Keep It Simple, Stupid

By Bill Webb

We have all heard the saying, “keep it simple, stupid.” Dating back to the 1960s, the phrase applied to a design principle for developing naval aircraft. A lead engine for Lockheed Skunk Works, a defense contractor that built the U-2 spy plane, gave his team of design engineers a handful of tools, with the challenge that the jet aircraft they were designing must be repairable by an average mechanic in the field under combat conditions with only these tools. That is one version of how the phrase came about, yet there are probably many more.

I do my best to keep my writing and oral presentations simple. I like to focus my message on one or two key themes to keep my message succinct. Give the audience something to chew on…something they’ll remember from your presentation. There’s a tendency to think that more is better when we speak or write, but that is often not the case.  

On Capitol Hill, it works to your advantage in meetings with members of Congress and their staff to keep it simple. Quite often, members of Congress might have only 15 minutes to meet with constituents or lobbyists. Utilize the time effectively and efficiently. Avoid the small talk and cut right to the chase. Explain your intentions for the meeting and provide the key facts to convey your position.

You can also apply the “keep it simple” phrase to the legislative process. To demonstrate that point, we need to look no further than the Assistance to Firefighters and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant programs. To date, Congress has reauthorized these grant programs twice – once and the second time in 2018. On both occasions, the legislation passed successfully through the legislative process. Why? Because neither measure proposed significant changes to the grant programs, sending an important message to members of Congress that the programs continue to perform effectively.  

Because authorization of both programs expires after the Fiscal Year 2023, we are looking at reauthorization for both programs. Once again, our strategy is to keep it simple. We do not want to overly complicate our efforts or jeopardize the passage of reauthorization legislation. The last reauthorization bill was slightly more than two pages, which is insignificant when considering it also reauthorized the United States Fire Administration. Our plan is to keep things simple again this time around.

Always remember that members of Congress are most interested in hearing from their constituents.   We have data and key talking points, and we encourage you to share them with your members. It is critical to our efforts that your message is consistent with the message the national organizations develop and the same message your colleagues in other parts of the country share with their members. And that message boils down to how a federal fire program can benefit a fire department at the local level. And who can deliver that message better than anyone else in the simplest of terms? That would be you, a constituent and public safety leader in your community.  

Bill Webb has served as Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute since 1995. CFSI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute designed to enhance congressional awareness about the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services. As Executive Director, he works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders to sustain support on Capitol Hill for programs and legislation that benefit our nation’s fire and emergency services. Before joining CFSI, Webb worked for the Firefighter Combat Challenge as the project manager for the competition. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and is an honorary member of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department, the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters’ Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36. 

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