Everyone is an advocate

Merriam-Webster defines an advocate as “one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group.”

If public power is a cause, do you support that cause? If so, then you are an advocate for public power. Sometimes, identifying as an advocate seems strange or even — perish the thought — akin to being a lobbyist (disclosure: I was a lobbyist for the American Public Power Association for 15 years). Lobbyists are paid to advocate professionally on a daily basis. But advocates can also be volunteers who advocate when time permits. Regardless of your status, the goal of being a public power advocate is to ensure that policies at the federal, state, or local level support the public power mission. Or, as a fallback position, that the policies at least do no harm to that mission. Although the ensuing discussion focuses on federal advocacy, many of the concepts also apply to the state and local levels.

The public power mission is excellent. It’s hard to argue with providing reliable, affordable, safe, and environmentally sustainable power. Add to this the local decision-making and provision of electricity on a not-for-profit basis, and you have something as wholesome as mom and apple pie. If that’s the case, then why don’t we always win in the policy arena? It’s because there are countervailing forces — people who consider the “public” in our business model to be antithetical to free-market beliefs, or others who look skeptically at electric utilities regardless of their business model, or still others who don’t have the time or inclination to understand the benefits. These people are easily influenced by those who have vested interests in undermining the public power business model and mission — including those who want our customers, believe that they can make money off of selling our assets to the highest bidder (without understanding the long-term ramifications), want to bypass safety and reliability standards … and the list goes on.

So, what can we do about these forces — whether intentionally or unintentionally nefarious? We have several things going for us to correct the narrative:

  • We represent nearly 2,000 small communities, and some large cities, in 49 states.
  • We can draw attention to these communities by working with our locally elected officials to tap into their political connections with their congressional delegations.
  • We can educate those federal officials about what is happening with the utility on the ground and how pending federal proposals (bills or agency actions) will impact our customers, who are their constituents.
  • We can aggregate data about what public power is doing nationally and use it to support our arguments.
  • We can flag important reports, actions and articles on social media and thank federal policymakers when they do something supportive of public power.
  • We can work with traditional media outlets and reporters to tell the public power story on an ongoing basis.
  • We can fly to Washington, D.C., to show public power’s collective strength at the APPA Legislative Rally (or, during a pandemic, we can take that concept and do it virtually).
  • We can meet with members of Congress and/or their staff in their district or state offices back home when Congress is in recess.
  • We can regularly communicate with federal policymakers about interesting things public power utilities are doing, even when we aren’t asking for something.
  • We can call on relationships with other like-minded groups to help us advocate (i.e., working in coalition).

By keeping in constant contact with federal policymakers, we highlight the connection between what the federal government is contemplating doing and what the actual, on-the-ground impact would be should they take such action. APPA helps facilitate this communication by flagging things happening in Washington, D.C., and providing educational materials, data points, and other context that help with the actions mentioned above. We also engage in advocacy with key congressional committees, leadership, members of Congress and federal agencies on a regular basis, and we do so armed with the information you have provided us about your experiences. It’s a constant communication loop and ongoing educational effort, especially given turnover in the elections and in leadership.

The last (and arguably most important) thing to remember is that advocacy is about relationships. Establishing and maintaining those relationships requires credibility and trust, which can be built by doing the things mentioned above, by being responsive to policymakers’ questions and requests, and by being honest and transparent in all interactions (e.g., stating “I don’t know the answer now, but I will find out,” when necessary).

After 20 years advocating for public power, I am still motivated by who we are and what we do for our communities, and I am proud to be a public power advocate.