Posts Tagged ‘advocacy’

RE-THINKING MUNICIPAL INTERGOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Faced with a back-end loaded Building Canada infrastructure program that will see significant funding available to municipalities only in the program’s twilight years, more and more local governments are looking at how to best position themselves in what promises to be a highly competitive environment.

For some—mostly larger and mid-sized municipalities—this means turning to their intergovernmental affairs (IGA) departments for answers. But ironically, it may be the smaller municipalities–for which the IGA department is the mayor and council–that may be best positioned.

Let’s look at why.

Canada’s Constitution makes intergovernmental relations in the municipal context more complex than those at the interprovincial or federal-provincial level.

While the federal and provincial/territorial orders of government enjoy – legally, if not politically — relative equality and operate within well-established institutional arrangements that facilitate and even require formal relations, municipalities’ subsidiary status often forces them to create political and administrative space for their agendas to be considered.

In this context, classic models of intergovernmental relations that rely on formal channels and methods of communications are not well adapted to effective (as measured by the ability to influence positive outcomes) municipal intergovernmental relations. This is particularly true when it comes to municipal relations with the federal government.

Because of the political and administrative firewalls created by our Constitution, municipal relations with Ottawa tend to be more idiosyncratic and follow less formal patterns and approaches to institutional communications than do relations between the federal government and provincial/territorial governments.

The absence of formal institutional linkages between cities and the federal government mean that favourable outcomes, on the whole, tend to be driven by political, more than policy considerations.  Effective municipal intergovernmental relations therefore tend to have more in common with traditional advocacy than traditional intergovernmental relations.

Being successful in this environment require strategic and tactical flexibility—the ability to turn on a dime to seize opportunities—as well as the capacity to build networks, partnerships and alliances and to identify opportunities and seize them. And this is true whether you’re a municipality looking at supporting the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) push for better housing policies, or one hoping to get to the front of the funding queue for a major infrastructure project. This is why– even though they may not have the staff horsepower of larger cities–smaller municipalities may have an advantage, provided they are poised to act on it.

This has practical implications for the structure and operations of every municipal intergovernmental function, be it formal or not. It means shedding many of the trappings of formal intergovernmental relations and embracing a more dynamic approach built on sound, timely intelligence and analysis, and the capacity to mobilize networks quickly and efficiently.

For larger municipalities with formal IGA functions it will mean assessing how well roles, responsibilities and decision-making within their IGA team align with a core advocacy function built to be nimble and responsive. It will mean assessing how well equipped they are to tell their core story in a compelling and timely way to all of their key networks—government, media, potential allies—and to using this narrative to create room for favourable political action.

In the campaign for scarce federal infrastructure dollars, the ability to engage a network, mobilize a community, and tell a compelling story in a timely fashion will matter more than the number of official meetings one has been able to secure.

SOCIAL MEDIA ENGAGEMENT REQUIRES INVESTMENT IN TIME, PATIENCE

Monday, July 18th, 2011

The growing buzz around social media is making  jumping on the social bandwagon “de rigueur” for more and more nonprofit organizations. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most are embracing social media without really understanding how it  works, how it can help them meet their goals, and more often than not, without a real plan. 

Nonprofits that turn to social media to keep up with the Joneses but without a clear sense of direction or purpose, will likely fail.

Social media engagement is not like a switch that can be turned on and off at will.  Online relations need to be developed and nurtured over time and organizations that want to take advantage of these powerful new tools must be prepared to invest in listening, participation and genuine conversation. A good place for them to start is by distinguishing between their tactical and strategic objectives and opportunities.   

At a tactical level, social media platforms and social media engagement can be particularly helpful in facilitating consistent and targeted contact and engagement with an organization’s key audiences.

Twitter for example, can be used to start conversations and carve out relations with influential reporters or politicians.   

In addition to using Twitter to engage with important external audiences (mainstream media, political influencers, potential third-party supporters), organizations can use social media to connect and engage their membership, the sector they represent and the general population.

One low-cost way to do this is to create a Facebook Page around an issue of concern to the sector the organization represents  and around which an online community of interest already exists.  An example of this is the Facebook page created by InterChange Public Affairs to support FCM’s campaign to increase the number of women in municipal government.   

This tactic can be used to support efforts to mobilize an organization’s members, its sector and public opinion in the run-up to a key legislative vote, policy announcement, election or simply to raise awareness around a particular cause.

