Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thinking Big, Thinking Forward

Yesterday, I was privileged to attend Thinking Big, Thinking Forward, put on by four of the groups doing the best work on the economy in the movement: the Economic Policy Institute, the Institute for America's Future, Demos and the American Prospect.

I'm not going to try and get into the content, because there was just too much of it for me to cover remotely adequately here. I posted a few real time reactions to twitter with the #thinkingbig tag (which no one else took up - more on this later). Overall, it was an outstanding event. There was certainly evidence of the somewhat chaotic pile-of-silos approach progressives ordinarily employ in endeavors such as this, but it seemed like there was a strong effort to move beyond that. The great preponderance of the presentations were well crafted and interesting. I agree with presenter Mark Schmitt's observation that thinking big, to him, means putting the whole thing together somehow, and it may not have quite gotten there, but more on this later too.

So here are a few points of unsolicited but hopefully constructive feedback:

1) Racial and gender diversity. I know this is a big challenge, and I'm sure Larry, Miles, Bob & Roger and Bob Kuttner have known each other for years. Every last one them are progressive champions and on the whole, they did better than most events of this nature. One of the more interesting panels had Jerome Ringo of the Apollo Alliance and Michelle Collins of ShoreBank, and Dr. Manuel Pastor Jr. of UCSC and Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change presented in the afternoon. So while there was relatively good panel diversity, the concern here is top-line leadership diversity. Why not elevate CCC or the Apollo Alliance (who were represented on panels), or for that matter, Green for All, Opportunity Agenda or PolicyLink? (who weren't) I know these things get geometrically harder to plan with more groups, but it is incumbent on movement leadership to keep the fact that if we're not connecting with women and racially diverse communities, we're not just doing it wrong, we're not going to get where we want to go. The only way to do that is to bring diverse leaders and groups in at the foundational, leadership and strategic levels.

2) Presentation Quality. You would think at a meeting where people are putting out lots of complex information that there would be a better mix of visual communication. We can't all be Al Gore or Steve Jobs, but we can all learn from how they communicate. For the few folks who did have slides, many of them could have used an overhaul. (hint: if you have to apologize for how much text there is on a slide... revise the slide!) Presentation Zen is a good starting point. Also, a switch to a more TED/EG style model of 15 minute presentations rather than a panel might encourage more concise storytelling.

3) Social Media Exposure. While it's unlikely that this kind of event would generate much earned corporate media coverage even if the Vice President had been able to make it, it does seem like there's a lot of room for better social media exposure. Of the 900 some-odd folks there, from the searches I ran there were only a half-dozen people using twitter, and not even a critical mass of people to pick up the hashtag I proposed. There were no facebook pages or invites as far as I could tell. This is a movement wide problem, and it does seem that the right is outflanking us already in social media usage on the movement/organization side (if not on the campaign side). While yesterday's content was likely too technical for a broad audience, we should be doing a better job of reaching people like the person who practically begged the presenters for better communications tools at one point in the Q&A.

It seems like ideas marketing (broadly conceived) is still a gap that no organization is yet quite filling, even while many orgs have it as part of their missions. More effective use of social media could be a low-cost way of making this happen. We have to do a better job narrowcasting to the group of people who are already interested this, meet their needs, and then start figuring out how to grow the size of the audience we can reach effectively.

One other general thought: for a long time, I have chalked up the left's lack of a forceful, clear argument for a progressive economics to... I'm not sure what, but something internal to the movement. A short list might include ossified and/or thick-headed leadership, structural issues around what does and doesn't get funded and why, some variant of beltway fever (maybe a "not invented here" strain) that repels solutions-oriented thinking from outside, historical divisions and structures, and even (everyone's favorite excuse), the good old fashioned lack of resources.

All those are certainly very real issues (although I think the thick-headedness is less of a problem, and the lack of resources moreso), but I'm also thinking that there's simply a natural, historic progression to these things. Maybe reading Beinhocker has me thinking that every big, complicated process is an evolutionary one, but it seems like this probably really is. Arguments evolve. While there are numerous factors that can increase & decrease the rate of evolution (and what those factors are would be an awfully interesting analysis), evolution takes time. The right's arguments are so clear, powerful and resonant - even now, amongst the obvious economic devastation that governing under their argument has led to - simply because they've been at it for so long and have been able to boil their arguments down to their most simple and persuasive cores.

I suppose I'm being a little more zen about this, which might be helpful to the process of reading, synthesis, execution of research and writing that we need so much more of. Maybe we need Top Thinker, the progressive economics version of Top Chef. Or how about an unconference of some kind, perhaps FooCamp (closed, elite invite list) or even one BarCamp (open invite list) style? I found myself awfully curious about where people in the audience were coming from and why and how they were there. An unconference could help figure that out.

So while arguably no one was really able to pull it together in a satisfying way yesterday, maybe the big takeaway is that we're headed in more or less the right direction, and how helpful it is to get folks in a room and talking.

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