If you’re in the business of building formal or informal coalitions to get things done, you know that you are going to run into people who are working just as hard to undo your good work. As I’m currently working on a legislative initiative, I’m seeing that dynamic in action. Here are just a few of the many potential ways that opponents try to peel away supporters (be on guard):
- Allege that the proposed action is insensitive at best, unethical at worst, while attacking the motivation of the proponents. Few people want to be evil, and this will cause supporters to at least temporarily question their involvement. Response: Make sure coalition front organizations are recognized positive advocates for change and that communication facts and analysis as to who is affected and how are bulletproof.
- Claim that the effort, while perhaps not unethical, is certainly illegal or unconstitutional, especially for obscure or highly technical reasons. Leave a whiff of litigation threat in the air. People are so skittish about getting sucked into the American legal system that some will start to flee. Response: Come prepared with legal precedents and analysis that the proposed change has/can withstand legal challenge.
- Suggest that the proposed initiative is unneeded because existing entities or organizations can make the changes under their current framework or rules/statutes. Standing pat is a comforting position for many folks and will sap their drive, ignoring the fact that change wouldn’t be in the air if those groups had done something already. Response: Prepare timeline of worsening conditions and/or failed opportunities to previously address needed change.
- Agree that change is needed and then propose a complex administrative or funding scheme for making the change happen. The more intricate the problem-solving approach – often offered under the guise of “if we’re going to fix it, let’s get it right the first time” – almost always guarantees failure. It ensures that the effort will likely collapse under its own weight and inertia. Or it creates a situation in which there are so many things, each hated by one person or group, that the coalition driving for change falls apart. Response: Stay focused on solving only the precipitating need and, to use the cliché, harvesting the low-hanging fruit first. Further change can be pursued when successes have been established and everyone wants to be on the winning side.
When consensus building, last-minute opportunities pop up to talk with specific interest groups and attempt to elicit their support. Often these groups have such specific interests that a standard “stump speech” just doesn’t cut it in terms of content and focus.
The time and effort involved in producing a tailored presentation for these groups can be reduced, however, by thinking about the mental map of those you are trying to reach. That is, what questions will they have in mind as they decide whether to attend your presentation, pay attention and give you a fair hearing?
When faced with this kind of last-minute, one-off presentation situation, I think about how I will answer these questions that I believe most potential audience members have as they decide whether and when to pay attention:
- What’s the problem or opportunity generally speaking?
- Why should I care?
- Who are you that I should pay attention?
- What are the specifics of the issue/opportunity?
- Why is it a problem now?
- How much does it affect me?
- When will it affect me?
- What are the solutions?
- Why won’t the status quo handle the issue?
- What are the “easy” answers and why won’t they work?
- What/who will fix the problem and what are the pros and cons of each solution?
- What do I need to do?
- What are the specific things you want me to do, when and in what sequence?
- What resources are available to help me do this?
- How will I know when I’ve succeeded?
- Again, why do I need to do this as opposed to someone else?
- How will the world be different if I pay attention to you and do what you’ve asked.
Our project team, which has been studying the business case for designing and building dedicated truck lanes on 800 miles of I-70, have just submitted our project nomination for a Transportation Planning Excellence Award.
This biennial awards program is sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), in partnership with the Transportation Research Board (TRB).
Our nomination is focused on the innovative planning goals and strategies we employed on the I-70 Dedicated Truck Lanes Feasibility Study, which was sponsored by Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
The Transportation Planning Excellence Awards (TPEA) Program recognizes outstanding initiatives across the country to develop, plan, and implement innovative transportation planning practices. Winners represent a variety of planning organizations from across the county, and will be published in an Excellence in Transportation Planning resource report for their peers.
Uber-coalitionist Jennifer Wilding remarked on a recent post in which I referenced “super stakeholders” by noting how most engagement specialists fear the appearance of “the usual suspects” – the people who show up at public meeting after public meeting, sometimes carrying an ideological ax to grind in each hand.
But just as often, some of these folks represent nothing more than a very informal dedication to public service defined as going and participating rather than by seeking public office, volunteering for AmeriCorps or the like.
Are we missing out on an under-utilized resource by preferencing getting new faces into a process? Those new voices are important, but how might we benefit if we created mutually sustainable opportunities for “the usual suspects” to become “para professionals” about an area or issue – and to be recognized for acquiring a mastery of a related skill or expertise?
The growth of location-based services by companies such Facebook and Foursquare bring us closer to tracking, responding to and educating high-frequency public meeting participants. With long-term, sustained tracking and rewards, it may be possible to groom “super stakeholders” who are proven to be familiar with and well-educated about long-range policy issues.
Coalitionists looking to get the word out about their endeavors abandon or minimize face-to-face community communication at their peril, according to a Pew Internet poll.
Although electronic communication continues to grow in importance, personal contact (face-to-face and phone) is three times more frequently used than Internet tools, at least in terms of neighborhood issues..