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Advocating Bicycle: Developing A Strategy To Affecting The Political Process

 

 

 


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Developing An Issue  |  Making Contacts in the Community  |  Whom To Contact  |  When To Contact  |  How To Contact  |  What To Say

Developing An Issue

As you become more involved in bicycling / sustainable transport / alternative transportation, you will probably find issues of interest to you that you want to pursue. The hardest problem for almost everyone is to figure out how to move on the issue. Developing a strategy or work plan is usually easier if you break the task up into components:

  • What is the specific issue?
  • What insights does bicycle advocacy literature give about this issue?
  • What is the ultimate goal?
  • What parts of the government have an interest in this area?
  • Who will I have to contact and work with to achieve my goal?

See also Organizing for Success: Elements Look For

Making Contacts in the Community

While this is a world of laws, in fact that a great deal of government still happens through personal relationships--including the development of future laws, policies, projects and public opinion. Consequently, while working your issue and contacting people be aware of the need to develop personal relationships. Whether you are contacting a politician, government employee, coalition partner or media, by phone, mail or in person, the same general advice applies:

  • Be rational
  • Be logical
  • Be constructive
  • Be diplomatic

But even more important, following these rules for all contacts:

  • Don't lie.
  • Don't threaten.
  • Deliver on any promises that you make.
  • Be polite.
  • Thank them for things they have done and let their bosses know.

Whom To Contact

Over time, bicycle advocates work with   congressional delegation, state legislatures, federal agencies, state government, counties and cities, utilities, private businesses and the media.  It is not always easy to determine who is best to approach.

Generally, the more specific the project the easier it is to identify the appropriate government agency and persons responsible. If it is a budgeted public works project, chances are that there is already a project director assigned to it. You might be able to call her/him, provide your input, s/he will then make appropriate revisions to satisfy your concerns and you are done with it. Clean and simple. However a follow-up is almost always necessary.

Unfortunately, more often it is the case that when you contact the agency staff they are unfamiliar with the issue you raise, or worse, unsympathetic, so a much more involved and carefully planned campaign is required.

If you don't know who to contact you can narrow the field by determining which branch of government has jurisdiction over the land that your issue affects, and then making a few calls to learn about the structure of that body. Here is where a friend in the organization can be helpful in giving you the scoop. They can also be influential by being an advocate from within.

There are differences between all local governments. Knowing the structure of the government you are trying to get information from or influence can help you be more efficient but knowing the structure alone may not tell you all you need to know to be most effective. Knowing the structure of government doesn't tell you who has power. Power in government can be independent of structure. Often the division of power is a product of the personalities of the players and who takes or who defers leadership.

Some terms used to describe local governments in the United States are:

Council/Mayor-form-of-government. Sometimes this is also called a 'strong mayor' or 'strong executive' government. Both the council and the Mayor are elected by the population. The Mayor tends to have a lot of power. The Mayor may or may not run day-to-day affairs of the government. Depending upon the charter, the mayor may hire an Assistant Mayor or the Mayor and Council might employ a City Administrator or Town Clerk to carry out these functions.

Council/Manager-form-of-government. Here the citizens elect a Council, and the Council, from their ranks select a mayor, and hire a city manager to run the day-to-day operations of government. Essentially the mayor is the president of the council. This is a 'weak mayor' type of government.

In each form of government there are departments which are responsible for implementing policies. Different governments may have different organizational structures, give different names to units with essentially the same task, and assign similar responsibilities to different departments. Departments that the advocates frequently finds itself doing business with are:

  • Public Works/Engineering
  • Transportation
  • Parks/Natural Resources
  • Construction & Land Use or Licensing (for permits)
  • Planning/Community Development
  • Police

If you are trying to influence private development through public policy you will probably want look into who controls the permit process.

Just to get an initial response that "nothing can be done" may require some blind shots and perseverance. But in politics you never have to take no for an answer -- it just means the policy needs to be changed.

You may find that you have a choice between contacting a department employee or an elected official. Whom to contact may depend on what you expect the long range course of events to be, what your relationship with the various actors in the issue are or other strategic considerations. Certain routes may politicize an issue one way or another. It is hard to make general rules for this. The best guidelines come from past experience. But, no two campaigns are the same and there is rarely one "right" strategy.

When To Contact

Comments must be timely! Knowing meeting, election, construction, budget, or project schedules can play a critical part in the success of your strategy. To be effective you have to have your input in early enough to be acted upon. Late comments cost the government money and often are met with a "NO" even if the ideas are sound. If the suggestion is late it simply is not going to be included in the budget or the construction drawing. Gather information on dates and deadlines that may affect your issue before you set your timetable. When in doubt, get involved as early as possible.

