Next year, the American Library Association’s Washington Office, known for decades by the shorthand ALAWASH, will turn 75 years old. And with the anniversary celebrations surely approaching, the office is in the midst of some pretty big changes. Most noticeable is a name change: after three-quarters of a century the office is now to be known as the ALA Office of Public Policy and Advocacy.
ALA officials say the changes to its Washington, D.C., operation are meant to streamline the organization and to reflect a more holistic approach to ALA's advocacy work, which spans local, state, and federal levels. But one thing that won’t change is the office’s reputation: ALA is regarded by many in Washington as running one of the most effective political and public advocacy operations in the country.
With librarians preparing to gather in Washington for the 2019 Annual Conference, PW recently caught up with Kathi Kromer, director of ALA’s Washington Office—er, make that Office of Public Policy and Advocacy—to talk about ALA’s advocacy work, its evolution, its effectiveness, and the current political climate in which it operates.
You’re two years into the job, having taken over for Emily Sheketoff, who retired in 2017. And what a two years it has been. By that I mean it really has been an unusual political climate, and an unusual administration under President Trump. Have all the playbooks you brought to the job from your previous advocacy work just gone out the window?
Well, as a government relations professional, I’m used to dealing with the bouncing back and forth between different administrations, and different parties taking over—I’ve been part of those types of changeovers before. But yes, I think the biggest challenge for any organization operating with the current administration is that there really is no predictability. I think many organizations are having do things very differently than they’ve done them in the past. Thankfully we have an awesome team here, and if you look at our accomplishments over these past two years, it’s evidence of the expertise that’s housed here in ALA’s public policy and advocacy office.
Aside from the unpredictability of the current administration, one of the problems I often hear expressed is that the current administration hasn’t staffed the government—that the people in the field just aren’t there, beyond all the acting agency heads. Has your office encountered that?
Absolutely. Within the regulatory agencies we work with it is a little more challenging these days, because, yes, there are positions that are unfilled, and sometimes you’re working with people who are there on a temporary basis. So, yeah, that’s a challenge. But it’s not insurmountable. We may have to do a little more educational work than we’ve had to do in the past, perhaps. But for the people who are filling in these roles, we’ve been able to help them understand our positions.
Then there’s the new Congress, which has seen a change in leadership, and a wave of energetic new members. How has that affected your work?
With more than 100 new members of Congress this year, I think even the most well-funded lobbying firms are not able to go out and develop relationships with all of those folks! For us, we’ve been focused on getting to know the new members, taking meetings, and learning what their priorities are, on both sides of the aisle. ALA is a 501(c)(3), so we don’t endorse particular parties or candidates—we really are neutral. And what we’ve seen over the years is how important it is to work with both sides of the aisle, which is one of the main reasons we’ve switched our focus to year-round advocacy.
That’s a phrase we’ve seen a lot in your work recently: “year-round advocacy.” Can you explain what that means?
Basically it’s a focus on making sure that our members are building great relationships back home, at the state and local levels. That’s important for a lot of reasons, including because as people move on in their political careers, sometimes because of term limits, they come into other offices, often here in Washington, D.C. So we’re working to strengthen our chapters at the state level, for example, because many of our members there have relationships with their representatives that go back several years. It’s about getting to know people when they’re on the city council, and staying in touch when they become state representatives. And then, when that person runs for that federal seat, you have that relationship, you’ve built up that trust. They know that you’re asset for them.
So, year-round advocacy isn’t just about emailing your representatives all year—it’s really about personally engaging with all of your representatives about your library and your work, at every level, and keeping those relationships throughout your rep’s careers, wherever it takes them, whether to Congress, or to the statehouse?
Yes. It’s about relationships, because that’s really a lot of what we do. We have the issue and policy expertise here in this office, as well as the connections with the regulatory agencies and legislators. But one thing that we don’t have is the personal stories, because we’re not actually out in the field, in the library every day. That’s why we need to have a strong partnership with our members. We need to be sure our members have the resources they need to build these relationships at home, at the local level, because, look, that can be a scary thing, especially if you have a very high profile member of Congress. Say Susan Collins is your senator, and you’re used to just seeing her on TV. It can be intimidating to visit her office, or to invite her to your library, right?
Or, for that matter, it can probably be intimidating just to reach out to your local mayor?
That’s right, absolutely. These are the people who determine your funding. But it’s really important that we build these relationships. And it can relieve the pressure of having to one day cold-call a new member of Congress, saying you want to come in and get to know them—because they know you already. In fact, ideally they’ll be seeking you out.
