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Image credit: Office of the Governor / Maryland State Archives
1737 words / 7-minute read
Summary: Elected officials are the gatekeepers to public policy matters. Efforts to establish or change outdoor lighting policies depend crucially on knowing how to work with them most effectively. This post discusses winning strategies to advance policy proposals to enactment.
Public policy is an important tool in creating lasting social change that may decrease light pollution over time. We have written here before about policy matters here, considering the motivations ("Why pursue an outdoor lighting policy in your town or city?") and important elements ("Good/Better/Best Outdoor Lighting Policies"). But how do technical concepts and policy proposals on the use of outdoor lighting become law? In short, they must withstand scrutiny by, and gain the support of, elected officials. In some democracies the legislative process may seem to outsiders like a daunting prospect. Yet in most cases it starts with simple conversations that develop into relationships.
In this post we will look at ways to influence that process by communicating with elected leaders. It starts by understanding how the relevant level of government works. Understanding how policy agendas are set is important. But most significant is learning a new language of politics and procedure. Catering to these issues is the key to becoming an insider. Here we'll look at each of these ideas in turn.
A brief civics lesson
In most Western countries, policies that affect the use of outdoor lighting are made at the national level. These policies filter down to the level of individual cities and towns, which must follow them. An example is France, which sets legal standards across its territory that all jurisdictions must observe.
Some countries with federal systems devolve the authority to set these policies onto lower levels of government. This is true in the United States and Canada, where lighting policies originate at the state/province of municipal level. In still other countries, like Mexico, the central government sets very high-level standards and leaves lower governments to decide how to implement them.
This may be confusing to people who have no prior experience in dealing with government other than voting. It may require a consultation with an attorney to figure out which jurisdiction governs lighting. But it’s important to figure out early in the process in which jurisdiction your lighting problems exist. This ensures that efforts to address those problems target the proper level of government. Doing so also means time is not wasted asking for solutions that a given level of government isn’t empowered to address.
One more point of significance here is what kind of law is best to pursue. Statutory laws are familiar to most people. These are proposals written by legislative bodies that endure the political process before becoming laws. Many Western countries also have some form of common law, which is a series of mostly unwritten precepts derived from history and tradition. Certain legal notions like nuisance derive from the common law. And third, most governments have some sort of administrative or regulatory procedures that function like laws. Sometimes the change one wants to bring about don't demand new laws at all. A changing interpretation of an existing law can yield the same result.
Driving the policy agenda
It's not enough to know to which level of government one should present a policy idea. Governments everywhere face many concerns vying for their attention. Representative democracies are in part designed to address this situation. Constituents vote not only for candidates but for the ideals and priorities they espouse. Competition among policy proposals places them on a policy agenda for legislative bodies to consider.
In a recent post we described the "issue attention cycle". This is a model for the process by which policy ideas are generated, considered, implemented and revised. In brief, the cycle works like this. In the first phase, a social problem of some kind emerges as the result of different influences. Public awareness of the problem grows during the second phase. Some people who become aware of the problem realize the cost of inattention to the problem and begin to demand solutions in the third phase. The cycle reaches its peak at the start of the fourth phase in which a policy solution is devised and implemented. As the problem targeted by the policy change diminishes in significance, public attention begins to ebb. In the fifth and final phase, the policy implementation is mature. But new problems may pop up despite the policy change or even because of it. These new problems may then start attention cycles of their own.
The extent to which lawmakers are thinking about any given problem depends very much on the phase of the cycle. The days of 'early adopters' may see no interest at all from elected officials. Often it is only when a problem becomes acute (and even severe) do officerholders begin to pay attention.
But elected representatives are always mindful of their terms of office. They know that, on a reliable schedule, voters will hold them to account for their time in office. This often makes officials very sensitive to public perceptions of issues. If they hear from enough of their constituents to the effect that an issue is important to them, they are more likely to take steps to address it. The timing of issue advocacy is thus crucial to the success of efforts to bring about change.
