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  • What is a watchdog?

  • Why act as a watchdog?

  • Who can act as a watchdog?

  • When should you act as a watchdog?

  • How do you act as a watchdog?

If your dog functions as a watchdog, it’s often because you want some level of protection from intruders, fire, or other forces that might do you harm. A watchdog organization can provide that same kind of protection to a community and its members. By gathering and publicizing information and – sometimes – taking direct action, it can expose and address issues related to health, economic security, the environment, community quality of life, and the public interest. This section will discuss what it means to function as a watchdog, and provide some guidance for both choosing what kind of watchdog to be and how to function in your chosen role.

What is a watchdog?

In the context of this section, a watchdog is an individual or group (generally non-profit) that keeps an eye on a particular entity or a particular element of community concern, and warns members of the community when potential or actual problems arise. Watchdogs may be concerned with anything from the actions of a single individual to the policies of several national governments. They may monitor one issue or many; their concerns may be local or global...or both.

Just like actual watchdogs, watchdog individuals and organizations vary in what they do. For some, just sounding the alarm is the goal. Others might try to use their information actively to stave off problems. A few will actually tackle problems head-on, entering into lawsuits or other pitched battles with individuals or institutions that they see as threatening to the public interest or the well-being of the community.

While some watchdog organizations concentrate solely on that function, many have other purposes as well, and include the watchdog role as only one of the things they do. The watchdog role overlaps with that of the advocate, but the thrust of most advocacy is the advancement of a cause or the improvement of conditions for a particular population or geographic area. The express purpose of watchdogs – the reason they’re called watchdogs – is protection.

Watchdog organizations and individuals are like sentries. They keep an eye on powerful forces – governments and particular government bodies and agencies, corporations, organizations, institutions – to make sure that their operations and actions don’t cause harm or conflict with the public interest.  When they find that conflict, they may act as whistle-blowers, exposing illegal or other negative actions or practices to public view, and expecting that that exposure will bring about the appropriate measures as a result of a public outcry. Alternatively, some watchdogs may lobby, engage in direct action of some sort, or go to court to stop actions or reverse conditions that endanger or otherwise harm the community or its members.

Examples of watchdogs can range from the small-town resident who attends and takes careful notes at every selectboard and town board meeting to the big-city school reform organization that has a presence at all school committee and subcommittee meetings. Some individuals or organizations might monitor a single corporation to ensure that it doesn’t illegally spew pollutants into the environment or discriminate in hiring. Others might keep a close watch on a state government agency or the state legislature to guard against any decisions or practices that are inconsistent with the good of the public.

On a larger scale, organizations like Common Cause, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists,Greenpeace, and Corporate Watch keep tabs on the ethics and practices of the U.S. and other federal governments, on global corporations, or on environmental issues worldwide. There are watchdogs that address consumer issues, health, the qualifications of members of various professions, fairness in the media, discrimination in such areas as housing, and numerous other topics. In short, you might be a watchdog on the local, state, federal, or international levels; you might monitor almost any issue; and you might direct your attention to almost any individual, group, organization, sector (business, government, education, etc.), or institution that has some effect on the physical, social, economic, or political well-being of the community, the state, the nation, or the world.

Given all that, what kind of watchdog should you be?  That depends on several factors.

  • What resources do you have?  Remember, resources include not only money, but also people and their skills and talents, time, space, etc. Acting as a watchdog takes lots of time, the ability to gain accurate information quickly, communication and interpersonal skills, and, if you’re planning to go to court, or to stay in the watchdog business for the long term, the right people and a fair amount of money.

Resources here include not only the people with the skills to do the job, but with the energy, enthusiasm, and will to keep at it, often in the face of massive frustration, over a long period of time.  Amnesty International, for instance, which documents human rights abuses around the globe, has been at it for nearly 50 years.  While its reports have called attention to and sometimes stopped abuses, new atrocities arise nearly every day.  As torture ceases in one place, it begins in another.  Acting as a watchdog is not a job for people who expect fast and easy results, or who have difficulty continuing to move forward in the face of setbacks.

