Thursday, 20 May 2010

How to help politicians work for you

They come into office promising to be our servants, but soon the pressure of events, inertia of institutions and more powerful forces take over. They work for you, but they can’t read your mind and many others are also making demands. You need to get to know them, let them know what you want and show them how you can help them win bigger battles for a better society.

Now is the time for citizens, community groups and activists to connect with their elected representatives in the Town Hall and Parliament. All professional lobbyists, journalists, campaigners and interest groups will be doing the same, but constituents have one powerful advantage: the vote. Politicians are elected to represent you. Most want to do good for their constituents (it helps their career and gives them an independent base). If there are strong local feelings about an issue some politicians will even defy the party line to support their constituents.

Many years ago I was secretary of a community resources centre, in an old church hall near the centre of a Conservative-run town. We were seen as a hot-bed of radicals, hosting the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), Communist Party Jumble Sales, lesbian discos and a thriving punk rock scene. In fact, most of what we did was to support a flourishing mainstream community sector - printing neighbourhood news letters, providing meeting space and encouraging self-help groups across town. Then one day a newly elected Conservative Councillor asked to rent our rather small, shabby little meeting room for surgeries. Some regarded the Council with deep suspicion and Conservatives as the enemy, but after much debate we agree that the Councillor had a democratic right to hire a room and be available to constituents. Not many came, so we had plenty of time to talk with him. We argued for pedestrianisation of the town centre, cycle lanes, gay rights, smoke-free rooms in pubs and much else. We rarely agreed, but it was a political education on both sides. So when fellow Councillors attacked the resource centre in the Council Chamber, he defended us on the grounds of freedom and when National Front supporters burnt the building down he was first on the scene to offer support.

Sine then I’ve worked with politicians from many parties. Most want the best for their area, people and the country, but with very different convictions about what that means. Most have been willing to listen to a well-made case, and some have changed their minds and even reversed a decision as a result of persistent, patient efforts. Those in power, of whatever party, are more likely to stick to their guns and defend the settled view of their government. But show and tell a politician something that makes a difference or solves a problem about which their view is not yet settled, and they will be your greatest champion. Indeed, if politicians see or hear something that fits their agenda, it may be trumpeted as government policy and rolled out before you know it. Then you watch your cherished project mangled by the political and civil service machine, puffed up in speeches and ground down in bureaucratic detail. So be careful what you wish for, because politicians are more pliable than you might think.

And these early days are the right time to make a good impression and create a warm, working relationship, whatever your polictical differences. Officials provide politicians with data and plans about how to carry out their manifesto commitments and respond to problems. But politicians also depend on the public, pressure groups and the media for information about what matters to people, what can be done about problems and additional information or different interpretations of the data.

So here are some questions and suggestions for things you can do to help them work for you:

Who matters most?
First, who matters most? If you are active in your community, a campaigner or you work for a voluntary organisation, you probably know where your most important political relationships are, but I only found out by accident after several years as a community activist, so here are a few questions to help find out who could help you most:

a) where do your funds come from, who decided what you get, and who makes the policy about how that is made available?

b) which departments or agencies influences the demand and nature of your work?

c) which departments or agencies may have an indirect influence on your work or concerns, such as the Treasury, health, welfare or education.

And d) who do you think might simply be sympathetic to what you do.

Sometimes it is obvious where the main relationship will be, but often you can get more leverage by working with another agency that is indirectly connected to your issue. For example, if you work on domestic violence you main point of contact my be Social Services, but the police, Primary Care Trust and Treasury could all have more influence on what happens. The big investment in Sure Start under the Labour government was a result of someone in the Treasury recognising the long-term benefits of investing in the early years.

Don’t under-estimate the role of chance and personal chemistry in changing a politician’s point of view: who would have thought that Iain Duncan Smith would become a champion of social justice as a result of visiting Easterhouse Estate with Christian Socialist Bob Holman?

