Watching sausage being made

I love teaching policy classes.

And I love talking about policy.

But I know that our policymaking processes, at different levels of government and across many topic areas and within the contests of opposing viewpoints, and often seemingly hidden behind closed doors, can seem arcane, muddled, and even completely baffling, including to students who desperately want to understand how the policies that affect their work, and their clients’ lives, are made.

And, so, I’m always looking for tools that will help make policymaking real, for students and for social work practitioners in the field, to demystify what’s really not all that mysterious a process: the way that power collides with power to, more often than not, prevent anything really seismic from changing at all.

Especially after feedback from my generous and kind and forgiving first class of students, I’ve incorporated more case studies, guest speakers from the field, interactive online content, and classroom debates, to try to peel back the layers and help students engage with the policies that so need their voices.

And one of the things that I have to help students struggle with is their innate disgust, really, with some of the political realities. Social workers are mostly a pretty ethical bunch, and we pride ourselves on process, and so learning about how budget rules are broken and deals get made can tend to send social work students running as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

And I understand that. I do.

When I first taught U.S. history and government to new immigrant adolescents, more than 10 years ago, I was so caught up in my own disillusionment that I had a hard time even reading the Bill of Rights without rolling my eyes.

But they reminded me then, and so I remind my students now, that no system of governance ever got better by people sitting on the sidelines. Our democracy has managed, perhaps almost in spite of itself, some pretty wonderful victories for justice, and there’s tremendous potential for more. Besides, if we’re going to throw up our hands in despair, we might as well be holding a protest sign.

In other words: do not avert your eyes. We need witnesses.

And that’s why I’m so excited about some of the new tools (and some that aren’t SO new, now, anymore) to help people understand policymaking, and the workings of our government, in meaningful ways.

There’s Many Bills, which is a visualization of legislative content that organizes it into color-coded themes, making even really bad bills look pretty. You can compare different versions of bills related to the same problem topics, such as housing policy. You can also search by a member’s legislative activity, which is pretty stark sometimes.

Another IBM lab tool is Many Eyes, which I’ve used to make maps for nonprofit organizations before, but which can also do text content analysis, so that you can see tag clouds, for example, of speeches made by prominent elected officials. The graphic above is a visualization of Obama’s Inaugural Address.

Probably the single best online tool I’ve found for information about the activities of Congress is Open Congress, which has a blog, profiles of individual members, real-time status of the House and Senate, summaries of recent votes, overviews of bills in the news and bills recently filed, and lots of opportunities for comments and engagement with the content. One of the aspects I like most about it is the extensive set of tools to improve individuals’ access to the information: RSS feeds, email alerts, integration with your social media platforms…I use it not just as a go-to for information about Congress but also as a feed of current happenings, for the times when even I forget to look.

There’s a lot more on the Presidency than members of Congress, and some states aren’t covered at all, but PolitiFact can be a good starting point in sorting out competing claims in the political arena. Of course, here, there’s an obvious element of subjective judgment (as always, in politics!), but the claims are pretty well cited and supported, and the ratings are clear and complete. My very favorite part? Their interest in researching the truth behind chain emails submitted by users. Social Security for Mexicans abroad, anyone?

A similar site that’s unfortunately not very updated is Speechology, which, at least at one point, had a bit wider reach and a more interactive feel, analyzing candidates’ promises and assertions, not only in speeches, but also in campaign advertisements. I would hope and expect that it might be ‘reactivated’, a bit, for the 2012 cycle, at least, and it could be a model for what local media analysts could do regarding regional officials.

What I find most helpful about these last two sites, really, isn’t even as much their content as their premise: we have a right to understand what our elected officials are doing, and we have the tools with which to do so.

Then, when we don’t like what we see, we know what to do.

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