Prevail in Local Level Policy Change by Maintaining the Narrative Upper Hand

Even in the best of times, proposals to change local services – such as roads and schools – are often controversial. And this, of course, is far from the best of times. Opponents of specific public works projects find ready allies in residents who are unnerved by changes to the city or neighborhood status quo more broadly. This is especially true when an innovation (such as adding bike lanes and crosswalks) is identified by opponents as a threatening shift of entitlement from longstanding residents (such as people who drive cars) in favor of “outsiders” (bikers and pedestrians).

Local government is all about finding middle ground among residents with competing interests. But how is that process skewed in an era where social media aids in turbo-charging angry sentiments that previously were shared at the coffee shop or over the back fence?

In an analysis for StreetsBlog, my colleague and fellow evaluator David Shorr and I argue that proponents of change can prevail by focusing the narrative on benefits of change to the broader majority of residents, and staying the course. David’s successful “road diet” initiative in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, suggests the following lessons:

(1) Don’t over-interpret the past. General sentiment for a public works improvement does not necessarily translate into support for specific changes in residents’ backyards.

(2) Make a long-term plan to rally supporters for the change and reinforce your narrative. Opponents of “all” change will likely dominate the early debate, but may not have staying power.

(3) Build and maintain the narrative upper-hand. Is living, shopping and walking in a neighborhood more valuable than driving through it at speed? Stake out a pro-community narrative and repeat it consistently.

(4) Name what the opposition is really about. Don’t let mischaracterizations of the issue or its importance go unanswered. Address legitimate concerns, but counter hyperbole quickly and with facts.

 (5) Organize and mobilize thoughtfully. Community leaders who support the change should incorporate pro-change sharing into their ongoing communications with friends and neighbors, and listen for their concerns. They should address legitimate issues, and make the case for change, in local media. It may only be realistic to mobilize supporters to meetings of elected officials where the stakes are highest, since busy residents may not come out repeatedly.

(6) Learn and communicate the experience of others who have “crossed the finish line.” Have communities similar to yours approved a similar project? Was there quick and vocal opposition, but eventual broad approval? This is important information for elected officials in your city or town who may be on the fence about supporting the project.

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