If you’ve been reading Strong Towns for a while, you’ve probably realized the current dominant approach to development and public investment isn’t working out. Cities and neighborhoods are not financially stable. Our streets are not safe. And almost all of our communities are on an unsustainable path.
We need to change. This can be done by personal actions at the block level, like planting a street tree in front of your house or putting a bench out in front of your business. Those small acts of investment can add up to big results for neighborhoods. But we also need to start getting the big things, like street design and zoning codes, right — and that requires getting elected officials on board.
Changing minds isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most powerful things you can do to make your town stronger. As a former small town city councilman and lobbyist who has worked to move my fellow city council members, state legislators and occasionally members of congress, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve picked up over the last decade.
1. Don’t just go to meetings, set one up.
Attending public meetings is important and showing up (especially if you bring a dozen of your neighbors with you) can be a powerful way to demonstrate the need for change. But, while public meetings can be a great place to pressure elected officials, they are a lousy place to persuade them.
If you want to change minds, ask for a personal meeting. In a small town, this could mean asking an elected official to coffee. In a bigger city, it may be setting an appointment with their staff. This more intimate conversation gives you an opportunity to make a human connection rather than just make your point within the allowed three minutes for public comment.
2. Have a game plan.
Don’t just go into a meeting blind; prepare. Know what you want to say and, if there’s more than one of you attending, who is going to say it. Bring a fact sheet or a photo of the problem you want addressed to leave behind. Clearly know what your goal is for the meeting and what the elected official you’re meeting with can do to help.
3. Start with “Thank you.”
The best way to open a meeting is with gratitude. It immediately sets a positive tone to the meeting and makes it more likely the elected official will hear and positively respond to what comes next. Ideally, you want to thank them for something good they’ve done, but if you can’t think of something, it’s fine just to thank them for the meeting.
4. Ask questions and listen to the answers.
Talk no more than half the time. Listening to what they have to say can often be more valuable than whatever you have to say. You can learn what motivates them, how they are thinking through a particular issue, or who they trust and whose advice they follow. Come prepared with questions to get them talking. These should be questions you actually want to know the answer to and often the best ones are open ended. For example, what do you think are the most important things we need to accomplish with our new strategic plan? Or, what do you want to accomplish during your term on the city council? How do you think we can make our community safer for children?
5. Tell your story.
You don’t need to be a policy expert to be persuasive. In fact, while being well informed and able to explain what you want accomplished is important, it is rarely how you change someone’s mind. Stories are how we connect to each other and sharing your story can help an elected official understand, not just what you want done, but why it’s so important to you. Talk about your family, your neighborhood, your customers: What is the concrete problem people are facing that this elected leader can help solve?
6. Don’t get into an argument.
It is fine to push back if you disagree on something, but getting in a fight is not an effective strategy. Your goal is to change someone’s mind, not win an argument. Why someone opposes you is useful information. It can help you later formulate counterarguments and better understand what and who stands in the way of the change you seek. Be clear that you disagree and why, but stay respectful and look for common ground that can start to move the elected official in your direction.
7. Make a specific ask.
Know what you want this specific elected official to do and ask her to do it. This may be to cast a vote or talk to another elected official or visit your neighborhood to see what you’re talking about firsthand. It’s important to be specific about the action you want taken, to ask, and to listen to the answer.
8. Shop around for an ally.
When I was a kid, if mom said “no,” then I went to dad. It’s basically the same with elected officials. Rarely is there only one person with the power to give you what you want. You’re going to hit brick walls sometimes and that’s okay, just move on to the next person. And when you find an ally, ask them for advice about how to move others. Do you need to form a neighborhood group, get an analysis or gain support from the faith community or business leaders? Elected officials spend a lot of time in meetings together and have their ear to the ground on how others think. Finding one ally in the beginning can often be the key to figuring out the path to success.
9. Start before the election.
One of the best times to talk to elected officials is before they are elected officials — or when they’re trying to continue to be elected officials. During elections, candidates are especially willing to listen to community concerns and want to be seen as allies. While there’s a lot of talk about dishonest politicians, the reality is most people try to do the things they said they were going to do during their campaigns. Use election season as a chance to gain commitments; it’s one of the best times to persuade a future elected official.