One of the greatest frustrations you may encounter is powerful people saying they are powerless to make a change. Agency staff are beholden to their appointed bosses, who are beholden to the city council, who may or may not be able to do much without approval from the mayor, who may be worried about reelection, or the city manager, who doesn’t want to risk his or her job.
Think strategically about what is driving your decision makers and move accordingly. If an elected official only responds when they have sufficient constituent support, build strong coalitions of their constituents to exert pressure. If agency staff will only move forward if they have appropriate political cover, identify the people or institutions who can provide that cover.
Work proactively to understand the players and what makes them tick, ideally by asking them directly or asking someone else in the know. Your questions might include:
- Does this issue align with [decision maker]’s priorities or platform?
- Has [decision maker] supported similar initiatives? If yes, what got them on board?
- Who or what is influencing [decision maker]’s choices?
- What will it take to get [decision maker] to support this legislation?
Pay attention to external cycles and conditions that create particular incentives and constraints. Campaign season, for example, is often a slow period for change. Elected officials are likely to be more conservative in their decisions as they tend to voter concerns and navigate election pressures. Aware that they could soon have a new boss, agency staff may also hesitate to move.
Conversely, there is often a flurry of activity after elections. New officials want to establish early wins and appoint their own people, while agency staff usually shift their focus to a new administration’s priorities. Scandals, controversies, and crises are also worth watching, for priorities can quickly shift under their pressure, opening new doors and closing others.
When it feels like things are going slowly, hold onto the maxim “fortune favors the prepared.” Keep working proactively on your issue (for high priority policies, you may even want to hire policy staff or a lobbyist). You want to be ready, for politics moves quickly. Even when things seem quiet, changes may be brewing behind the scenes.