Comments Welcome  Draft 3/29/2012 by Paul Burke



People lament the lack of Civics education. What would a full course look like?

What do people need to know about government?


A. Know roles and relationships involved in government

B. Know internal dynamics of each group

C. Practice on one issue

D. Learn how other groups and people have successfully affected government

E. How and why was the current structure established?

F. Examples of Issues and Sources

G. Other Lesson Plans


A. Know roles and relationships involved in government:

 What do legislators, executives, judges, appointed boards, and government employees (civilian & uniformed) do, and how do they interact? Not just separation of powers, but cooperation, embarrassment, information, persistence, non-compliance, creative interpretation.

Identifying issues, drafting laws, responding to voter requests, improving how laws are carried out, drafting and improving regulations, making decisions

Officials get (incomplete) information from other officials, employees, outside experts and lobbyists. President Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex "The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government."

There are many appointed boards, especially at local level (zoning, health, parks, environment, etc.). Tracking and affecting them requires many citizens to work together, or a well-funded effort.

Laws, after they are passed, are limited by the difficulty of enforcing them.

People can re-interpret even the clearest words. Interpretation has been a major concern for the supreme court, but it happens in every court and every bureaucracy after laws are passed.

Corruption by government officials is often investigated and prosecuted by local, state and federal agencies. The FBI says government corruption is one of their top criminal priorities (1,600 convictions in 2008-2009). Federal prosecutors average 1,000 people charged and convicted each year (Table 2, p.53), ranging from 1 per year in Western Arkansas, Northern Iowa, and Northern West Virginia to over 30 per year in Central California, DC, Southern Florida, Northern Illinois, New Jersey, Northern Ohio, Eastern Pennsylvania, and Eastern Virginia (Table 3 p.54).

Even when actions are entirely legal, officials dislike public criticism and embarrassment, since voters may remember.


Levels of government

States, Counties, cities, towns, tribes, school boards


How do political parties and political campaigns work and what effect do they have?

Parties raise and distribute money.

Many voters use party labels to decide between lesser known candidates.

Campaigns mobilize volunteers, ads and news stories.

Long term issues: Incumbency, gerrymandering, fundraising, primaries dominated by narrow interests

80% of elected officials do not follow through on the major issues which they ran on, They retreat and support old policies they ran against. Groups report Congressional voting records, but rarely state or local lawmakers' voting records. Challengers often do not have voting records.


How do contributors, lobbyists, experts, lawsuits, grass roots movements and foreigners affect government?

Contributors determine who can run for office, then lobby or run grassroots campaigns. The best funded do not always win, but they lobby well, and the unfunded generally lose. Candidates, lobbyists and movements can raise money from the few with a lot of money, the many with a little money, or both:

43% of the world's assets are controlled by 1% of adults (50,000,000 adults, half of whom are millionaires, and 1,000 are billionaires)

83% of the world's assets are controlled by 10% of adults (Economist 1/20/2011 Global Leaders: "This suggests a huge disparity of influence." "The tea parties and Avaaz show that you do not need to spend a lot of money to be influential... The main danger of money in politics is not that the rich will buy an election, but that they will lobby the victor for favours. A tax break here, a subsidy there and soon you are talking about real money. In America, lobbying by hospitals and drug firms soared as Congress debated Mr Obama’s health reforms..." Heritage Foundation "fingerprints can be found on the fine detail of legislation since 1977... When a bill is being mooted, Heritage supplies ideas. During drafting, Heritage scholars suggest revisions. And when a vote is near, Heritage gives every lawmaker an easily digestible two-page document explaining what the bill contains and what its effects might be.")

Lobbyists and experts provide the (often biased and trendy) "facts" which affect decisions.

Government officials who regulate companies are usually "captured" by common attitudes and assumptions with those they regulate, and lose touch with public needs, whether or not they later take jobs with these companies.

Universities whose Senators are on the Senate Appropriations Committee receive an average of $11-$17 in extra grants per dollar spent lobbying. Universities whose Representatives are on the House Appropriations Committee "obtain $20-$36 for each dollar spent" on lobbying. (full study)

In local government, builders lobby about zoning and historic preservation. Businesses lobby about parking, roads, industrial parks, and tax breaks. Sports teams lobby about parks and arenas.

Professional lobbyists focus only on bills with a good chance of passage, estimated by the Congressional Bills Legislative Forecast - Current Congress database by StateNet (available on Lexis (LEGIS;BLCAST)), CQ's Bill Analysis and Westlaw's Bill Cast

Lawsuits can force compliance with laws at the margins, but when powerful interests lose too many lawsuits they work on changing the laws or interpretations

Grass roots movements sometimes add items or viewpoints to the discussion, but can make decisions only where referendums are allowed. Grass roots movements also need contributors, experts and lobbyists.

Roles of letters, flyers, mailings, ads, petitions, phone calls, marches, rallies, protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience

People in other countries, with their own government systems, act, negotiate, and create pressures in order to advance their own goals.


Getting what we want in a democracy requires that we know who the actors are and how we can influence them.

Information. Public awareness. Public pressure. Recruiting candidates.


B. Know internal dynamics of each group:

Elected officials: Legislatures, President, Governors, Mayors, Councils, other (school boards, some judges, separately elected administrators)

Appointed members of committees and boards: volunteer or paid, constituencies, expert or not, time available

Appointed staff: motives, knowledge, resources. How are they are hired, evaluated and promoted?