Then think about specific ways in which local or national government may help or hinder your work (see 2nd point in previous post, on 17 May). Even if you have no current concerns, it is still useful to develop a relationship with your councillors, MPs and MSPs (Scotland), MLAs (Wales) or MEPs: see About Your Representative for the kind of things they can help you with.

These questions will help you decide who may be particularly useful, in terms of their position in the Council or Government, but don’t neglect your constituency MP, councillors, MSPs, MLA or AM

Find out who is who by looking at the membership of relevant council committees on your Council's website, who are the relevant government Ministers or membership of select committees in Parliament.

Find your Councillors, MP, MEPs, MSPs, or Northern Ireland, Welsh and London AMs at and find out more about your MPs interests, views, voting record and who funds them at They Work for You

Remember that it is also important to make constructive relationships with permanent officials and MP’s staff, including Special Advisers who act as sounding boards for Ministers.

Make your position clear
Second, look at how you communicate your core messages about who you are, why you exist, what do, what you offer and what want from others. Many groups and campaigns have lots so much information it overwhelms newcomers, so look at everything again through the eyes of an outsider and the new political class. Go through current leaflets, brochures, documents and your website, weeding out jargon, unnecessary words and language addressed to the previous political regime.

If you don’t have a campaign summary, create a page or two to tell people where you are coming from and where you are going, including:

• why you exist: the problems you address and/or opportunities you create

• what you do, illustrated by a story or picture as well as relevant numbers if possible

• evidence of benefits: what you have achieved and any costed benefits to society

• where you work or who you work with, particularly if you cover a well-defined area or group

• how you came about: your story as a campaign or organisation

• who you are: people, including volunteers, prominent supporters and head person, governing body or executive

• how you are resourced, including funding, voluntary effort and gifts in kind

• what you want: a short specific statement of what you want from government or others: be specific about who has the power and what you want them to do

• potential benefits: what could be achieved as a result of getting what you want

• endorsements: quotes from supporters and beneficiaries

Include in it a one-line summary or slogan to communicate your main purpose or create curiosity.

A short campaign brief or position statement like this is as important for your own people and supporters as for politicians, but it should be seen as a reminder of your main messages, rather than as a means communication – for that you need to speak in person with whoever you want to influence.

Build on common ground – particularly if you are far apart
Third, think about the most positive way to start a relationship with politicians, particularly if you think they have very different views or oppose what you feel strongly about: they work for you and can represent your views, even when they disagree with them (and you could even win them round). You would never start a relationship with an employee by attacking them or making aggressive demands before you meet.

It is almost always more effective to show people something, where they can see, hear and speak with people involved in the issues you care about, so if you can organise a visit, tour or event to which they can come, so much the better. Politicians like to be useful, so give them something to do, like cut a ribbon, launch a project or book, give prizes, give a talk, debate with young people, plant a tree – the more memorable and distinctive the better, but it has to be a positive memory, with a photo opportunity if possible.

Thinks about what you can offer them: every organisations has unique insights and experience which can help a politicians understand an issue. Human stories are often more powerful than dry facts, but back up your stories with powerful, memorable evidence. Many MPs rely on voluntary organisations or even pressure groups for information on specific issues – but you must be reliable, or they will never trust you again. Once they trust you, they will ask you for evidence or arguments when your issues come up, invite you to meetings or advisory groups, all of which can help further your cause. You may also be able to help them speak with constituents they would otherwise have difficulty reaching – think of the popularity of mumsnet before the election.

Don’t be dishonest, flatter to deceive or conceal your views if you have genuine differences, but start by seeking common ground and building bridges rather than barricades. If Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists can work together in a coalition government, then anything is possible in practical politics.

Even for a relatively small organisation, it is worth creating up a database of contacts with politicians and officials you deal with. Keep them informed of what you do, invite them to functions, tell them when you agree with something they’ve said or done, and they will be much more likely to hear when you disagree with them and take action for you when you need them.

But above all, keep sight of your purpose and the reason why you want to politicians to understand what you are about, and empower your members and supporters by sharing this information with them.

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