Local government leadership often involves creating a focal point, when a charismatic individual lights the way forward for community residents. Rallying and unifying disparate groups requires tremendous passion, talent and energy. While this role can indeed be all-consuming, there is another, equally critical role for local government leaders. It also involves serving as a voice — a focal point — but one that is external.
As the state and federal governments allocate diminishing funds under an increasing amount of scrutiny, investments in regional and local projects are carefully weighed. The competition for securing funding is fierce. One of the most critical roles local leadership can play is to ensure their community has an equal shot at state and federal investment. Success involves creating visibility.
Unless your community is the home of a national or state treasure, was recently sited for location of a multi-billion dollar Amazon warehouse, or just experienced a natural disaster, chances are that state and federal officials see it as a blur on the map, one of many similar places.
The visibility of a community and its uniqueness to state and federal representatives shouldn’t be accidental. It is better achieved through advocacy.
Perhaps you’ve interacted with your legislators in the past, in order to support or fight a proposed change at the policy-making level. If so, you’re aware that many, many others clamor for their attention and compete to influence their vote. You already know that success in this highly competitive arena requires more than a last-hour call to your Senator or Representative to request their support.
Similarly, getting your community on the state and federal “radar screen” requires the commitment to become a full-fledged advocate for your residents.
Advocacy is much more than lobbying. It encompasses strong leadership, effective communication, and education on both broad and specific issues. The goal is providing a constant reminder to your representatives that your community is a unique and well-planned part of their district, and is ready for their investment, whether it’s through funding or advocacy of their own.
The building blocks for powerful and effective advocacy are respectful relationships with the people that can champion your issues. It is important to have regular and open communication with your local leaders in Congress and the State House. Let them know when your town has a success. Share with them the challenges you are facing. Ask them to attend a council meeting and make sure to recognize them when they are there. Provide time for them to address the community with an update of their efforts. The key is keeping up a dialogue with them month-to month, so that when you have an issue that requires a voice at the state or federal level, your Senators, House Member, and State officials are tuned-in to your local needs.
The state legislative delegation representing your municipality and county want a rapport with you and your community. You provide them with a very effective conduit to their constituents, while they serve as your champions. A fruitful relationship consists of mutual respect and understanding.
Embracing your community advocacy role shows your leadership both within and outside of your community. The measure of your effectiveness is the strong sense of partnership you create with each representative. By forming these partnerships, you will increase the visibility of your community. Furthermore, when the time comes that a legislative champion is needed, your representative won’t be a stranger and you won’t have to begin your advocacy with an introduction.
Advocacy In Practice (inset)
- Develop the relationship before the legislative session begins. Do not wait until you need something before reaching out.
- Invite the delegation members to visit your community for a council meeting, festival, tour, etc.
- Learn the priorities of the delegation members and if the Council can support the priorities.
- Educate the delegation on your community’s successes, challenges and needs.
- Be clear, concise and polite when sending a letter or email to the legislator advocating on behalf of an issue.
- Do your homework on the issue and be prepared to answer questions.
- Always say thank you.