  • What is your philosophy of activism?  If you have a specific political or social agenda, you may choose to act differently than if you are simply trying to get at the facts of a situation. Some very effective watchdogs bend over backwards to be neutral. Others make no apologies for the fact that they are advocates for a cause or a political position. There are arguments to be made for either stance, but the one you decide to take will help you determine how to approach your watchdog activities.
  • What or whom are you watching?  If your concern is the performance of the local school committee, you may not need more than a small number of volunteers with notepads and pencils to monitor it effectively. If your concern is human rights worldwide, you’ll need enormous resources just to keep track of information. You may be able to be much more active in having an effect on the school committee. Human rights activism may have to depend on other organizations around the world that use your findings to bring about change.
  • Do you have opponents, and who are they?  The larger and more powerful your opponents, the harder it will be to monitor the activities or policies they support. They may try to stop your activities through the courts, or shut off your access to information. You may have to spend lots of time and money just getting access to information, and you may find roadblocks at every new corner.
  • What are your goals?  Is this a short-term project, or something that will need to go on for many years?  Are you aiming for a specific, concrete result – a change in the way a certain factory disposes of its industrial waste, for instance – or something larger and less well-defined – an improvement in economic and social conditions for the disadvantaged?  Your goal and its feasibility can help you decide what kind of watchdog to be.
  • Are you the best individual or organization to take action?  As a watchdog, your first function is to monitor and call attention to actions and policies that harm members of the community or are contrary to the public interest. There may be other groups whose function is specifically to challenge entities or governmental bodies that carry out such actions and policies. Those groups may have the experience, the backing, and the personnel to take action much more effectively than you can, if they’re armed with the information you can provide.

By the same token, there may be other watchdog organizations that are already doing a good job of gathering the information you’re gathering.  If that’s the case, becoming a watchdog may not be a good idea for you, and might be better left to those who are already engaged in it.

Common sectors/entities that watchdogs monitor

Government

There are watchdog organizations monitoring government at all levels, from that local school board mentioned above, right up to national governments and the United Nations.  In the US, for instance, the Congressional Accountability Project keeps an eye on the activities of members of the US Congress and the Congress as a whole. The Government Accountability Project looks at the US government as a whole.

At the local level, government monitoring might be simpler.  We’ve already mentioned the possibility of keeping watch on the local school committee. Other local watchdogs might be concerned with the zoning and/or planning boards, the board of health, the sewer commission or water resources board, the capital planning committee – any local government entity, in fact, since all of their decisions are funded by taxpayers’ money and affect the whole community in some way.

Corporations and business

Watchdogs may observe the whole business arena, pay special attention to specific areas within it (technology firms, for instance), or focus on the activities of particular corporations.  Corporate Watch and the Corporate Accountability Project publicize the doings of multinational corporations.

Media

In the US, there are media watchdogs – many of them – at both ends of the political spectrum. FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), tries to keep the media honest from the liberal side. The Media Research Center is its conservative counterpart.

There is another type of media watchdog whose concern is freedom of the press. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a US-based organization that highlights threats and violence against journalists and a free press around the globe, is one example. Its function is to publicize the plight of journalists who have been arrested, threatened, brutalized, or killed in the course of trying to report the truth, and to promote freedom of the press around the world.

The environment

Environmental watchdogs abound around the world, from global organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth International to local groups like the Millers River Watershed Council in central Massachusetts and the larger, Toronto-based Lake Ontario Keeper.

Many of these groups, like Greenpeace, engage in direct action (to the point where, several years ago, the French government, in a fury over Greenpeace’s attempted disruption of its atomic bomb tests in the Pacific, sank the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior.)  Others, like the Sierra Club, use advocacy and  legal action to protect the environment and to further environmental aims. Some are focused on a single issue – clean air, endangered species, or recycling – while others, like the Sierra Club, address the range of environmental issues.

Human rights

With the United Nations’ publication of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and its establishment of the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights, which became the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2006, and then with the founding of Amnesty International in the early 1960’s, the modern human rights movement came into being.  There are currently many organizations acting as human rights watchdogs around the world. The determinedly non-political Amnesty International continues its work on behalf of prisoners of conscience. Human Rights Watch, which grew out of the Helsinki Accords on human rights in the 1970’s, calls attention to human rights violations worldwide. Physicians for Human Rights USA and its international counterpart use the access and knowledge of physicians to call attention particularly to human rights violations involving physical abuse and torture.

While some watchdog organizations have a clear political agenda, Amnesty International is a prime example of a watchdog that plays no political favorites.  In a short span in 1977, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, accused by the then-right-wing Argentine government of being a front for the Soviet KGB, and accused by the Soviets of being founded and financed by the American CIA.

Hate groups

In the U.S., the Southern Poverty Law Center publishes a regular intelligence report on the activities of groups that target others for violence specifically because of their beliefs, their ethnic or racial backgrounds, or other characteristics for which they aren’t responsible. Among the more than 600 organizations SPLC monitors are the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nation, and various black separatist groups and white-supremacist militias.

American freedoms and civil rights

Both progressive organizations, such as People for the American Way, and conservative ones like American Values and the Christian Coalition act as watchdogs to protect what they see as the core American values. The debate over what constitutes those values is still so volatile, more than two centuries after the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that groups from all corners of the political universe – from anarchists, progressives, and liberals on the left to centrists to conservatives, libertarians, and authoritarians on the right – feel that they are threatened enough to merit a watchdog stance.