You know, so much has changed in politics. You used to be able to have some software do an issue alert, and that was OK. But today, the Hill is saturated with that stuff. We’ve heard statistics suggesting a more than 800% increase in email coming into congressional offices. And, you know, the staffing hasn’t changed. They’re still at the same level. So, with year-round advocacy, we want to change the way things operate. We think it’s important to adapt and change our advocacy program to provide ALA members with the right tools and resources to advocate most effectively.
Let’s talk about some of the issues you’re working on, starting with the federal budget: despite the Trump Administration’s third straight proposal to eliminate the IMLS, and virtually all federal library funding, Congress has gone in the opposite direction. I’ve heard some people suggest that we should just ignore the president’s proposals, that they are meaningless. Should we?
Oh, no, no, no, no. The administration’s budget proposal is their ideal budget, and we should never discount that. I think one of the reasons we have seen such a strong rebuttal to the president from Congress on library funding is because our advocates have taken the administration’s proposals seriously, and they’ve made it a point to remind their elected officials of the importance of libraries in their community.
As of now, the House Appropriations Committee has passed a funding bill with a healthy boost for the IMLS and some other important programs. Do you have a rough timeline of how the final budget will play out?
We’re very pleased to see how things came out from the House Appropriations Committee, and we’re anxious to see what will happen next. We expect to see some action on the Senate side in June.
Meanwhile, there have been noises about a $2 trillion infrastructure bill, which I’m sure libraries would benefit from, if it happens. But I’ll ask you bluntly: Is this talk of an infrastructure bill real? Do you treat it like it’s real?
The talk is real, absolutely. Whether a bill actually emerges is up in the air. But we are always on the lookout for opportunities to best position libraries for success, and we actually have had several conversations with offices on the Hill that are looking to figure out what they can get into an infrastructure bill. We don’t know what will happen, but again it is our job to best position libraries. So we are going to make sure that we are there, and, if there is actually is a bill, that we part of it.
ALA has been a vocal advocate for net neutrality. Any updates there?
There have been a few different bills introduced on net neutrality, but I think we’re going to have to see what happens with the courts. That’s my guess on that one. But net neutrality is a great example of our strong partnerships here in Washington, D.C. We do a lot of work with a variety of coalitions on that issue, to make sure that the library voice is heard. In fact, I would say ALA is actually a coveted partner on this issue.
ALA has been doing yeoman’s work preparing for the upcoming 2020 census. Why is the census such an important issue for libraries?
Oh, the census is important to everybody, because we all want a complete and accurate count. But I think the reason why libraries and ALA got involved so early with the 2020 census was because one of our state librarians warned us that some components of the 2020 census will be online, and that if libraries didn’t get ahead of the curve on this, we were going to get crushed. I think we’ve learned some lessons from other government mandates, too, like the Affordable Care Act, where libraries saw so many people coming in with questions.
With the census, there’s clearly an important role for libraries to play, and last month our 2020 Census Library Outreach and Education Task Force released a guide for libraries. I have to give kudos to Gavin Baker and Larra Clark, who did a really great job bringing that together, and in working to make sure that libraries are prepared for the 2020 census. And because we’re in the census’s backyard, we’re going to have lots of folks from the census department here at ALA annual to help answer questions for librarians.
One of the key topics of discussion at the conference will be the future of ALA itself, as an organization. And some of that change is coming to the Washington Office. Can you tell us a little about that?
Yes, so just last month, we made a decision on how to best focus our resources. And, for reasons we talked a little bit about earlier, we realized that ALA really needed to have the federal, state, and local advocacy operations all housed in one office and one unit. So, the ALA Office of Library Advocacy has been eliminated and absorbed here. And the ALA Washington Office is now going to be called the ALA Public Policy and Advocacy Office. This change will help us be more efficient, better align our advocacy efforts on the federal, state, and local level, and ultimately provide better resources to ALA members. After all, how you advocate at the local level involves the same fundamental skills and strategies you use at the federal level.
Your office has a long-established reputation for being very effective in its ability to pursue important public policy goals without getting bogged down in, well, politics. Why has ALA been so effective in the policy arena?
Not to give ALA too big a pat on the back, but you really have to appreciate the fact that next year will be our 75th anniversary. That ALA realized nearly 75 years ago that in order to be effective with library policy, it needed to make an investment in public policy here in Washington, D.C., that took vision, and foresight.
What’s made us successful is our members, and our partnerships with the state chapters, as well as other groups that are out there. For example, we have a strong relationship with COSLA [Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, an organization of state librarians]. The state librarians carry a certain amount of cachet. And we do a lot of work with the affiliates: AASL [American Association of School Librarians] and ACRL [the Association of College and Research Libraries], for example. I think we kind of serve as the strategists, but it’s our members and partners out there doing the hard work and sharing the message. Because we all know we’re stronger together.