When most of us think about advocacy, we think about Washington or the states. Congress. Regulators. Legislatures.
But that is only part of the picture. Local advocacy, activity directed at the city or county level, grew three-fold between 2016 and 2018, according to the 2019 State of Advocacy report released earlier this year. That’s a massive increase, and it happened for good reason.
While not often talked about in advocacy circles, the rise in local advocacy makes perfect sense. Scores of industries are regulated by city councils, county commissions and zoning boards. Retail. Construction. Transportation. Energy. Utilities. The list is long. It is also growing. Companies that facilitate everything from ride and home sharing to bike and scooter rentals are all regulated at the municipal level.
“The organizations that are disrupting markets and also disrupting advocacy, taking action in different ways to impact a different audience,” said Jeb Ory, CEO and co-founder of Phone2Action. “Many are regulated locally and are focusing their efforts on local officials—and it’s working. Grassroots advocacy at the local level is extremely powerful.”
‘All Politics is Local’
The famous quote by House Speaker Tip O’Neill is true generally, but it’s particularly true when it comes to city councils and country commissions. Local representatives are often closer to their constituents than their counterparts at the state and federal level. They are steeped in the communities they represent.
Whether in major cities like New York or Los Angeles or smaller places like Middletown, Ohio, local representatives are used to explaining their decisions to rooms full of people who care passionately about the outcome. It is not unusual for council members to meet in a room packed with constituents and to listen to those constituents testify for hours.
The reason is simple: local issues impact people directly and there are often two sides with solid arguments. For example, a new construction project might increase affordable housing or retail space, but it may also increase traffic. An airport noise ordinance could protect residents in the flight path, but may also decrease flights and cut into tourism.
Remember too that local governments regulate scores of issues. Water. Sewerage. Waste disposal. Building codes. Roads. Signage. Airports. Whatever industry you serve, there’s almost certainly a component that is regulated directly or indirectly by local representatives. Learning how to advocate locally is almost always time well spent.
‘They Deferred That Vote’
At the local level, grassroots advocacy has impact. But it is not always easy for organizations that have focused on state and federal decision makers for years. Local advocacy requires new muscles, building relationships with local officials and local audiences and doing so as a member of that community, rather than an outsider.
Yet, for organizations that can do so, creating a groundswell of support or opposition for a measure can be extremely effective at the local level. Consider the case of Expedia, a travel company that owns the popular HomeAway and VRBO short-term rental sites. Last year, a city in a southern state called a last-minute vote on whether to ban short-term vacation rentals.
Expedia has less than 24 hours to marshall opposition to the measure, and they moved quickly. The company emailed their property managers in the area—actual members of that community—and asked them to contact city council members. The result was dramatic. In just 8 hours, they generated roughly 700 emails to the city council.
“For a municipality, for a city council, that’s actually huge,” said Philip Minardi, director of policy communications at Expedia. “And the next day, they deferred that vote because there was such a high volume of correspondence from constituents. We even saw city council members tweeting that they had heard from their constituents [and] that they needed more time to think about how they were going to vote on the issue.”
That’s effective advocacy.
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