Public safety

The National Safety Council does research and issues reports and information to the public on such areas relating to public safety as health and medicine, fire prevention and preparedness, accidents, emergencies and disasters, and driving.

Consumer affairs

Consumer watchdog groups like the Better Business Bureau and Better Business Bureau For Charities and Donors, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a U.S. government agency, try to make sure that consumers have access to products and services that are safe, reliable, useful, and reasonably priced.  They issue warnings, for instance, about toys that are dangerous to young children, and their early protests are responsible for the now-common labeling practice that explains why a particular toy might be dangerous to a child below a certain age. Consumer groups in the US have also alerted buyers to genetically engineered and irradiated food, telephone sales swindles, and unsafe appliances.

The general public good

Common Cause and the Ralph Nader-founded Public Citizen cover the gamut of public issues. They monitor government, business, the environment, and any other areas where the public interest is threatened.

Most of these examples are of watchdog organizations that function on the national or international level, but, as we have discussed, watchdogs can be local as well.

Some examples:

  • In one community, white supremacist literature attacking minority groups was dropped anonymously on the front lawns of many community homes. After the second such incident, the local Human Rights Commission, charged with responding to such events, reacted by collecting small contributions from community members in order to publish a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper. The printed notice, condemning such activity, appeared with the names of several hundred of the town’s leaders.
  • A historical commission in a town serves in part to protect historic buildings against demolition, even if they stand in the way of new development. If demolition of a historic building is threatened, the commission will generally get involved, informing the public about the impending destruction of a historic site; it can at the minimum delay such proceedings until a full review is completed.
  • Local news media can serve as watchdogs as well. (Some would say that that’s the primary job of the news media.)  For example, Voice of San Diego has exposed municipal corruption in that city; similar online news organizations operate in Seattle, Minneapolis – St. Paul, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Haven, Connecticut. (See “Web Sites That Dig for News Rise as Community Watchdogs,”  in the New York Times, November 16, 2008, p. 10.)

Why act as a watchdog?

There are obviously a number of reasons why you or your organization might want to act as a watchdog.  Most of them have to do with doing the right thing and serving society, but the first one we list here is probably the most powerful, and the one behind most watchdog activity.

  • Self-interest. Often, a group begins acting as a watchdog because something it considers important is being threatened, or something that it wants to see done isn’t happening. Members of environmental watchdog organizations are likely to enjoy the outdoors, for instance; members of organizations that see themselves as protecting the rights of taxpayers are usually concerned about the size of their own tax bills. Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with that. Self-interest can act to make people passionate about things that are important for others as well, and, ultimately, they may find themselves caring as much about others’ interests as they do their own.
  • To defend those with little political or economic power, and help them learn how to gain and use that power. Too often, politicians, corporations, and others with clout choose to use it at the expense of those with very little. Funding for health and human service programs that benefit low-income families is cut at the first sign of economic difficulty.  Power plants that belch smoke, highways, airports, and sewage treatment plants are often located in low-income or minority neighborhoods. A watchdog group can speak on behalf of those who haven’t yet gained the skills to know when and how to speak for themselves, can model those skills, and can recruit budding leaders from among that population, so they can act as their own watchdogs.
  • To keep citizens aware of what is happening in their community and their world. Perhaps the primary function of watchdogs is to gather and provide information that isn’t available elsewhere.  Much of what they report is learned only from determined digging, or from whistleblowers who won’t talk to the press or to official investigators. As a result, they are often able to inform the public about things that government, business, or others would rather they not know. In a democracy, it is crucial that citizens understand what their leaders and other powerful people are doing, and what the social realities are. A watchdog may reveal hidden government or corporate wrongdoing or incompetence, point out an important, but ignored, community issue that cries for resolution, or highlight the unfair or unjust treatment of particular groups or individuals. It thus gives the public the information it needs to understand and begin to correct the situation.
  • To maintain power in the hands of the community, rather than of those who have money or power or connections. In a democratic society, political power, by definition, rests with citizens.  In too many cases, however, that power is assumed, without most people realizing it, by a small group of influential people who often use it for their own ends. A watchdog, by making such a situation apparent, can make it possible for a community, or a nation, to maintain or reclaim that power, and to assure that everyone is playing by the same rules.
  • To prevent bad consequences that could cost the community economically or socially. By pointing out circumstances that need to be corrected, a watchdog can help a community avoid the possibility of a lawsuit, an environmental cleanup, racial conflict, or other results that could be costly, or even disastrous.
  • To promote social justice and social change. Watchdog activity can help to assure that everyone is treated fairly, that all members of a community get what they need, and that people understand and support the need for change to make the community a better place to live.
  • To maintain democratic ideals. Thomas Jefferson may or may not have written “An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy.” (No one has ever found the exact source of that quote.)  He did, however, write, in 1820, near the end of a long, eventful, and thoughtful life: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of a society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”

In other words, the preservation of democracy depends upon its powers being exercised by all citizens. If they don’t seem to have the knowledge and information to exercise those powers, then the solution is to make sure they get that knowledge and information. A good part of a watchdog’s duties is to perform that function.

