Thursday, June 4, 2015

Tips on Influencing Local Government

Word on keyboard

No individual is so insignificant as to be without influence. The changes in our varying moods are all recorded in the delicate barometers of the lives of others. We should ever let our influence filter through human love and sympathy. We should not be merely an influence,―we should be an inspiration. By our very presence we should be a tower of strength to the hungering human souls around us.”—William George Jordan, The Majesty of Calmness, 1900

As a resident of Highland I’ve tried, both successfully and unsuccessfully, to influence the outcome of council decisions and now as a councilman, I’ve done the same from a different vantage point. Below are my thoughts on how to effectively influence decisions:

  • Become as informed as possible about the issue at hand. Review prior council agendas and minutes on the subject (you can typically search prior minutes and agendas on the city website). This will take some time but I think you’ll find it worth the effort.

  • You are more likely to influence the council’s decision if you engage before the final council meeting on an issue. Most issues are discussed at multiple council meetings or work sessions and by the time the vote is taken opinions are generally fairly settled. The odds of swinging votes at the last second are pretty low.

  • Contact one or more members of the city council to get their perspective and share your thoughts. Note, the phone numbers and email addresses for all council members are on the city website under government. If a topic is complex and hard to explain it is often best to meet in person or call to get more clarity. Face-to-face meetings also helps to develop a personal relationship which may be of benefit on future issues.

  • Take any comments about how a particular decision-maker thinks with a grain of salt unless you speak directly with the individual. For example, prior to a recent council decision, I heard from someone that I had a phone conversation with a resident where I said I had made my decision and would not change it. There were two problems with this 1) I received no phone calls on the issue and 2) the perception of my view on the issue was wrong.

  • Develop an understanding of all sides of the issue. This will help you better defend your point of view and be more understanding of those who don’t agree with you.

  • If you draft a position paper or put together a PPT be sure the information on it is correct. When there are inaccuracies in your information your credibility becomes suspect. Sometimes even one incorrect item is enough to discredit your point of view.

  • Focus your argument on the most relevant issues and be succinct. A short letter is more likely to be read than a 3-page missive. If you are sending an email I would put your message directly in the email instead of sending an attachment. It increases the chance of your email being read and makes it easier for someone to reply (think smartphones and tablets where you are limited to one screen at a time).

  • Take 5 minutes every two weeks to review city council agendas to see if there is anything on the agenda that is of interest or concern. They are usually posted on the city web site the Thursday prior to a Tuesday meeting (Utah State law requires that they be available 24 hour before the meeting – see the state’s public meeting website for access to agenda and minutes of all government entities). You can ask to be notified by email when agendas and minutes are posted for city council meetings and the board meetings of various committees. Simply click on the “City Notices” link located on the city’s home page. If you use Facebook you can follow the Highland City page.

  • Lastly and perhaps most importantly be kind and stay away from personal attacks. Here are some wise bits of advice from Dale Carnegie and Alexander Hamilton:

    Dale-Carnegie-profileCriticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.”—Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People,  1937

    Alexander_Hamilton_portrait_by_John_Trumbull_1806 cropped“So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword
    .”—Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1, 27 Oct 1787


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