• October 18, 2022

The Case for Local Advocacy

Dozens of industries are regulated by city councils, county boards and municipal agencies. Having a voice in those chambers only makes sense.

While most government affairs programs are targeted at Congress and state legislatures, an increasing number of organizations have added local government to their portfolio. And there’s a good reason why.

Dozens of industries are regulated locally. Organizations working in agriculture, construction, education, energy, manufacturing, transportation and many other fields answer at least in part to city councils, county boards and municipal agencies. Having a voice in those chambers only makes sense.

That number may be increasing as companies in the sharing economy proliferate. Short-term rental firms like Airbnb and VRBO, ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber, electric vehicle companies like Lime and delivery services like Doordash and Instacart are all heavily regulated at the municipal level.

While tracking local government was extremely difficult even just a few years ago, technology now makes it easy for government affairs programs to monitor agendas, track ordinances, contact officials, mobilize advocates and run grassroots campaigns, just as they do at the state and federal level.

Yet there are substantial differences between local governments and their state and federal counterparts, and running the same playbook for all can result in major mistakes. If your organization is considering work at the local level, calibrating that program properly—tone, tools and tactics—is essential. To learn more, read on.

Understanding the Local Dynamic

Local government plays a special role in American politics: it is the level closest to voters and arguably has the most direct impact on constituents’ lives. At the same time, it tends to be far less partisan than state and federal offices. The result is a very personal environment in which constituents and officeholders often communicate directly on a regular basis.

“You’re getting stopped in the grocery store,” said Thomas Doherty, a former gubernatorial aide in New York who served in local government for the better part of a decade. “I couldn’t go get a haircut. The amount of people who stopped me for everything from a local traffic light to help with the State of New York was unbelievable. And I loved it. I mean, that was my job.”

A great deal happens at the local level. Local governments often cooperate with state and federal offices to get big things done—large infrastructure projects are a good example—and they have more direct jurisdiction over many vital issues. For example, while education policy is often set and funded at the federal and state level, local governments usually have direct control over how districts and individual schools operate. Important functions like policing, public utilities and land use are also largely under local control.

Accordingly, as technology has made local advocacy easier, more government affairs programs are engaging. The State of Government Affairs Survey released earlier this year showed that almost one in three advocacy professionals (32%) consider local advocacy an important focus of their program. Another 41% said they wade in when necessary.

Calibrating the Right Approach

The municipal process is often inclusive, with a great deal of time dedicated to soliciting public comment. While the action is not usually as fast as a state legislature, where limited session time expedites legislation, cities and counties are extraordinarily busy because of the sheer volume of decisions they have to make. The average city council might rule on funding for a water treatment center, mask policy at local retail stores, zoning for a soccer field and the purchase of new equipment for the parks department, along with dozens of other decisions, all in one meeting. Smaller decisions may be placed on a “consent calendar” but larger issues usually get a full airing. Meetings are generally held at night so constituents can attend after work and they often run into the wee hours.

The volume of decisions and the personal nature of local government has a substantial impact on what constitutes effective advocacy. For starters, the ability to deal directly with decision makers can bode well for a relationship-oriented advocacy program. In major cities, you may encounter staff. But in smaller municipalities, you will often get the opportunity to make a case directly to a mayor or council member. You will almost certainly have the opportunity to address the entire body at a public meeting.

Similarly, grassroots advocacy tends to resonate. While members of Congress and state legislatures are used to getting hundreds of emails from constituents, that is a relative rarity for most city and county governments. Letters from a few dozen constituents will be noticed, and the position expressed in those emails will almost certainly be considered. In many places, those communiques will also get personal answers.

However, there are missteps to be made. For example, there is a danger of being painted as an outsider. A national organization that comes on strong and tries to bully local officials in their own backyard may find itself demonized quickly, and then later on the wrong side of a vote. To ensure that your organization takes the right approach, consider these recommendations:

  • Start With a Light Hand. Communicating directly with local officials is almost always a good starting point, preferably before a vote is imminent. As in all good advocacy, building a relationship before a major issue is at hand provides a better chance that your position will be heard and considered. Before you launch a campaign, ask for a sit down.
  • Develop Local Advocates. Even in a big city, constituents can play a major role in the process. When an ordinance is introduced, residents are almost always invited to comment before passage. Cultivating local advocates to carry your message to public officials directly can be extremely effective. Lime has been successful using grassroots advocacy in many U.S. cities.
  • Sharpen Your Rapid Response. As in state capitals, legislation can often pop up in city governments with little warning, and the ability to respond quickly is a major advantage. Whether you are seeking to get a meeting or launch a grassroots campaign, a robust and up-to-date database of local officials facilitates fast connections. Using text messaging, which has a 99-percent open rate and often yields double-digit conversion, can also help if you have to mobilize local advocates fast.

Above all, remember that the nature of local government is to solve local problems and construct your arguments accordingly. “When you fix a pothole, that’s a big deal—that matters,” Doherty said. “When you fix a little league field or build a new park, that’s the best stuff you can do for people. I love the relationship because it really is person to person. It’s neighbor to neighbor.”