Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Musings On Lobbying

I never thought of myself as a lobbyist. So when Steph asked me to be a member of a panel on "Lobbyists Are People Too", I wondered just what the heck I might have to contribute. We're talking this weekend, for Pete's sake. Telling her, "Yes," was both an act of faith in her ability to put a whole conference together and an inspiration to start thinking about the topic.

When I think of somebody I'd label a lobbyist, I think of folks on K Street in Washington DC who pull down 6 or 7 figure salaries to convince legislators who were recently their coworkers to write legislation favorable to their bosses' cause, and not to mine. After all, anybody who could afford to shell out that kind of money to get a spokesperson with access to the ears of the powerful couldn't possibly have a public service agenda, right? So that's not me. Never has been me. Never want it to be me (though the salary sounds good!). Not too likely to be you either, eh?

So what could I have to contribute to the discussion? It's way to easy to demonize those big buck guys, but the panel is about exactly the opposite. The broad scope of the workshop is about activism, and lobbying is a tactic to be encouraged, not demonized.

As I thought about it, I suddenly realized that every one of us has been a lobbyist.  We started as soon as we were able to say, "Mommy, I want a cookie." As we grew, we lobbied for toys, later curfew hours, pay raises, lower prices on that new car.

Who knew?

Of course that didn't bring in the 7-figure paychecks, but as we practiced, we at least did get cookies... some of the time.

My twelve years in city politics brought me experiences of both sides of lobbying. People came to the council to lobby for their own particular cause, whether a neighborhood dispute, a complaint about taxes or services,  a change in an ordinance or just a variance to exempt themselves from it. Sometimes they made sense, sometimes they didn't. The best results came when we paused long enough to examine the issue from multiple sides: Who benefits? Does the city's tax base increase? Are more or fewer people likely to want to live or grow their business here as a result? What are health and safety outcomes?

Our biggest lobbyists were the developers who inevitably were trying to persuade us to allow them the absolutely cheapest way to build the most housing on the smallest spaces for their maximum profits. We paused long enough to review and change ordinances, consult with our attorney and engineer to find out what was or wasn't legal, what standards were enforced throughout the state.

We had a lot of experience saying, "No."

In my many roles  with the city, I also became the designated lobbyist on behalf of the city in the attempt to achieve some of our own goals. Small towns have fewer resources, and in several instances we negotiated joint powers contracts with our neighbors for improved services. Five of us came together to set annexation boundaries so new territory came into whichever city, depending on their location rather than the property owner's random choice. A different set of communities combined forces, this time including  the County, to find locations for, choose designs for, and help manage three new libraries.

On both sides of any of the issues, it was my experience that the best decisions were the fairest for all, and based on openly examining the issues involved rather than reacting to the person presenting the case. We had to learn to look past the grumpy town drunk to decide whether his signs or apartment building standards fit esthetic or safety codes. Conversely, our best buddy might want to put on an improvement that would prevent firemen access in an emergency. We needed to understand that developers always plead poverty and hardship when all they really wanted was faster cheaper construction, and once completed, they would be on to another community and we would be left living with the results. It could be hard at times to remain objective when they let us know that we were simple country hicks who couldn't possibly understand zoning issues and building codes, and who ought to simply be grateful that someone as important as they were would even think of helping us improve our little out-of-the-way corner of the world.

I do admit that strategy did have a certain amount of entertainment value, even as we disabused them of their notions of who we were. Often, they were already invested in a good chunk of land, and were stuck with us. We had no problem with instituting a moratorium while researching the options.

But we all made the best progress with whichever issue was on the table when we at least faked respect for the other side, listened, gave civil feedback, and kept to the many facets of the issue at hand. We may have thought the other was greedy, rude, inept, stubborn, craven, ignorant, or whatever. We treated them with respect, no matter how low our real opinion of them was. We were darn sure that their own opinions of themselves were nowhere near as low, just as ours of ourselves weren't as low as they likely thought us.

And, back to the workshop, this is where my other topic for presentation comes into play: assertiveness in communication. Barring outright bribery or other corruption, the best results come from using it, regardless of which side of lobbying one is on. It involves respecting the other, making "I" statements (I need ..., I want ..., I/we believe the benefits of ... will be ....) rather then "you" statements (You should ..., you think that..., you are...). Finally, assertive communication involves listening, opening up the situation to an actual dialogue, enabling all parties to get the full picture, then act on the best knowledge.

And hey, I still want that cookie!

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