If you’re expecting fireworks and heated debate in the chambers of local government, you’ll often be disappointed. But if you want up-close access to policymakers who, increasingly in this age of devolution, have influence over many areas of social policy (think zoning requirements about where a homeless shelter can be located, or mill levys to support mental health programs, or theft-of-wage ordinances to address labor exploitation), then local government is an arena you (and your clients) can’t afford to overlook.
To prepare some insights on how social work policy advocates can have an impact on local government policy, I have attended several city council meetings over the past few months (and, in one case, a unified county/city government structure). Many of the meetings were quite perfunctory, but I want to share some insights and invite your thoughts on the overlap between your policy advocacy and opportunities within local government.
In almost all cases, the agendas are made available online in advance of the meeting. While there’s something to be said for sending a nonverbal message to councilpeople that you’ll be there, watching them, every time (and kudos to the neighborhood watch folks in one city who I saw, often, doing just that!), most of us need to be strategic about our use of time, and you can figure out whether anything of interest to your organization will be discussed that day.
I was impressed on two occasions, in particular, by the lobbying that I saw going on after the regular meeting. Local advocates took advantage of their councilperson’s captive audience and pressed their case immediately before or after the meeting, outside of the regular agenda.
Another strategy that seemed to pay off for one organization was to share information about their issue with those assembled to observe the meeting; it makes a lot of sense, really–these are often the kind of hard-core civic activist types who are great potential foot soldiers in your campaigns, and they’re sitting there waiting for the meeting to start just like you are. Bring materials, invite them to events, and connect them to your work, beyond this meeting.
While this is admittedly important in any advocacy context, and while each local unit of government will have its own rules and procedures, local policymaking is so intimate in scale that it’s particularly crucial that you know how to navigate it. Some examples: many commissions/councils have a consent agenda, where items will be voted on in a group (theoretically because they are non-controversial), but a member can have something pulled out and considered separately by request. If there’s something that you want to push through with little debate, then, you might try the consent agenda; by contrast, if you want something highlighted, get a member to make that request for you. Many of the bodies also went into executive sessions to consider certain personnel or privileged matters; understanding when and how this is used will prevent a lot of confusion.
There’s a lot unspoken in city council meetings, at least from these observations of mine. Without some background, advocates and casual observers alike could miss some important pieces. For example, one commissioner made a reference to the ‘waiting game’ regarding the budget; this particular locality had a sales tax increase pending before an upcoming public vote. In another example, a seemingly obscure debate about the use of fixed percentages of greenfield vs. redevelopment spending in a community talked around the core issues of sprawl, commitment to central cities, and the associated environmental and class divides.
Perhaps obviously, I think it’s very important for social justice advocates to be present in these public meetings. And they seem to think so, too; even in the cities where I don’t personally know any of the councilpeople, someone always approached me to ask who I was and what brought me there–there just aren’t that many participants in the process, quite honestly, and so your presence counts, a lot.
But, given the condensed agendas of the meetings (high on formality, rather low on authentic deliberation) and the seeming inertia of a lot of the committees (it is pretty astounding, in the face of the social problems we confront, to hear the community development, public safety, and public works committees, for example, all offer “no report, Mr. Chairman,” in a row), it seems obvious that it takes considerable public pressure to move a particular concern. Like advocacy everywhere, it requires the development of deep relationships; these are perhaps even more critical here, where everyone seems to know everyone else. It takes counting votes in advance, because it’s obvious that these chairs don’t like surprises. And it demands that we scan the landscape to see what can possibly be addressed by our local governments, so that we’re not just playing defense but really examining the potential tools we can use to lever social change in the lives of those we serve.
And, yes, sometimes it means that we have to sit through 25 minutes of retirement speeches for long-time employees, or dozens of acknowledgements for Boy Scout troops in the audience…but such is the price of justice.