Spring 2013UC IrvineInformation & Computer Science ICS 139WDavid G. Kay

Influencing Policy


  How, then, might we contrive ... one noble lie
to persuade if possible the rulers themselves,
but failing that the rest of the city?

—Plato (The Republic, book I)

Literature is not an abstract science, to which exact definition can be applied.
It is an art, the success of which depends on personal persuasiveness,
on the author's skill to give as on ours to receive.

—Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Often we write to persuade someone to adopt our point of view or take some action. Perhaps more than any other writing, persuasive writing requires appreciation of the reader's interests and goals.

This assignment: For this assignment, you will write a letter to one of the policy makers listed below. In approximately three pages, you should take a position, recommend some action, and back it up with the best reasoning you can; don't just raise the issue or state a concern. Plan actually to send this letter; don't treat it as simply a classroom exercise.

Choose a public policy issue involving technology, an issue you care about strongly, and one about which you have some information or knowledge. It's much easier to write with conviction if you really have that conviction; it requires real talent to fake it. On the other hand, you must approach your topic with enough objectivity to understand the opposing point of view and deal with those arguments in a reasoned way.

Your topic should be one that you as a computer scientist have some particular reason to address. Some current policy issues that relate to computing are objectionable material on the Web, Email "spam," and various privacy issues.

You should choose a specific recipient, a policy maker who is an appropriate audience for your opinion, such as President Obama, Senator Boxer or Feinstein, or the editors of the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times. If you have a specialized issue, we can suggest other appropriate policy makers.

As a first step, write a five- to ten-line outline of your argument, listing the supporting points and the conclusion like a syllogism; turn this in with each revision of your letter. You may find useful the entries in one of the writing guides on argument, logic, and thesis; you might also think back on what you know about symbolic logic.

Your conclusion should recommend some action on someone's part; don't simply raise the issue and complain about the status quo. Moreover, be sure that the recipient of your letter is someone who has the power to take the action you recommend. Broadly, here are some guidelines: If you want a new law introduced (or if you want to support or oppose currently proposed legislation), write a legislator (Senators Feinstein or Boxer, your local member of Congress, or the chair of the relevant House or Senate committee). If you want some action by the Executive Branch (e.g., for the Justice Department to renew an antitrust case against Microsoft), write to the person in charge of that branch (the Attorney General in the case of the Justice Department). The most effective thing the President can do is move public opinion; you should write to the President if you want him to take a public stand on some issue (or if you want him to sign or veto a particular piece of legislation that has passed out of Congress); the President doesn't officially originate or introduce legislation, and he won't even have his staff propose legislation for a legislator to introduce except on the biggest public policy issues (like health care or tax reform).

If you took Writing 39C at UCI and wrote a research paper on a technical policy issue, you may write about the same issue here. Note, however, that a letter to a policy maker is different from a research paper: This letter is shorter, it won't cite research sources as completely and meticulously, and it will recommend to the recipient a particular course of action and address explicitly the reasons why the recipient should take that action. In particular, you need to say what you want, right up front, and then give the reasons. It's an unfortunate and brutal fact that high-profile officials receive hundreds or thousands of letters a day; they have staff who screen them, perhaps just reading the first paragraph and tallying the letter as "pro" or "con" on an particular issue. It's the rare letter that's so well written that the staff person will read the whole thing, and even rarer still that they'll pass it along to the official him- or herself. Of course it's that kind of gemlike letter that we're aiming for, but for it to pass the first threshold, it has to state up front what it wants the official to do.

Finally, make sure you address your letter properly; you don't say "Dear Mr. Obama" when addressing the President. (Search for "forms of address" in Google if you need to.)

Due dates:

• April 16—Your outline, together with a good draft of your letter. We will edit these jointly in class.

• April 23—A draft of your outline and letter, revised based on the joint editing. Also include your editor's comments.

• May 7—The final version of your letter, along with the outline and all previous versions.