Tips on influencing local government

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 verypresence we should be a tower of strength to the hungering human souls around us.”—William George Jordan, The Majesty of Calmness, 1900

City HallAs a member of the city council in my small town I have an opportunity to observe how people attempt to influence the outcome of issues that are important to them. As a resident 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 (I’m one out of 5 members of the council and need to have the support of 2 others to get something approved). Here are my thoughts on how to effectively influence decisions:

  • Become as informed as possible about the issue at hand. Take the time to get as much objective information as possible and review the agendas and minutes of prior meetings that dealt with this issue.
  • You are more likely to influence a decision if you engage before the final meeting on an issue. Most important decisions are discussed at multiple meetings and by the time the final vote is taken opinions are generally fairly settled. The odds of swinging votes at the last second are pretty low.
  • 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.
  • Contact one or more of the decision makers to get their perspective and share your thoughts. Although this can be done via email, an in-person discussion or phone call 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 conversion 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.
  • 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 completely than a 3 page missive. Resist the urge to create the mother of all presentations (see Don’t Be that Presenter). Short and sweet is almost always much more effective. If you are sending an email put your message directly in the email instead of sending an attachment. It increases the chance of your email being read completely and makes it a easier for someone to reply (think smart phones and tablets where you are limited to one screen at a time).
  • 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:

Tips on influencing local governmentCriticism 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

“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. Tips on influencing local governmentAmbition, 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

The following short article is also a good read on the topic of kindness:

The Crimes of the Tongue

Originally posted on Mannkind Perspectives. Reposted with permission. 

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