Citizen Action Monitor

So you want to fight city hall. Here’s how: Pt 2/3: Develop an understanding of political decision-making and power politics

No 69 Posted by fw, September 25, 2010

As in Part 1, the content of this three-part series is an adaptation of Liz Benneian’s presentation, Organize to Win. While some of the wording is different or augmented, I have tried to remain generally true to Liz’s concepts and main ideas.

The previous post, Part 1, presented the 18 essential steps in establishing a citizen advocacy organization that is “Organized to Win”. Continuing with Part 2 of 3 . . .

Understanding how politicians make decisions

There has been a steady erosion of democracy at all levels in Canada. Canadians no longer believe that elected officials necessarily act in their (the public’s) best interests, or that decisions are either rational or based on the best available information.

The reality is that self-interest always factors into the political decision-making process. Political expediency looms large. Politicians are risk aversive, wary of alienating local voters. And in this era of globalization, they dare not ignore the call of foreign as well as local lobbyists, power-brokers, developers, big business, and other levels of government, here and abroad. And what politician is not ambitious, jockeying for position and influence in the political hierarchy, with their eye on the next glittering prize?

All too often advocacy groups either don’t understand or simply refuse to accept the role that self-interest plays in the game of power politics. Face it — the power of reason and logic alone is not going to convince politicians to see the error of their ways, agree with you, and immediately change their minds.

This guileless approach never succeeds. It has been played out time and time again in battles over preserving natural spaces, ending the use of cosmetic pesticides and stopping incinerators from being built. Logical arguments fail. What works is wielding power!

Summarizing the key points so far:

  • Believing you are right is never enough. Decisions are made on the basis of self-interest – not merit.
  • Your goal must be to make it in the best interests of political decision-makers to do what you want them to do. You do this by building the “Power to Win” — the power that comes from a citizen advocacy group so big, so well organized that it neutralizes city hall’s political power.
  • Don’t waste time by asking yourselves the wrong question — “Why do politicians keep making the wrong decisions?” Instead, ask — “What does our advocacy organization need to do to get them to make the right decisions?

Understanding Power

Power is not a dirty word. It’s the key to winning battles.

The six sources of power

  • Money;
  • Authority, which can include holding a certain position, social standing, community standing, credentials etc;
  • Communication and information resources;
  • People;
  • Moral conviction; and
  • Doing work that serves the public good

The path to power for citizen advocacy groups

  • Politicians pay close attention to the size and composition of citizen groups, so go into battle with at least 100 to 150 members/supporters that you can call on at short notice; And folks with face and name recognition will help your cause.
  • Gather, and disseminate widely, factually accurate information that challenges the position and authority of decision-makers at city hall. The aim is to get decisions made and resources allocated for the good of the community rather than for self-serving interests of powerful elites.
  • Win the trust and respect of citizens by:
    • Providing them with concise, credible, authoritative, and accurate information;
    • Listening to them, rather than just talking at them; and
    • Being in the public eye – make sure they see you in action.
  • Gain power with decision-makers by assuming it:
    • Act like you have authority;
    • Speak with conviction;
    • Remind elected representatives that you are speaking on behalf of voters;
    • Refuse to be intimidated;
    • Stick to your convictions;
    • Do your homework; and
    • Be consistent in what you say and do, and don’t back down.
  • Focus on your primary target. Who do you want to reach that has the power to make the decision that determines the fate of your issue? Make a specific demand of that individual.
  • Identify secondary targets. Who has influence over your primary target? How can they help you to influence your primary target?

Never, ever, forget that these battles are about power

Study and know who has power and how they wield it. Your job — Get Power! Hold Power! Use Power! People Power! Don’t be afraid of this. Power concentrated in the hands of the few is called an ‘oligarchy’. Power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy is called a ‘plutocracy’. Power concentrated directly in the hands of the people, or indirectly through their elected representatives — who, don’t forget, are ultimately accountable to you — is a ‘democracy’.

It’s time to reclaim our diminished democratic rights. It’s time to “Organize to Win”.


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This entry was posted on September 25, 2010 by in grassroots planning, political action and tagged , , , , , .
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