Here's How You and Your Agency Can Have an Impact in the Public Policy Arena

Never think a group of committed people can’t have impacts on government policy. It just takes diligent effort and a sound strategy.

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In my father’s bathroom, there’s a cartoon picture of a two-story outhouse. The door on the upper unit is labeled “Government”; the door on the lower unit: “Taxpayers.”

It’s kind of funny, but also a shade cynical. It’s common for people to bash the government: federal, state and local. Heaven knows I’ve done it. But in my reasoned moments, I remember something: We the people are not underneath the government — we are the government.

That’s essential to understand for anyone who wants to influence what government does. I’m not naïve enough to think one person has the same influence as the next. Various people and organizations with money and power have outsized impacts on politics and policy. Still, it’s indisputably true that we have a representative government: At every level, we vote people into office, and they are there to serve us to the best of their ability. That’s not the same as being there to do exactly what we tell them, but it’s part of their job to listen.

Doing our part

In short, we have something called self-government, and if we don’t take part — by voting, advocating for issues, supporting candidates for office, running for office ourselves — we’re shirking our responsibility as citizens.

To simply sit around and moan about the horrors of government is the height of futility. It accomplishes nothing. Progress requires action and involvement. In the words of my seventh-grade civics teacher, Sister Jacinta, at Holy Redeemer Catholic School: “You don’t like what city hall is doing? Why don’t you run for alderman?”

The point is that, though it may not be easy, we can influence government. Multiple channels exist for airing our grievances and offering our proposals. By banding together with other like-minded people and entities, we can bring about change. It may not be easy; it’s not supposed to be. But, dogged persistence can move mountains. Squeaky wheels do get greased.

Being an advocate

To that end, the Water Environment Federation offers a Water Advocates program. It provides practical advice on how wastewater and drinking water utilities and their personnel can band together to become effective players in politics at any level. Here, from the WEF program, are a few quick tips for effective advocacy:

Know the facts. To establish and keep credibility, have a grasp of the facts on both sides of any issue. To paraphrase Bob Dylan: Know your song well before you start singing.
Put the facts to use. Set them down in one-pagers you can distribute.

Be clear and concise. Government officials, the press and the general public have no time for long-winded conversations or lengthy documents. Get to your point quickly, and make it with conviction. Avoid industry jargon that people outside the field won’t understand.

Nurture relationships and work collaboratively. Advocacy is a joint venture. Find your allies, and work with them. Odds of success are best with multiple organizations and people on your side. Make sure you and your allies have consistent data and the same messages.

Engage the public. Use the media, social media, petitions, letters, emails and other strategies to engage the public. Remember that numbers speak loudly to elected officials.

Make your voice heard. Kiss the low profile goodbye. Spread the word through meetings, press conferences, letters, petitions, rallies, phone calls and more. Talk up your issue in social settings: You never know where you might find an ally.

Say thank you. Government officials are busy; their time is valuable. Keep meetings short, and thank the officials afterward. When your advocacy succeeds, thank those who helped you.  


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