How To Contact

Again, there are also no absolute rules.  Generally, the choices are telephone, writing, or personal meeting. We have a preference for including letters with all other forms of contacts because of the permanent record that they create.

Telephone

The telephone is quick. However, there is no written record. Consider whether this is an advantage or disadvantage on your particular issue.

Writing

This includes letters to government officials, letters to editors, guest opinion pieces and other forms of written communication. Letters give you the opportunity to carefully build your argument, firmly state your position and select the best language. Perhaps more important in many instances, they leave a written record, which may be valuable.  If you are writing to a hierarchical organization, you want to address the letter to the person immediately responsible for the issue.  If you want their supervisor and other superiors to know you can "carbon" up to them, but it is general in poor taste to "carbon" to the subordinate of the primary addressee.

Email

Email (where available) falls someplace between telephoning and writing.  It is likely quicker than regular mail.  I gives you the opportunity to carefully build your argument, firmly state your position and select the best language.  Use the same protocol as for writen letters.  If you have a digital camera you can even attach so images.  But not all government official are equally comfortable with the medium yet.   It is hard to determine when it is being read.  And the "written record" is not as solid as with traditional mail.

Personal Visit

On serious issues, in-person meetings provide opportunities to negotiate. This can work both ways, depending upon your skills at negotiation. Some people have trouble staying firm and cede more than they had intended. Also, unless you make a special effort, there may be no written record of the outcome of the discussion. (A follow-up letter can handle this.) At the same time face-to-face meetings can give everybody a more human quality, which is important in developing valuable personal relationships with decision makers.

Even if you don't have a specific issue to discuss, it is sometimes worthwhile to make courtesy calls on public officials to help build rapport. Public officials are very busy, so if your visit is a courtesy call, make sure that is understood and limit your stay to ten or fifteen minutes.

Making a personal visit you have the advantage of being able to notice things on the official's desk or wall that give clues to common interests that you can talk about.

Public Meetings

Attending public meetings is rarely sufficient but in the age of citizen participation it is necessary to validate your position. There are a few rules to make your testimony more effective.

Do's

  • Speak early. On major hearings this may require coming 30 minutes to an hour before the hearing to sign up. The media usually leave after 30 minutes of testimony.
  • Always state your position in the first sentence, i.e. "for" or "against."
  • Stay within the time limit -- usually one to three minutes. If you have more to say, prepare written testimony and submit copies to the panel when you go up to speak.
  • Make concrete suggestions for correcting any criticisms you present.

Don'ts

  • Present solid facts and logical solutions.
  • Don't rely on emotional arguments, i.e. "Not in my backyard."
  • Don't make outbursts. As a general rule don't applaud from the audience.

What To Say

If you are writing to an elected official, it is best if letters are kept to one or two pages. In fact, it is generally not necessary or desirable to be voluminous or verbose in your communication.  If talking to them, expect that the main part of most conversations will be less than five minutes. Some exceptions are when you are writing detailed comments on reports such as environmental impact statements or suggesting language for a plan or legislation. In these and similar situations, it may be necessary to spell everything out, but these tend to be the exceptions.

The following is a suggested structure for a one page letter or short conversation.

  1. Express your thoughts and position as clearly and concisely as possible. Use as simple words as possible.  Short word, short sentences, short paragraphs make for easier reading.
  2. Carefully plan your opening sentence.  Aim to make it short and interesting.  Especially if you communicating to criticize, it is often desirable to start a letter or conversation with a note of appreciation, agreement or praise about their activities relating to bicycling. If that is difficult because of their lack of past support for cycling, select an action of the government that was positive toward bicycling (as long as it is something that the official didn't oppose). If that is impossible look for a positive comment concerning the individual's involvement in a different area that is seen as socially positive (i.e. water quality, the Boy Scouts, etc.).
  3. Confine every letter to only one issue.
  4. Avoid violent language.  A calm, constructive presentation of your thought is more persuasive than ranting and more likely to be heard -- which is the real objective.   It is possible to be frank and friendly.
  5. Help supply the truth that may be omitted or slanted in the media or from other sources.  Give argument(s) to support the position you are advocating. Focus on the topic and the key points you wish to make. If there are a large number of points that can be made about the topic you may want to hone in on the two or three strongest arguments.
  6. Relevant personal experiences and personal anecdotes are very persuasive, so include them.
  7. If there is a problem that requires remedial action, show your willingness to work for a solution. If possible, request a specific action from the official.
  8. Don't be merely critical; end your letter with some constructive suggestion and a pleasant and positive tone.
  9. If any follow-up is planned let them know the time frame.

Writing An Effective Letter-to-the-editor

Giving An Effective Media Interview

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