How to Influence Local Government (When the Ball Is Passed, Be Ready to Shoot)

 How to Influence Local Government (When the Ball Is Passed, Be Ready to Shoot)

We asked “what are specific actions for increasing your influence on the local level?” ELGL has responded swiftly and specifically. 

Podcast: Reason for Running

We talk running for City Council with Sara Eskrich, Alder for District 13 of Madison, WI, and Hannah Lebovits, candidate for University Heights, OH City Council. They discuss why they wanted to run for office, the challenges they have faced as women candidates and what they hope to accomplish. Sara shares her experience knocking on doors in a snow storm and Hannah talks about campaigning with her young children.

By Emily Edmonds, NC Growing Together, LinkedIn and Twitter

In the wake of the recent election and political upheaval across the country, my favorite professional organization – Engaging Local Government Leaders, fondly called ELGL – issued a call for people to begin channeling that civic involvement into issues and advocacy at the local level.

It’s a simple idea, but the recent election and unprecedented civic engagement mean that more people than ever are engaging with the public service matters that affect us most. So, ELGL said:

“If you want to get involved, no matter which political party you’re from – why don’t you take another look at local government?”

ELGL has been listed as a top national professional association, providing cutting-edge resources for new strategies in local government leadership.

Kent Wyatt, the co-founder who started the conversation around influencing local government, points out that involvement in local government is one of the only places where individual citizens can actually influence the programs, services, and outcomes that impact them directly. “I love local government because of the ability to actually influence things,” he writes. “For the most part, local government is just the right size to have an influence and see it actually make your world better.”

A great example of this was recently brought forward in the Triangle region of North Carolina by Raleigh City Councilman Corey Branch, who decided to take town hall meetings to the citizens themselves. He hosted a meeting in Southeast Raleigh, an area where high development pressure and inequality in growth have led to new issues facing citizens and their government.

He calls it being proactive: “It’s about the community being more forward-thinking; being proactive as a community with the government assisting, not always leading.”

That’s a great concept to remember in our own engagement work: that government – especially at the local level, where the sphere of influence is smaller – doesn’t always have to lead. Sometimes, they just need to listen.

At the Raleigh town hall meetings, citizens reminded local government staff and elected officials that communicating opportunities for engagement remains one of the biggest barriers to getting more people involved – especially in communities where internet access isn’t reliable or computer literacy rates are low. They brought up needs for parks, for housing, and for economic development and entrepreneurship.

However Raleigh decides to handle these issues, they’ve made a great first step by taking themselves out of their offices and out into the communities they serve. Doing that, they’ve given people in those communities an opportunity to take their post-election engagement to a new level – to help lead the way for local governments.

And when cities, counties, and towns listen in this way – invited by ELGL to think about more ways to get out of their offices and into the communities they serve – they’ll hear that most people are more than willing to help them drive change. As one participant in the Southeast Raleigh Town Hall said, “This can be a team effort. Decide which position on the team you can play, and when the ball is passed to you, be ready to shoot.”

Whether you pull for the Tarheels, back the Pack, or dress up like a Cameron Crazy, that’s a basketball analogy that can bring us all together. Cheers to a year of being ready to shoot, whenever we’re called on, to help our local governments do the best work that they can do.

By Josephine Schafer, Professor, Kansas State University

Here are a few specific actions for answering the call to action.

  • Advocate for policy issues by creating community around the things that matter to you. Join local civic organizations, book clubs, coffee groups, or volunteer with a non-profit that you are passionate about.
  • Let your money and attendance do the talking for you. Show up for community events and use local public services like the library, a museum, or zoo.
  • Take surveys that your government posts and make comments at the end. Very few people make thoughtful remarks so yours will stand out!
  • Call and ask questions. In a recent survey I did for a local government, very few people, as expected, show up for meetings but surprisingly few called and talked to elected officials and administrators directly when they had a concern. The personal connection you make when talking to someone can have a great impact.
  • Encourage others to speak up. Once you are comfortable participating in government help others to feel they can have a voice too. Administrative burdens of participation and access to services are often most felt by those that need the opportunity most. Help others to feel comfortable and knowledgeable about government and encourage them to be active.

By Kris Schaeffer

My mantra: Create a great place to live, work, play and learn.

  • Identify key advocacies that are important to your town and you.
  • Focus on these rather than spread yourself thin.
  • Identify sponsors and those who can get you on the advisory groups that provide input on policy.
  • Develop the programs and policies that support your advocacies.
  • Get a posse who will speak out with you. Examples: Recreation equity. Town-gown cooperation.

By Dr. Benjamin Clark (LinkedIn and Twitter)

Kent Wyatt, the ELGL Co-Founder (find him on LinkedIn and Twitter), wrote a piece recently on the ELGL blog about 6 opportunity to influence local government. I wanted to continue that discussion here. Kent you are onto something. Kent’s six are: 1) Apply for a Job in Local Government; 2) Express Yourself by Writing; 3) Be Active on Social Media; 4) Submit Your Entry for the Resume Book; 5) Learn About Local Government; and 6) Volunteer for a Local Board or Committee. I’ll respond and expand on some, but not all of these.

I love local government because of the ability to actually influence things. For the most part local government is just the right size to have an influence and see it actually make your world better. Yeah!

Apply for a job: ←This. Yes. Do it.

As Kent writes:

Even if you have not worked in any capacity of government, do not take yourself out of the running for jobs by not applying for a position. Younger professionals, especially, have unique skills that are lacking in government. The ability to create website content, manage multiple social media accounts, and build apps to report potholes are skills missing in local government.

Express Yourself by Writing: ←This too. So when I lived in Cleveland I wrote a short opinion piece on why one of the suburbs should merge with the city of Cleveland. It took a bit of time to compose and get into print, but it put me in the center of the discussion. I met with chiefs of staff and council members. I got lots of phone calls from community members wanting to know more. The merger still hasn’t happened, but that is all politics.