  • Simple justice. Sometimes, the doings of a particular entity – a government body, a corporation, an institution, a social group – are just plain wrong. It may be overtly harming others, dishonestly inciting others to do so, enriching itself at others’ expense, or willfully refusing to correct conditions that harm individuals, groups, or the community as a whole.  Watchdogs can expose its activity or inaction, hold it up to the light of public scrutiny, and see that it answers for the harm it’s caused.

Who should act as a watchdog?

There are watchdog organizations – Amnesty International is a good example – that were founded specifically for that purpose. There are others – the Sierra Club, for instance – that were founded for, and still fulfill, other purposes, but serve a watchdog function. In fact, any organization that has an agenda should include being a watchdog as one of its roles.

Some organizations and individuals for whom acting as a watchdog at least some of the time might be appropriate include:

  • Agencies or organizations concerned with a particular issue. It would make sense for an environmental organization to keep an eye on the neighborhood polluter, or for an elder advocacy group to monitor the price of medications.
  • People affected by an issue or condition, or organizations that represent them. People who are speakers of languages other than English, or an English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) program might be vigilant for discrimination in hiring in situations where language really isn’t a factor in whether the applicant can do a job.
  • Professional organizations. State bar associations may act as watchdogs by scrutinizing the ethics of lawyers; the Better Business Bureau, a business organization, alerts the community to unethical or incompetent businesses.
  • Organizations that represent the general public interest. We referred above to such groups as Common Cause and Public Citizen, which operate nationwide . State Public Interest Research Groups keep watch over the public good at a state level. While relatively few organizations start out as multi-issue watchdogs at the local level, some evolve into that role over time.
  • Agencies, organizations, and individuals concerned with the economic consequences of policies, practices, and actions. Taxpayers’ organizations – both those that campaign for fewer taxes, and those that campaign for fairer or more taxes – generally keep their eyes open for government waste and violations of what they consider economic rights. Unions try to safeguard the economic security and rights of their members, and pay careful attention to the economic consequences of employers’ decisions.
  • Those who are members of minority groups or represent minority interests, and want to make sure they aren’t discriminated against, and that their concerns aren’t ignored or forgotten. Civil rights organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, neighborhood ethnic organizations, and lesbian/gay support organizations are all examples here.
  • Those concerned with the maintenance of democratic ideals. People for the American Way, the [British] Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, San Francisco-based Global Exchange, and New York-based Freedom House are all watchdog organizations concerned with the state of democracy.  Smaller organizations that operate to gain publicly-funded elections, or simply to assure honest and competent government, may fill the same niche locally.

While the examples above are mostly of organizations, note that it is also possible for an individual to act as a watchdog. That person is often self-appointed, and is motivated by passion, and sometimes expert knowledge, about a particular issue. On a local level, that issue might be park maintenance, or sex education, or town finances, or pothole repair – you can be a watchdog on any local issue.

Individual watchdogs can be extremely effective, because of their passion and knowledge, together with the time they devote to their cause.  They can also be seen as – and can sometimes be – misinformed or obstructive, community cranks who are a pain in everyone’s neck.  If you take on an individual watchdog role, be sure you have your facts straight, and that what you’re monitoring is actually important to the public or the universal interest.  (Keeping an endangered insect or fish species alive may not be popular or seen to be in the public interest, but there’s a legitimate and important argument to be made in its favor.  It’s harder to make the same case for monitoring the color of the bricks used in the new pedestrian mall.)

When should you act as a watchdog?

As with most policy-related activities, functioning as a watchdog is something that should be done constantly by nearly everyone. But just as there are people and groups who might be more effective as watchdogs than others, there are times when watchdog activity is particularly appropriate and useful.

  • When you’re seeking to institute or change laws or regulations. Watchdog activity is useful here in order to bolster arguments for the change you’re advocating. If you can show that a corporation is cheating or defrauding its shareholders, for instance, you may be able to convince legislators or officials to enact stricter laws to keep that from happening.

The U.S. Congress, in the wake of the shady deals and accounting scandals accompanying the failures of Enron, Worldcom, and other corporations, enacted new laws to regulate the accounting industry and hold CEO’s and corporate boards more accountable for the dealings of their corporations. Much of the information that led to this legislation was uncovered by public and private watchdog organizations.

