Office" Web site that constituents could use to download and print forms for government programs and services. One vexing point with the virtual office was the inability to incorporate some form of electronic signature as a constituent conducted business via the Web.

So Bennett set about drafting GPEA, a task that took a year but proved worth the time and resulted in his winning a Federal 100 award. On Oct. 21, the president signed the bill into law, giving legal status to electronically signed documents and laying out a set of processes for the executive branch to use to move toward greater acceptance of electronic signatures.

Passage of the act meant that Congress understood the importance of IT and agencies' missions, Bennett said. "GPEA passed the House and the Senate, so obviously, they get it," he said.

But Bennett said he believed Congress has more to learn on how it can use IT to operate better. "It's crucial for lawmakers to be able to fulfill their own functions more efficiently," he said. "Although they've taken pains to try to deal with [IT] themselves, I don't think they've adequately addressed it internally."

This year, after six years on Capitol Hill, Bennett left in search of something new. He landed at e-advocates, which bills itself as "an Internet advocacy consulting firm." The firm includes Bennett and Pam Fielding, a "cyberlobbyist" who designed and launched the National Education Association's program for using the Internet for public advocacy. The company is part of Capitol Advantage, based in Northern Virginia. Capitol Advantage makes tools that advocacy groups can use to lobby lawmakers.

Bennett and Fielding have collaborated on a book scheduled for a fall release. It will cover the topic of cyberadvocacy and will be aimed at executives at nonprofits and associations.

Bennett credits his experience on Capitol Hill with teaching him the importance of the Internet and lobbying. "We realized if you want to do grassroots work and you're not using the Internet, you're making a big mistake," Bennett said. "Unfortunately, this is a new field and people don't yet realize how effective the Internet is to their public advocacy."

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