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Change and local politics

I've been working on this post over Christmas, but it didn't seem a very Christmasy thing to publish then. But then, as it turned out, neither was proroguing Parliament. I commented tongue in cheek last year when this happened, as The Pierogi Parliament. I never suspecting then it would become what Harper calls a "routine constitutional matter" that will allow the government to "recalibrate" its agenda and provide an opportunity for opposition parties to "advance their own ideas."  Nothing to see here folks, move along, go about your normal business.

And now the issue has attracted 60,000 members (as of this morning) to a Facebook Group  - Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament (Edit- Jan 17-204,000). Great to see all the hype and interest, but many are asking - so what? What's next? What does joining an online group or signing a petition prove, and what are the next steps for social activism on an issue?  How to you leverage the enthusiasm? How does one encourage more people to become an agent of change, rather than an observer, or complainer? 

Ian Capstick, from MediaStyle, has done a great job collecting what's been said on this, and making some suggestions, so I thought I'd better finish up here and publish my two cents. 

I wrote in here  last August some of my ideas on ways to effect change in local politics, this of course applies also to national and global issues, using similar principles and strategies. I was involved in yet another local campaign last fall so thought I'd expand more on my ideas. The goal of that recent campaign was to promote in Toronto the introduction of a billboard tax, with most of the new revenue targeted to public art. In spite of considerable lobbying by "the suits", and many attempted motions to gut the new bylaw, it passed 25-16, mostly intact. Thanks in no small part to some vigorous and well aimed work by some local activists.

I'll repeat some of my previous suggestions on how to make change happen, and add more examples and details. Most of this is for local politics, but can also apply to other levels of government, as well as the corporate battlefield.

First off, find at least one supporter to champion your cause, be it a councilor or his/her trusted assistant. They can help you plan your attack, to phrase your request, to identify who is pro or con. But don't expect them to do the initial work for you, they get lots of requests for their support on issues, so they need you to prove your sincerity as well as show them the benefits and pitfalls of your cause. They all want to know what's in it for them? In addition, see who is involved from city staff. They do the initial research, draft the bylaws, and make recommendations to council, so are key contacts

As part of your startup,  do you form on-line protest groups and sign petitions? Do petitions really work? Not really, if just used on their own - try Googling that question, and you'll find the consensus is NO, including an interesting Snopes article on the topic. The article even refers to the term slacktivism - "the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society's rescue without actually getting one's hands dirty, volunteering any of one's time, or opening one's wallet." In other words, online groups and petitions are effective, but not standalone, they need to be part of an overall and continuing strategy.

Online petitions in particular are easy to fill up, you can even write a script to crank out pages of fake names and addresses. And politicians know that, so many treat them accordingly. How about door to door with a real clipboard and real signatures? That adds more reality to the lists, and shows that you were persuasive enough to get them to sign, so maybe you yourself should be listened by whomever you're trying to influence. Or maybe you're just annoying persistent enough for them to sign. In addition, it's not really a representative sample of who is for or against your cause. You might spend hours and days collecting hundreds, even thousands of signatures, only to see the thick sheaf waved briefly in the air for effect at a city meeting - and that's it. 

But don't dismiss groups or petitions completely, they can be a way to get your cause out on the street, to show people there is interest already and get them to listen, to get some dialogue going, and to get your first few volunteers involved and pumped up. By trying to sell your cause to people, face to face, you can learn to focus your point in a quick 10 second catch phrase to grab their interest. At the same time, have a small flyer ready to hand out also, small enough for them to stick on the fridge maybe, with a quick summary of your message, why is this cause important. Include with a phone number a pointer to more information, such as a web site. Keep that web site simple too, with the basic message on the front page and links to longer backup material elsewhere - discuss the oppositions talking points, and rebut them. Wheether face to face or online, listen to people's concerns, get some dialogue going, discuss and hone your points, and bring it all back to the core group to debrief and refine the message. Treat this like any other business plan - figure out what is your long term general goal, what are your specific short term measurable objectives - what do you want and how will you know when you've attained it? Set up roles for communications, fundraising, volunteer management - and not for just a secret core group of 4-5. Set up a process so that when people do sign your sheet (or website), you get an email or phone number also. You can use that not only to help show that the signatures are authentic, but also as a way to follow up with people, thank them for their support, and perhaps talk them into volunteering their help in some way. That help might be for more door to door work, or a donation, or letters to supporters and opponents, for a show of strength at a rally, or for next steps. You may achieve your goal at your rally or council meeting, but there will likely be  room to do more.

Councilor Adam Vaughan was at a community event, earlier this year in Toronto, that was building support for the initiative, and had some advice on how to get noticed with your cause - I'll summarize some of it below.

He cautioned against being a one-trick pony. If the only time your councilor/BIA/police hear from you is on this one issue - even if it's for three days in a row - you stay down in the noise level of all the other complaints. So, make a point of calling ahead of time about other issues - garbage pickup is always late on your street, too many dogs in the park, the new bike path is great. Adam says his office really only tracks those repeat people, so your call about your latest cause is more likely to be listened to. If you know they already support your cause, contact them anyway to show your appreciation. They may get back to you another time to ask for your support on something for them, but that's how it works. On the other hand, if they don't support your cause, try to find out why, to see the issue from their side. And then tailor your strategy to match them. When you do contact people, don't just hit everyone with the same stock message cut and paste message, it is easier to do but people will see it as just that - too easy.  

If you contact them via email, do cc a few others that need to be involved, but don't copy to the world, it takes away from your focus on this person. Be brief about the issue, suggest what some solutions could be, and especially how you can maybe be part of the solution.

For even more impact, also write a real letter, as in with a pen and paper. Those are rare enough now that they carry even more weight, they don't go away with a Delete key, they show you took the time to not only sit down and write, but also to buy a stamp. 

Try a similar approach of creating contacts with your local newspaper - be it local, city, or national. If you establish a bit of a relationship with them by sending in a letter to the editor once in a while on something great, or annoying, you're more likely to have their ear when you need it.

As your campaign grows, you may need to start digging deeper into the opposition's motivation, and their "facts".  Towards the end of a the recent campaign billboard campaign an Ekos survey was done that showed there was strong support from the public for a billboard tax that would help fund art in public spaces, including festivals and murals. In addition, there was an economic study showing that the "sign lobby" had greatly exaggerated  the negative impacts this would have on the their profits.  Dig into the background of those against the issue for things like voting records and campaign contributions by lobby groups. Find out when the relevant committees will be meeting, as that is where staff recommendations are first presented, and see if you can make a submission to them. If not, at least make sure all the committee members are targeted - with emails, voice mails, face to face meetings. Work with their aides - these are the people that help draft motions for their councillors, and can also access a councillor for you during a meeting for a quick update or new information. When the issue goes to council for a vote, it may get a quick rubber stamp OK. Or, it may trigger hours of debate, and motions that drastically change the original proposal. Make sure you have some supporters attending. Be ready, via email or twitter, to quickly mobilize more at the meeting. Debate may result in some people switching sides suddenly, possibly based on an impassioned plea, more likely based on last minute lobbying and spin, and some last minute amendments, so keep involved and keep lobbying. Professional cameras are often restricted at these meetings, and the official online coverage is carefully focused on the main area, but we all have cell phones for photos and videos, to catch some of the blatant lobbying that goes on behind the scenes. 

Once you're done - win or lose - have a party, inviting all your supporters, especially from council. Contact everyone after to thank them for their support and plan any next steps needed on the issue. Make sure to get some "lessons learned" from everyone on what went well, and what could be improved next time, and share the results  with them.  

Let me know how it went - I'll be glad to add to this.


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