  • When a new project or venture is starting or about to start, and you have doubts about its impact. You may be concerned that a proposed hospital merger will result in reduced care for the uninsured, or that a new business will have an environmental impact far beyond what’s projected. If your watchdogging shows you’re right, you may be able to stave off or change the project to avoid the negative consequences.
  • When you believe the public interest is threatened. When laws or regulations act to benefit an individual or small group at the expense of the rest of the community; when an entity is engaging in practices that threaten the health, safety, economic well-being, or social stability of the community; when policies endanger the rights or interests of a particular group, especially a disenfranchised one – any of these is a good time to assume the mantle of watchdog, to protect the best interests of the community.
  • When an entity or individual – government or a government official, a corporation or industry, a police department, a human service program, etc. – has proven untrustworthy in the past. Civilian review boards – watchdogs by definition – are often set up to monitor police departments that have been shown to be prone to brutality, racism, or other abuses of power.
  • When you receive information about actual, planned, or likely harmful or questionable actions or practices. In such cases, you learn – from a whistle-blower, a trusted source, or your own investigations – that ethical or legal misconduct has taken place, that established procedures are not being followed, or that some form of injustice has occurred or is likely to occur. This a classic situation where a watchdog can cast a light on dark practices and prevent abuse of the public.
  • When democracy is actually or potentially under attack. When a political machine threatens to gain control of the political process, when a group of people is being denied their constitutional rights, or when a lobbyist or a small group or individual with deep pockets and connections seems to be calling the shots, watchdogs are desperately needed.
  • When simple justice demands it. Sometimes, it’s just necessary that there be someone who’ll call a spade a spade. When wrongdoing or blatant unfairness is going unchallenged, a watchdog might be the best defense against injustice.

How do you act as a watchdog?

Now that you’ve decided you want to be a watchdog, and determined what kind of watchdog you want to be, what’s next?  Quite a bit, as it happens.  Being a human watchdog isn’t as easy as being a canine one. There’s very little sleeping in the sun or barking at the garbage man. You have to know a great deal about the issue and the entities you’re concerned with, be constantly vigilant for information, and then do something effective with that information once you have it.

Do your research

This isn’t a single step, but an ongoing watchdog function. Watchdogs are researching constantly.  It’s the one part of the function that never has a clear end.

Learn everything you need to know to be able to explain and discuss the background and history of the issue(s), situation(s), and entities that you’re concerned with

If you’re going to be an effective watchdog, you have to know when a piece of information is important, and what it means. That means being totally familiar with:

  • The laws and regulations that cover the areas and entities you’re interested in. These might include environmental laws, rules for corporate reporting, the bylaws of the town school committee, or whatever other laws and regulations are relevant.
  • Background information. This includes the economics, history (both general and local), politics, and psychological or social issues that relate to your topic, as well as any specialized knowledge – science, for instance – you need to fully understand it. It also includes the results of studies and other research pertaining to it.
  • Opponents’ identities, their arguments or justifications, and the counterarguments to them.

Be sure that your counterarguments are clear, coherent, and actually show you’re right.  If you have to search for effective counterarguments, or resort to “I just know we’re right and they’re wrong,” maybe you’re not right.  Try to be objective – your emotions don’t always tell you the truth.

  • The possible consequences of various actions or policies. These include actions or policies you might initiate, or actions or policies your opponents or others might adopt. You might want testimony or advice from experts on this point.
  • Who might be harmed, and who might benefit, from proposed actions or policies. First-hand stories from people who might be harmed can be an effective part of a watchdog report here. You should consider both effects on individuals and those on the community as a whole or on the public interest.
  • The history and record of the entity or entities you’re monitoring. You will find much of your information in publicly-available documents: corporate or other filings; tax records; court documents; regulatory or legislative proceedings; and the minutes of open meetings. In addition, you might check media archives and the Internet for relevant stories or articles. You also may be able to search out individuals who’ve had direct experience with the entity(ies) in question, or to gain impressions from the “word on the street,” the general perception people have of it.
  • Individuals who’ve had an influence, or who might have important information. Remember how Watergate was unraveled with help from “Deep Throat,” an unrevealed source within the Nixon administration, later identified as an official at the FBI .
  • Other groups who are currently, or were in the past, engaged in watchdog or similar activities relating to the same issues, actions, policies, or entities as you. They’re likely to have important information and contacts that could save you a lot of time and effort. In addition, you might be able to accomplish more working together than any of you could working separately.