Social Media: While you might be fortunate enough to a retweet from POTUS or Real Donald J. Trump on Twitter — but you are likely to feel the wrath of internet trolls and want to close your twitter account immediately and put your ringer to silent as random people somehow came across your phone number. However, this isn’t (likely) going to happen when you get involved locally. And the mayor, council member, etc might actually see your note/actions on social media where you live — it won’t get lost in the 250k tweets or facebook posts on the same topic. Small is good.

Learn About Local Government: I’m a professor of public administration, of course I think this is a good idea.

Volunteer for a Local Board or Committee: Yep.

I’ll add the following:

Run for office: While I’m telling you to do this without having done it myself, but why not. Slate ran a few pieces on the topic recently: here and here. And one of my former colleagues at the Levin College of Urban Affairs, Grace Drake (a former state senator in Ohio), put together some on this as well.

Attend Public Meetings (if you can): Not many people show up to comment on issues — until it is really too late. Once you show up a few times people might recognize you. Introduce yourself to people (staff too, not just the elected mucky mucks). Be thoughtful and concise in public comments. Don’t bring of strange stories about the problem of scurvy during conversations that have nothing to do with scurvy (this happened to me) — it makes you look crazy.

Read the budget in brief (if you city has one): Crazy people like me like to read budgets — the big ones. Many cities now have budgets in brief — a short version of the budget, that will give you the highlights of what is going on. Read it. They can help to give you a better understanding of what is going on…answer questions you didn’t even know you had.


By Kent Wyatt, ELGL Co-Founder, City of Tigard, OR, LinkedIn and Twitter

Whether you attended the Women’s March or voted for Donald Trump, we can agree that government is entering a critical phase. All levels of government face a retiring workforce, aging technology, and a resistance to change.

The challenges facing government coincide with the loudest call for action that I’ve heard in my lifetime. Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural, young and old, women and men, and countless other groups have issued a call for action among their members.

I believe that the most meaningful action can occur on the local level via the mayor, city council, staff, boards and committees, volunteers, and other interested citizens.

I am motivated about how to take action locally by a series of tweets from Ariel Kennan, Director of Design and Product in the New York City Mayor’s Office.

A few years ago, I witnessed first-hand the success of local involvement through the Tea Party’s strategy to run for city council positions and volunteer for any and every local board and committee. I had applied to serve on a planning board for the local school district. I figured I would be appointed since I was pretty confident that no one else was attracting to spend a few hours each month reviewing school bonds.

While I was eventually appointed, it was only after a school board member called the city manager who I worked for at the time, to ask whether I was affiliated with the Tea Party. The school board member had witnessed an uptick of Tea Party members on local boards and wanted to make sure that I was not another. Instead of complaining on social media, the Tea Party members heeded a call for action through local involvement.

Here are six opportunities that you can make a local impact.

Apply for a Job in Local Government.

Here’s a secret…local government jobs are not as competitive as you think. Kids are not dreaming of becoming the next Jane Jacobs or L.P Cookingham. Further, local government has largely failed at communicating with students about the wide range of opportunities.

I’ve participated on a number of interview panels recently where candidates had little-to-no government experience. Many of the candidates had advanced to the interview round because the lack of a deep applicant pool.

Even if you have not worked in any capacity of government, do not take yourself out of the running for jobs by not applying for a position. Younger professionals, especially, have unique skills that are lacking in government. The ability to create website content, manage multiple social media accounts, and build apps to report potholes are skills missing in local government.

Express Yourself by Writing.

ELGL is constantly adding new columnists who want to share their perspective on topics such as the lack of diversity in local government or the process for building a new website. We welcome all contributions that are relevant to local government.

In fact, we’ve had members ask to write how they fear the impact of Trump on local government, contrarily, we’d welcome articles on why Trump will be a positive influence. We need both sides represented to avoid the echo chamber found in many other forums. Email me to get started.

Be Active on Social Media.

This might be contrary to what you’ve heard, and I’m not suggesting replacing social media with other meaningful action. I’m here to inform (and this is supported by a number of executive recruiters) that you need a presence on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Donald Trump skillfully used Twitter to become the next President of the United States. Having a egg profile on Twitter and lurking on Twitter does not count. Engage, in a thoughtful way, on issues that you care about.

I can vouch for the Twitter’s impact on ELGL. More than a third of our members first learned about ELGL on Twitter. I’ve watched numerous connections develop from Twitter. These connections enabled people to land a new job, find shared interests outside local government, and write for other websites.

Submit Your Entry for the Resume Book.

ELGL created the Resume Book to connect local government organizations with the best talent in the industry. Previous installments of the Resume Book have included a wide range of profiles from MPA students to senior management analyst to city managers.

Every year ELGL collects resumes and then compiles them into a book that gets shared with our members, executive search firms, HR professionals, and other key local government stakeholders. There’s still time to add yours to the 2017 version.

Learn About Local Government.

You need to know about the profession, if for other reason than avoiding an awkward elevator ride with a co-worker. Listen to the GovLove podcast, read the Morning Buzz, subscribe to daily updates from Governing and CityLab, and read your local newspaper.

Volunteer for a Local Board or Committee.

Visit any government website, and you will find a lengthy list of board openings where you can find your opportunity to give back while gaining valuable career experience. In 2o14, I worked with a few other local government professionals for this article on Mac’s List – 3 Reasons Industry Leaders Advise Serving on a Board. Experience on a board will build your network, resume, and sphere of influence.

In my opinion, you must avoid inaction. Ignoring the world around you is not an option. When your time is up on this earth, make sure your voice and actions live on.

Supplemental Reading

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