It is important however that organizations not fall into the social media “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” trap. A platform does not a social media campaign make.

Scoping out whether a community of interest around an issue or issues exists, its scope, level of engagement and top influencers are all critical first steps before undertaking any kind of social media campaign. This is particularly true if the campaign is designed for short term tactical impact.  

Absent an existing and broad-based conversation around an issue it can be very difficult to mobilize sufficient numbers to create political room for an issue. In fact, a social media campaign that sputters can have the opposite effect and serve only to demonstrate the absence of interest and support for an issue.

In the absence of a well-established online community or ongoing online conversations around an issue, a social media platform like Facebook can still be used to initiate engagement, amplify messaging and build a network, but its use should not be positioned or branded as a social media campaign.

Listening should be step one for any organization contemplating social media engagement.

Unlike full blown social media engagement where an organization openly and transparently shares information, responds to comments and queries, and actually becomes part of a community, listening is the first—but essential–step in successful social media engagement. 

As a general principle of social engagement, listening uncovers the nature of the conversations within a particular community. Just as you would not arrive at a cocktail party unannounced and attempt to monopolize the conversation, listening within a social media network allows you to determine your comfort zone and ease into conversations.

Whether it’s from a business perspective, a public institution, or that of a nonprofit advocacy association,  listening allows organizations to determine who the thought leaders are in a given community and what it is that makes them most relevant. Listening allows organizations to determine what content is most relevant and why. And most important, listening allows them to hear what people are saying about them, their brand or their issues.

Listening is easy and there are a number of tools available, from simple online search tools to advanced brand and reputation management platforms.

More strategically, social media can be used to expand and diversify an organization’s communication reach. In the short run, it can be used to grow its network by identifying like-minded influencers and encouraging conversations. In addition to expanding an organization’s network, this will amplify its message by promoting the sharing of content on multiple platforms.  

In the longer term, social media has the potential to fundamentally transform how organizations view and conduct advocacy, engage their members and staff, raise funds and develop policies.   

While tactical social media engagement is largely transactional and focused on achieving short term objectives, strategic engagement is based on a vision of emerging technologies as enabling transformative change.

From an organizational perspective, strategic social media engagement needs to rest on four things: a corporate vision of technology that embraces and facilitates change, the resources to implement it, a sound understanding of the dynamics of social media engagement and a well-established social network.

PLANT YOUR FLAG, THEN KEEP WATERING IT

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Getting to 30

In an earlier post about social media and Woodstock, I wrote that we may not know our audience until it shows up (as happened at Woodstock in 1969) and that social media makes it possible for an organization to plant its flag on the web and have people rally around. Our recent experience validates that premise, with an important caveat: organizations must invest in an ongoing conversation with their community.

Last May, as a pro bono contribution, we created a Facebook fan page for a campaign to get more women into municipal government. The campaign is led by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). While the campaign has attracted some mainstream media attention and has pockets of support across the country, it’s far from a household name.

We thought we could help by setting up a virtual space where people from all parts of the country could meet, interact and organize, with the fan page becoming the organizational hub of the campaign. We developed the fan page and a companion Twitter account and launched them in June, seeded with our own contacts.

Today, the page has more than 770 fans and the number continues to grow. Fans come from all walks of life, including politicians (provincial, municipal and federal), journalists, students, academics and business people, demonstrating that support for the cause is widespread and cuts across demographic and gender lines.

Facebook was the obvious choice for this, because it’s free, simple to set up and familiar to millions. We chose the fan-page format over a group page, because the fan page supports interaction. Facebook’s huge user base made it easy to connect with interested people and for fans to incorporate our page into their existing social media routine.

Other advantages of the fan-page format for a campaign are that it’s visible to unregistered users and indexed by search engines. Particularly important is Facebook’s news feed. When fans interact with the page, the news feed sends the post to their friends. As these friends also interact with the page, the news feed spreads the word to an ever-widening circle, recruiting more fans and promoting the campaign.

However, we found that we couldn’t just “plant our flag” and have people rally round. Active engagement is crucial to generating and maintaining interest in the page. People respond to fresh comment and content; they lose interest if the page goes stale. As well, campaigns have goals, and organizers need to encourage conversations that support those goals.

On October 1, we formally turned over management of the page to FCM. We expect it will become a key element in the effort to bring more women into municipal government. We will be watching with interest as this community continues to develop. You can show your support for more women in municipal government by becoming a fan of the page at http://tinyurl.com/fcmwmg.