Successful advocates for change study trends in political discourse very carefully to choose the best time to make policy proposals. The foundational work needed to bring society up the "hill of awareness" may be long, lasting sometimes even decades. Deploying a proposal too soon usually leads to elected officials ignoring it. Waiting too long invites complacency and a sense that adverse outcomes are inevitable. Careful stewarding of proposals through the attention cycle seems to yield the best results.
Making friends in high places
Policy ideas become law through a complex process of influence that caters to the needs of the people whose input is necessary at different steps along the way. Sometimes that’s a policymaker; other times it’s staff, and at certain points it’s definitely the public. All these groups must be carefully managed to anticipate obstacles and figure out ways over or around them. This goes beyond being polite to people. It involved getting to know them at some level and thinking of them as colleagues rather than mere gatekeepers. And despite these relationships, one still might not get the desired outcome in the end.
Legislative staff often hold outsized power in setting the detailed policy agenda. They also occupy key positions of influence over the legislative bodies they serve. Staff can bring attention to your proposal to get it on the agenda of the legislature and keep the process moving at the proper pace. They act as the first screen or filer through which policy ideas pass during the enactment process. Furthermore, given the electoral cycle, elected representatives have short time horizons. As professional employees, staffers often last much longer in their positions. They are the repository of information transmitted from one generation of lawmakers to the next.
Sharpening the argument
Next comes the policy idea itself. This is the core of every change movement. Don't just complain that you don't like the status quo as it affects the issue at hand. Instead, show why the status quo is inadequate and come prepared to discuss specifics. Bring evidence to the discussion where you can get it. And communicate in a convincing way what it is you want the elected officials to do.
Successful policy changes begin as well-constructed, logical arguments. They appeal in equal measure to reason (the mind), emotion (the heart), and feasibility (the gut). Ask yourself: what is the solution, and why is it the right one? Consider alternative policies and explain why they won't work as well (or at all). Expect objections to the solution and game out strategies for responding to them.
Elected officials, and their staffers, expect advocates to come to them with an "ask". That is, they presuppose that the purpose of a phone call or a meeting to discuss an issue is to convince the legislator to support some specific action. Advocates should lead these discussions with the ask and provide context establishing a need for the action. They should conclude by making clear that the ask is the right and best way to address the problem. They should also suggest the consequences of inattention to the issue or inaction in response to the ask.
Of course, this element should not dramatize the problem beyond what the facts prove. But the argument should convey a sense of urgency that the advocate wants the official to sense and confront. "Success" in this context is turning a skeptic into a supporter. With deepening relationships come trust, and with trust often comes endorsement.
You are the expert!
Enactment of a new or amended outdoor lighting policy isn't the end of a process but the start of a different one. Once governments decide to improve their lighting policies, often they want help with, e.g., evaluating permit applications and deciding how to enforce rules. They can also use information about lighting and light pollution to educate the public in hopes of increasing support for change. And for this leadership they look to policy advocates as the experts.
Relative to those who write or implement laws, individuals and groups that advocate for those laws are uniquely positioned. Their knowledge of problems and solutions runs deep. Officials may enlist their help during implementation to understand the fine points of a law's requirements. This is a separate matter from legal interpretation, which is for courts to decide. Rather, governments may ask advocates to take part in implementation to ensure it proceeds correctly. The relationships forged during enactment of policy often survive the end of the formal process. Better outcomes seem to result when advocates remain engaged.
This may all seem discouraging to the uninitiated. But each advocate starts out new to an issue like everyone else. Like the issues themselves, effective advocacy is something to learn. And experience proves the view expressed by the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who once famously advised: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
If you found this post inspiring but don't know how to get started, we can help. Advocacy for policy change, and supporting successful lighting policy proposals, is at the heart of what we do. Contact us today to find out how we can devise, launch and support policy initiatives in your community.