Gather the facts about the current state of the issue, and/or about the current policies and practices of the entities you’re concerned with

This step may call for  several different types of data-gathering:

  • Searching available information. In addition to what’s obtainable in libraries, you might find important material in public records and documents, media files, and on the Internet.  In the last case, most major watchdog organizations maintain up-to-date web sites with enormous amounts of current information, and you might also find some of what you’re looking for on general information sites, message boards, and chat groups.
  • Conferring with experts. Researchers, academics, or government officials may have the latest statistics or the results of a recent study, and may also be able to provide a perspective on the issue as a whole.
  • Observation. This may range from checking the color and smell of what’s coming out of that outflow pipe into the river to attending public meetings.
  • Monitoring behavior. How does that corporation treat its workers?  Do the police make many more random stops of minorities than of white citizens? How does that politician actually vote? How many times in the last year did that regulatory agency follow up on alerts that something needed to be looked into? Monitoring the behavior of the entities you’re concerned with can tell you a great deal.
  • Direct investigation. Sometimes, you have to engage in detective work to find out what you need to know. That may mean finding and interviewing whistleblowers or other insiders, testing water or soil or a product, obtaining and sifting through an enormous number of records or documents, or using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

I. F. Stone, the late writer, editor, and publisher of I. F. Stone’s Weekly, is a hero to many investigative journalists.  Because he was legally blind, he didn’t feel capable of conducting personal, on-site investigations and interviews.  As a result, he sifted instead through thousands of pages of journals, newspapers, the Congressional Record, and other public documents, noticing inconsistencies, contradictions, and obvious lies, and applying standards of logic and journalism.  He was extraordinarily persistent, reading every word of numerous publications and documents to make sure he knew exactly what was going on.  This method enabled him to become one of the most reputable critics of the Vietnam War, and to expose, among other stories, the truth of the My Lai massacre.

The lesson here is that you don’t have to be a TV-style private eye in order to do a competent investigation.  You do have to have time and patience, persistence, and objectivity.

Build a network and cultivate sources

As is often emphasized in this chapter, direct contact with other people often leads to the best information.  It’s obviously important to get to know whistleblowers within government, business, or organizations who can give you the inside story, but there are others who may be equally good sources.  Legislative aides, people who simply work in a particular corporation or facility, people who are affected by the issue at hand or by the actions of the entity under scrutiny, and experts in the field may all have important knowledge to share with you.

You may not know or have access to any of these sources directly, and that’s where networking comes in.  Friends or colleagues may have direct or indirect connections to those you want to contact. Someone you interview may be willing to vouch for you and introduce you to someone else important to your investigation.  Build your network as wide as possible – you never know who might prove important.

It’s absolutely crucial to respect your sources and their limitations. They, not you, may be risking something – their jobs, their professional reputations, their political careers – by talking to you. Don’t overuse them, and don’t ask them to jeopardize or compromise themselves unless it’s clear they’re willing to.  Above all, don’t do anything yourself to jeopardize or compromise them without their permission.  Not only do you risk losing them as sources, but you violate their trust, and you have no ethical right to do that unless it would avert something much more important – deaths or serious injuries, a public health disaster, unnecessary war, a totalitarian takeover. Even in such situations, you should tell your sources what you’re going to do, so they can protect themselves to the extent possible, if necessary.

Decide what you’re going to do with the information you have

Information is useless unless you do something with it. Depending on what kind of watchdog you are, you have several choices:

You might still be asking yourself what kind of watchdog you should be. How do you make that decision? There are a number of criteria, many of them discussed earlier in the section.

In brief, you might consider the following:

  • What does your issue lend itself to? If you’re specifically concerned with exposing wrongdoing – letting the public and/or law enforcement or regulatory agencies know what’s going on – then gathering and getting out information may be all you want or have to do. Especially if the activity you’re addressing can’t bear the light of day – illegal activity by a politician, for example, or gross discrimination in a situation where it’s against the law – all you have to do is expose it and public opinion and the law will do the rest. If the issue is one where the law or government is unwilling or unable to take action, then you may need to be more activist, rallying public protest or bringing lawsuits.
  • What are other organizations doing? If there are already enough others organized to take action in this area, that may be best left to them.  Your job is to get them the information they can use to make their action effective.
  • What are you good at?  What are the strengths of your organization? If research is your strong suit, then that is what you probably ought to be doing.  If, on the other hand, you have great connections and political skills, then lobbying for change might be more appropriate. Don’t try to force people or organizations into molds that don’t fit – use your strengths and you’ll be most effective.
  • What resources can you draw on?  National campaigns or major activism take people, time, and money. If you don’t have access to what you need to carry these out, you should instead use your efforts where and how they can be most effective.
  • Where can you have the greatest impact?  It makes more sense to take on a smaller task that you can succeed at than to try to do something that needs to be done but is beyond your capacity. You might want to end domestic violence in the state, but if you don’t have statewide contacts and the ability to create a large organization that can function in many communities, you’ll do better to concentrate on your own community. If you’re successful there, you may be able to establish the credibility that will allow you to build a statewide organization.

