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A Guide to Effective Municipal Advocacy

Municipal Advocacy in St. John’s

A big part of my job is to listen to people who advocate for municipal changes in St. John’s, NL. Sometimes it’s a small change (“my garbage wasn’t picked up this week”) and sometimes a big one (“I think we should have a dense non-car-centric city”). Sometimes it’s very effective, and sometimes less so.

I’ve been in office for a year now, and I have some thoughts about advocacy and what works best.

Here are some tools I think are pretty effective and could be used more often.

  1. Is your issue urgent? Contact 311.

If you have an urgent problem with City services, your very first step should be contacting 311 by calling the number or using the 311 app.

I do my best to keep track of my voicemails, emails, and social media notifications, but I’m just one individual. At the moment you need me I might be getting groceries or in a meeting or playing with my kids.

311 operators are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They have a faster response time than any councillor. When a call comes in, 311 staff can direct the inquiry or complaint to the appropriate person and there is a record kept of ACR, Active Citizen Requests.

  1. Reach out to those who may disagree with you

If you have ever had a cause you were passionate about, think about the people who you reached out to first were. Were they staunch supporters of the cause you were promoting already, or were they more skeptical about the usefulness of the change you were trying to make?

An example: People usually reach out to the councillors who seem most aligned with their cause. For example, I’ve been a pretty consistent advocate for sidewalk snow clearing and walkability, so I get a lot of calls and social media notifications from people who want more sidewalk snow clearing.

I know from knocking on doors that lots of residents of St. John’s think we already spend too much money on sidewalk snow clearing. As you can see inthe Citizen Satisfaction Survey (http://www.stjohns.ca/publications/citizen-satisfaction-survey-2018) the thoughts about snow clearing often differ dramatically by ward and by demographic. But very few of those concerns reach my voicemail.

It’s healthy and effective advocacy to have conversations with people who have an alternate point of view as your own. That means you’re talking to the people you need to persuade. If you think you have a different perspective on an issue than I do and want to share it with me, please let me know and we can chat.

If you think we agree on something, I need your help to make it a reality!

  1. Don’t reach out to everyone at once

For many ideas, it’s not effective to write everyone on Council at once. Maybe it’s because there’s less of an individual connection and more of an email-list feeling. Either way, I think it’s usually more effective to reach out to a few councillors at a time, rather than everyone. (You can find our contact information at http://www.stjohns.ca/city-hall/about-city-hall/council.)

  1. Advocate in the off-season for an idea

A lot of municipal issues are seasonal. Snow-clearing concerns peak in the winter, bike lanes in the summer, etc.

There’s a special value in off-season advocacy, because you’ll be raising the issue at when there is ample time to work on a new idea. There might be a real opportunity to do the work you want done before the season arrives (although some ideas can take years to work out!). It can take time analyze an idea properly, consult with affected groups, develop a plan for implementing it, find the budget to set it up, get it through committees and council, etc. Many ideas are on the docket for awhile before there is an opportunity to research or implement them. Get in the queue early!

  1. Cultivate a realistic hope.

Municipal advocacy is powerful. When you write and share your concerns, you boost their profile and increase the odds that policy will shift in the direction you favour.

At the same time, in a democracy every voice counts, and you might be outvoted this time. And even when everyone agrees that big municipal changes can happen very slowly, it’s easy to become discouraged. When you write an effective letter and get positive feedback, and then a few years later it seems like nothing has changed, or even if change has happened in the opposite direction from what you hoped. It can be easy to shift from excessive hope into excessive despair.

The best advocacy comes from a place of realistic hope, where we’re aware that our voice is powerful and can effect change, but also aware that effective advocacy doesn’t always lead directly or quickly to the results we expect or deserve. It’s a difficult attitude to cultivate and retain.

(On a personal note, this was one of the challenges of my own first year on Council, to appreciate the power and limits of my one vote.)

  1. Be flexible.

Often people know what direction they think the City should move in, and have a particular proposal for moving in that direction. That’s a very effective form of advocacy! But often enough when I check out promising proposals there’s a legal or technical or administrative reason why the particular proposal doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean that the idea doesn’t have merit, it just might require some tweaking.

Many of my own favourite ideas have fallen in the same way, when staff with more technical expertise in the area identified fatal flaws in them. It’s important to listen carefully to the technical problems while holding firm to your vision of where we should be headed. Maybe there’s another way to achieve the same objective; maybe the City already supports your change but needs a legislative change at the provincial or federal level before it can implement it, so advocacy should focus on your MHA or MP; etc.

  1. Be positive!

A lot of advocacy comes with a negative or pessimistic inflection. I understand why that is! There’s a lot to be concerned about. It can be frustrating listening to politicians mouthing a bunch of upbeat platitudes without seeming to acknowledge in a straightforward way the challenges we’re facing. The urge to yell “Wake Up!” is very understandable.

But there are also a lot of practical reasons to keep advocacy positive:

  • Most concerns can be phrased as truthfully and directly in a positive way as a negative way. Frame a suggested change as an opportunity. If you think, for example, that the only way to save downtown is to ban cars from Water Street, then it’s as accurate to say “We have an opportunity to save downtown by banning cars!” as “Downtown will die unless we ban cars”.
  • Lots of people have filters against negative messages or tune negative messages out to some extent. This is particularly true of politicians—a lot of negativity and criticism comes with the job, so we all need some strategy to protect ourselves from being affected by that negativity. Positive messages are much easier to hear, and so they can be more effective.
  • A positive message is more likely to inspire action! Negative messages affect people and get shared on social media, but they’re far less likely to lead to further or effective action.
  • Despair and hope are both contagious. If you’re advocating for change in St. John’s, I’m going to assume you care about the community and want it to succeed, and despair isn’t the way to success. That doesn’t mean ignoring challenges: it means spreading the hope that we can overcome our challenges.
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