All the time we hear from folks they’d like to understand how to influence the policies and decisions that impact their lives here in Raleigh in a meaningful way. We wanted to put a quick post together on the best ways to show up and speak up to help shape the city we all love calling home. The Raleigh City Councilors are on a 2 year election cycle and thus highly sensitive to public opinion. This presents challenges and opportunities for citizens seeking to influence the policy making process. One of the challenges presented by this sensitivity is that public opinion at the local level is virtually impossible to measure. Civic participation is generally very low in Raleigh. Take the 2017 Council elections. Voter participation overall was 14.96%, with the Mayor winning with 26,855 votes (just 6.8% of Raleigh’s population). So, it is no surprise that civic participation in the routine business of the City rarely prompts more than a handful of citizen participants. And even when a high-profile rezoning case or some other controversy does attract significant public interest, it is unusual for more than a few dozen citizens to get involved. Those that do are typically directly impacted by the pending decision and often do not represent the prevailing views of the general public.
More importantly, the feedback Council receives from these citizens is generally negative because there is an inherent fear of change that drives citizens into the policy making process. In the absence of some countervailing pressure, this “reactionary” citizen engagement combined with short election cycles tends to reinforce the status quo.
It does not have to be this way. By taking a proactive approach to citizen engagement, citizens can use Council’s sensitivity to public opinion to drive the policy-making process. Success is not difficult but it requires coordination and commitment. Ideally, it begins by establishing personal relationships with Councilors. Just like all of us, the councilors are busy folks and getting out in front of them with the issues that matter most to you is a great place to start in order to effect change in our community.
One of the most effective ways to do this is by working to elect candidates that are willing to consider new ideas and approaches to improving the lives of citizens. We’ve found most candidates are very receptive to speaking with folks – they are, after all – trying to get elected. Reach out and ask if you can sit down with them for a brief chat. Financial contributions are of course appreciated by candidates, but there are many other ways you can give back to candidates that resonate with your issues. Many candidates are open to residents hosting “meet and greets” and actively knocking on doors to get the word out about a preferred candidate. These efforts help establish personal connections with current and future Councilors. Independent of campaign activity, meeting with each Councilor every few months to exchange ideas, to discuss policy preferences and to identify areas of mutual interest is also effective in developing meaningful relationships. The key is finding ways to build relationships with each Councilor.
In addition to investing time developing relationships with Councilors, it is critical to stay informed about what is happening in the City. One tool for staying informed is registering with MyRaleigh Subscriptions and signing up for email alerts on topics of interest. The City sends out email alerts on a vast array of topics and activities.
Another option is to review the City’s Boards and Commissions Agenda portal. Every public meeting agenda is posted to the Agenda Portal 3-4 days before a meeting. Because Council approves most staff initiatives, expenditure of funds and consultant contracts, reviewing agendas regularly is an effective way to identify items of interest early in the decision-making process. Many items are also referred to Council Subcommittees, the Planning Commission or other appointed body, so reviewing those agendas helps identify items of interest and potential entry points into the decision-making process. The key is to enter the process as early as possible because it is easier to influence the outcome and because it helps offset reactionary civic engagement.
While proactive citizen engagement creates more opportunities to influence the outcome of pending matters, it also increases credibility with Councilors because it demonstrates a commitment to the policy-making process and not just to a particular outcome. More importantly, proactive citizen engagement provides Councilors with a broader sense of prevailing public opinion.
Once Councilors sense that public opinion is moving beyond the status quo, real change is possible. That is the point when Councilors are more likely to support proposals that fundamentally alter the approach the City takes to improving the lives of its citizens.
So we’re here to encourage you all to not take a passive approach to our local governance and the resulting outcomes. If we want a Raleigh built for all, we need to show up and speak up for the values we want our community to convey. Stay tuned for an in person event where we’ll elaborate more on opportunities for engagement and ways that you can effectively engage with and influence the political process.