osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Personal Pet Peeve and the Value of Wasting Time

We have an unfortunate tradition in Washington DC, since we are all super busy people. When we go to a speaking gig or panel at a conference, many of us drop in for our panel and leave.

Now when that person is the Chairman of the FCC or some other high ranking official, that's cool. These people have time scheduled down to the minute. If he or she even shows up, that's a huge deal. Also, since you aren't really going to be able to say much that hasn't been vetted and cleared, leaving quickly minimizes risk of an "off script" accident. I'm also not talking about a conference like NARUC where they don't comp speakers. If I accept an invite to speak, I do not expect to pay to play and won't pay to stay.

But the rest of the time, when it is one of us non-Governemnt policy experts, it bugs me that people drive by, do their panel or speech, and then bug out. So here are 5 reasons to stick around, at least for a little while.

1. You will actually learn something new and useful. A lot of us in Policyland develop blinders. We focus very intensely on our specialty, without taking the time to notice how the rest of the world is working. You are extremely likely to learn something interesting and useful by hanging out with other people at their conference. If nothing else, it will give you a different perspective.

2. It will inform your outreach. In particular, the thing you will learn is 'why does this constituency care enough about my issue that the org extended an invite to me. What are the concerns of the rank and file.' By that, I don't mean just "what do these guys think about Net Neutrality?" I mean "what do they care about in life?"

Example, yesterday I was at the National Rural Assembly. I went to the morning session on rural poverty and rural hunger and an afternoon session on youth leaders as well as the breakout session on broadband. As someone trying to explain to rural constituencies about telecom issues, I am enormously better offer knowing the things they care about. I can tell the youth leader doing rural health and complaining about how they don't have good broadband access how certain programs can help with rural deployment. I can tell the folks involved in rural poverty about the value of broadband and affordabilit programs so that they view broadband as an economic development tool and not as a luxury for downloading Netflix and cat videos.

3. It will improve your policy formulation and advocacy. Good policy is policy that actually helps people on the ground. To get that policy right, you need to talk to people and find out what lie in the real world is like. Will the policies you push for actually help them? Are they in a position to take advantage of them. And what problems are they facing that have a policy solution you haven't thought of yet?

Many times I go to a conference, get in a conversation, and end up saying "oh, I think I see a way you can get what you want." Sometimes it's just connecting people up to each other or pointing them in the right direction. ("You need to talk to the engineers at the FCC Office of Engineering and Policy. I don't know if they can help, but they will be really interested in this technology.")

4. The people there see it and appreciate it as a sign of respect. Yes, everyone understands how busy you are and that you can't stick around. But that means they appreciate even more if you can stick around for some of the program and take a genuine interest in them and their issues. If you are there because you are trying to recruit or influence a particular constituency, you need the advantage. Incumbents spend a lot of money in these communities to create the "we're one of you" dynamic. Do not play into their hands by annoncing youself as an outsider not terribly interested in the needs of the community. Conversely, people are more likely to give you a fair hearing if they think you care about them enough to respect them.

To use a crude analogy, if you are on a date, you will not favorably impress your date if you are simultaneously flipping through Tinder to see if you can find someone better. Actually puting down the cell phone and making eye contact, by contrast, may improve things considerably.

5. You are likely to encounter some of these people again some day, or may need something from them. Finally, to be purely mercenary about these things, you never know when someone you were nice to when they were "nobody" will become "somebody." Additionally, odds are good that there are "sombodies" in the crowd you don't know about -- whether they are funders or people with connections to folks you care about or whatever. If you are there to speak or be on a panel, you will have a measure of visibility that will allow you to stand out in a crowd. Look upon this like any of the other networking events you attend, but as something more of a fishing expedition.

This is not going to work every time. Nothing does. There will be conferences where you will undoubtedly feel "man, I need to get those 4 hours back." But I am a big believer in the value of strategically wasting time. In the end, it pays off.
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