Nothing

If you’re a watchdog, this may not seem like an option: gathering and spreading information is your function, after all. There are times, however, when sitting on the information, at least temporarily, is the best course of action.

  • If you and/or someone else is engaged in negotiations with an entity you’re monitoring, you may want to hold on to the information, and only use it if it’s needed.
  • If you already have a satisfactory agreement or change, and the information you have is from a previous period, you might choose not to release or use it unless there’s a problem with the entity holding to the agreement. People and institutions can change, and they should be given the opportunity.
  • If the information will identify or otherwise compromise a source or other innocent people who will be hurt by the situation (unless, as explained above, the issue is so important that it dwarfs the problems of individuals).

Go public

Through the media, share your information with the public. You may hope for specific consequences from this, but you may not have the resources or the organizational mandate to allow you to do more. If you do have the capacity for more, other possibilities for going public are issuing reports (which, if you’re well-respected, will probably receive media coverage as well); holding public hearings or meetings; and staging public demonstrations.

You may try to stir up protest or action, or influence public opinion with these tactics, but you still might not have the resources to do anything more substantive than gather and publicize information. I. F. Stone certainly wanted to see action as a result of his stories; however, he didn’t see his role as leading that action, but only as supplying the information that would foster it.

Use it as leverage

There are many ways in which information can be used to obtain a desirable result:

  • Use the threat of exposure or a report to the authorities to force an agreement or concessions from a government, corporate, or organizational wrongdoer. This is probably the tactic that the term “watchdog” most often calls up.
  • Use the information to demonstrate that the entity has a problem, and to change its behavior. While the information you have might be damaging, it might also simply be information. If, for instance, you’re concerned with a company’s environmental practices, and you’ve gathered evidence that the employment of more environmentally friendly practices would also benefit the company’s finances, you may be able to persuade it to adopt such practices. It might be all the more willing because the action would make it look like a good corporate citizen.
  • Use the information to push a regulator to take action. Making information public might convince it to pay attention to standards or laws it’s been reluctant to enforce, for political or other reasons. These reasons might be innocent – lack of resources, for instance – but the regulator is still obligated to do its job.
  • Use the information to give a regulator the evidence it needs to act against an entity.
  • Use the information to spur action by government, another entity, or the public on an urgent issue. If you have indisputable evidence that addressing the issue is a public necessity, it may be enough to make something happen.

Take official action

That action may be to file a complaint – with government or industry regulators, with the Better Business Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce, with a professional organization – in order to bring official sanctions to bear. The official action may be within your own organization or group – picketing, a demand for negotiations, a boycott, etc. Or the official action may be within the court system, and involve initiating a lawsuit.

Another option here is using the electoral system. You might back, or even run, a candidate for office against one who has acted against the public interest, or you might try to elect someone who has promised to make specific kinds of changes in policy.

The four possibilities for using the information you have could be likened to how an actual watchdog operates. In the first case – sitting on the information, at least temporarily – you, as a watchdog, know someone’s approaching, but you’re still lying on the rug and not telling anyone else what you know.  In the second case – going public – you’re barking to warn others, but not taking any action.  In the third instance – using your information as a lever – you’re standing up and growling to let the intruder know that he’s in some peril if he doesn’t watch his step. And in the final case – taking official action – your teeth are in his leg.

Be aware that the more active your watchdog stance, the more likely you are to have opposition, and to experience some negative as well as positive response.  Those in power, particularly those whom you’re targeting, are not likely to be your friends, and may try to discredit you or destroy your reputation and your organization.  Some in the community may not approve of what you’re doing.  If you’re an individual whistleblower – someone inside a corporation, agency, or institution who reports unethical or illegal activity – you might find yourself fired and blacklisted, so that it’s difficult to find another job in your field.  (That kind of revenge is illegal, but it happens all the time.)  None of that should necessarily stop you, but it’s important to realize what you’re getting into.

Keep up your watchdog stance for the long term

No matter what kind of watchdog you’re able or choose to be, one thing is certain: you have to continue the practice. Things may run relatively smoothly as long as people know you’re watching. If you stop, it’s likely that the situation will soon return to the way it was before.

The whole point of acting as a watchdog is that you’re always there and always vigilant. You never know where the next threat may come from, or what form it may take.  It’s your job to anticipate it and let people know...indefinitely.

In Summary

There are all kinds of watchdogs: those that do nothing, those that simply warn, those that protect, and those that attack. What kind of watchdog you or your organization

should be depends on your resources, your philosophy, the nature of your cause and the entities you’re monitoring, your opponents, your goals, and whether you’re most likely to be effective if you take action.