Lobbyists: motives, knowledge, methods, resources, mass campaigns, information, writing laws and regulations

Media: concept of a "story," constraints, budgets of time, space, money, competition, supervision, independence, ownership

Public: attention span, viral campaigns, range of knowledge, commitment, persistence


C. Practice on one issue (Examples on next page may interest students without being too controversial for class work. Adults can use these or any other issues.)


Research online and on paper

Interview people with knowledge

Identify problem areas & reasons they have not been solved before

Discuss with supporters and opponents



Write your position and arguments

Set up and publicize a web page

Join an existing group which will help you lobby, or set up and publicize a new group

Identify people with authority or influence and lobby them

Consider when to use: ads, posters, flyers, meetings, events, canvassing, letters, petitions, studies, controversy, consensus, emotions, facts, idealism, self-interest

Consider when to seek changes in laws, regulations, administrative policies & decisions, exceptions, enforcement, penalties, social norms & habits

Continue what works; change what fails

The Congressional Management Foundation has a graph comparing effectiveness of letters, lobbyists and phone calls in influencing Congress. They also have advice They say individualized letters and emails are more effective with Congress than phone calls, probably because most phone calls to Congress are limited to a brief message taken by a receptionist. Calls to local officials will be longer and maybe more effective. Research on local and state government would be useful.

A survey by Fortune said that lobbying is more effective than campaign contributions. shows the wide variety of messages being sent to Congress, and the challenges in making an impression there ("soapbox alerts" from individuals and "action alerts" from groups). They provide a meter to help keep emails under 1,500 characters (not words).


D. Learn how other groups and people have successfully affected government. Pick your own examples

Elected officials

Non-elected individuals, like Clara Barton, Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King Jr., Karl Rove

Organizations, like AARP, Chamber of Commerce, NRA

What did they accomplish?

How did they approach the task?

How long did it take?

Who were their allies & opponents?

How did they motivate the public? the media?

How did they motivate the government?

Divide a class to study at least two local people or groups who have affected the local government recently.


E. How and why was the current structure established?

National constitution, state constitutions, city charters

Federal and state rules on Press, Parties, Lobbying, Campaign finance, Government workers, Lawsuits, Demonstrations, Petitions

See how hard it is to measure what Americans already know:

Quiz online (click "Results" on each question)

Oral quiz with 118 questions (and 500 answers), read over the telephone to a random sample of 2,508 US adults



F. Examples of Issues and Sources

 School Civics curriculum needs to give students examples to work on, with minimum controversy. Possible topics, depending on local concerns, include:





Click to share tips with other activists






Corporate honesty

BBB, groups, news stories, books, whistleblower sites

attorneys, customers, competitors

cost, competitive pressure, cynicism

BBB, consumer review sites, law enforcement


Data privacy, especially for children

laws, groups

parents, children, webmasters, medical offices

accidents, theft, programming flaws

parents, children, webmasters, medical offices


Election security

researchers, news stories, election machine websites

election officials, voters, building managers where voting equipment is used or stored

convenience, perception that huge money is not at stake in elections or that all politicians are honest; programmers trust machines are locked up while building managers trust machines are hard to infect; tamper-evident seals can be tampered; few options when tampering is suspected (hard to re-run election); officials do not anticipate well-funded expert criminals

election officials, voters, building managers

Emergency preparedness

emergency advice, news stories

local emergency preparedness planners, businesses, families

rare need, lengthy advice, expensive supplies, need to rotate supplies, security risks of offsite backups, difficulty of transporting recommended supplies in an emergency

local emergency preparedness planners, businesses, families




exercise reports, websites

PE teachers, health clubs, running & weight loss clubs

discomfort, time, benefits are months or decades away



Healthy eating

health reports, websites

dieticians, weight loss clubs

hunger, taste, complexity, changing research, alternative advice, time-consuming to learn/shop/cook/eat/clean up, benefits are months or decades away




websites on pothole repair, road budget

road/highway department, repair crews, asphalt plants

cost, traffic, heavy vehicles, freezing temperatures, brittle materials

council, legislature, homeowner associations, road department




readers, non-readers

time-consuming to choose and read, inaccuracy, outdated



Reduced bullying

groups, bullying policies, disciplinary policies and enforcement

teachers, bullies, popular & unpopular students

non-reporting, attitudes, difficulty of proof, few appropriate penalties

teachers, bullies, popular & unpopular students


Reduced medical errors

groups, researchers, error statistics

medical offices, pharmacists, nursing homes, hospitals

time, exhaustion, number of people involved in patient care, complexity of drugs and procedures

regulators, medical offices, pharmacists, nursing homes, hospitals

Safety practices: work, home, public areas

groups, researchers, safety statistics

businesses, families, officials

time, convenience, worker and boss resistance, cost

businesses, families, officials


Textbook improvements and cost reductions

groups, researchers

Teachers on and off textbook selection committees, publishers, authors, students

lack of measurement of effectiveness, preference for pictures and mentioning everything, tradition of expensive free samples

local & state school boards, textbook selection committees, teachers


Toy safety

groups, researchers, safety statistics

toy stores, parents, children

constant redesigns, widespread manufacturing, variety of risks

regulators, manufacturers, toy stores, parents, children



G. Other Lesson Plans