Those same factors will, in large part, determine why you act as a watchdog:

  • Self-interest
  • To defend and empower those with little political or economic clout
  • To keep citizens aware of issues, actions, and policies that affect their lives
  • To maintain power in the hands of the community, rather than the few
  • To prevent negative economic or social consequences
  • To promote social justice or social change
  • To maintain democratic ideals
  • To achieve simple justice

While anyone may act as a watchdog at any time it seems necessary, there are people and organizations that are particularly suited for the job, and occasions when it’s particularly appropriate. Good candidates for watchdog status include organizations concerned with the issues or entities in question; people affected, or organizations that represent them; relevant professional organizations; organizations that represent the public interest; organizations and individuals concerned with the economic consequences of policies, practices, and actions; protectors of minority interests; and those concerned with maintaining democracy.

Good times to fulfill the watchdog function come often:

  • When you’re seeking to institute or change laws or regulations
  • When something new is starting, and you have doubts about its impact
  • When you believe the public interest is threatened
  • When an individual or organization has proven untrustworthy in the past
  • When democracy is threatened
  • When simple justice demands it

In order to be an effective watchdog, you have to conduct research constantly. That research should include learning absolutely everything you can about the issues and  entities you’re concerned with; gathering information about the current state of affairs, and the current policies and practices of entities; and building networks and cultivating sources of information.

Once you have useful information, you have to decide what to do with it.  You really have four options, corresponding to the four kinds of watchdogs described at the beginning of this section: you can do nothing; you can go public, through the media and/or public meetings and other methods; you can use the information as a lever to pry favorable concessions or actions out of an entity, or to encourage action on an issue; or you can institute official action – a complaint, a strike or boycott, a lawsuit.  Deciding which course to take – either in general or in a given situation – depends on what the issue lends itself to, what others are doing, where your real strengths are, your resources, and how you can have the greatest impact.

Finally, to be truly effective, you have to keep at it forever.

If you can accomplish all this, you should be able to help protect your community (or the larger society, depending on your scope) from unscrupulous or incompetent government officials and agencies, corporations, organizations, institutions, or interest groups, as well as encouraging the resolution of problems and issues.

Contributor 
Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Amnesty International is the grandparent of modern human rights watchdogs.

The Better Business Bureau, Better Business Bureau Online, Better Business Bureau for Charities and Donors are the various sites for The Better Business Bureau. The first two include links to local branches, reports on problems, and searchable databases of business. The third of these sites is the Better Business Bureau’s site on charitable giving, with reports on various charities.

The Christian Coalition was founded by Pat Robertson as a Political Action Committee to elect people sympathetic to the views of the religious right.

Public Citizen was founded by Ralph Nader. One of the original public interest watchdogs.

Common Cause is another major public interest watchdog.

Corporate Watch is a United Kingdom-based watchdog organization concerned with the accountability of multinational corporations. The site includes a huge trove of links and data on corporations and strategies for gaining corporate accountability.

The Corporate Accountability Project provides data, information, and links on corporate misdeeds and accountability.

Corporate Watch USA features a research guide with a database, articles, links, and more.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is a press watchdog dedicated to the preservation of freedom of the press around the world.

The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission is a government watchdog that monitors the safety and reliability of products in the market, and the honesty of advertising.

The Congressional Accountability Project provides information, articles, and links on Congressional ethics reform, public accountability of Congress.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is a liberal media watchdog.

Friends of the Earth International is a major environmental watchdog.

Greenpeace is the prototypical global environmental watchdog/activist organization.

Human Rights Watch is an organization originally founded to monitor the 1972 Helsinki Accords.

Lake Ontario Keeper is a regional, Toronto-based environmental watchdog, primarily concerned with Lake Ontario and its ecosystem.

The Media Research Center is a conservative media watchdog.

The Millers River Watershed Council is a small local environmental watchdog based in the Millers River Valley in central Massachusetts.

The National Safety Council is a public safety watchdog.

Our American Values is an organization intended to safeguard conservative values.

People for the American Way is a liberal democracy watchdog.

Physicians for Human Rights USA is a medical professionals’ human rights watchdog.

The Sierra Club is the original environmental watchdog/activist organization, founded more than 100 years ago by the naturalist and environmentalist John Muir.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a pioneering civil rights watchdog.

The United Nations Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.

The mission of The Government Accountability Project is to “protect the public interest and promote government and corporate accountability by advancing occupational free speech, defending whistleblowers, and empowering citizen activists.”

America's Watchdog is an organization dedicated to consumer protection and corporate fair play.  Their home page has a list of current initiatives relevant to the United States. 

Children's Rights is a watchdog group dedicated to reform for child welfare services in the United States.