How To Get What You Want From Elected Officials

Posted on Categories Engagement, Policy 585

I get at least two letters every week from residents where they ask me to do something. I give them the honest answer about getting their request fulfilled and… usually never hear from them again. And I can just feel their unhappiness with my reply (which I’ll share with you in a sec).


As I often write, a lot of my job is ‘bowing and scraping’. I have literally never begged and cajoled and nagged this much in my entire life. But that is just the deal for activists (and electeds). You’re not an executive. You can’t ‘do’ all that much on yer own. All you mainly do is try to convince other people to get on board and then they make things happen. And the person or group that is the most relentless and convincing, usually gets their way. That’s democracy. If you just write a public official once and then call it a day, you’re not even in the game. There is someone else out there who is calling or writing literally every day. Because that’s what it takes to win. It’s survival of the fittest.

And if that disappoints you, please believe me: I understand. And I’m sorry, but that’s just the dealio. It’s not nearly enough to have a good idea. Lots of people have really good ideas. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to listen to all the good ideas that need attention. So either your idea is something that your elected already cares about (lucky you) or you have to demonstrate that you want it. Real bad. 😀 A lot more than the other fifty people with their good ideas.

So when people write me with an idea, I usually write back something like,

“Great idea! OK, now here is what I need you to do to make that happen…”

And that right there immediately turns off the majority of people who contact me. Because I know they think their job is done simply by writing me. Au contraire, mon fre’er. 😀 That’s just the beginning.

I now have six other councilmembers to convince. Have you given me enough information to do that? Do your neighbors or fellow business owners support your idea? Maybe we need a petition to prove that. Do you have data to support your idea? Are you willing to help raise money?

See my point: your work has just begun. And if you’re not willing to do that work? Someone else in Des Moines is. And that’s why their idea gets done and yours doesn’t.

You want a speed bump? A sidewalk? A <whatever>? You gotta earn it. Nobody can do it for you. Now I could lie and write back, “Great idea! I’m on it!” But I assume that when you write me, you want the real answer. 😀

Council schmouncil. Wherever you see some road improvement or basically anything substantial in Des Moines, there’s a story where someone or some group worked their collective asses off to make it happen.

And now the good news

I’m not trying to curb anyone’s enthusiasm. Just the opposite, in fact! I live for activism. Which is why I’m giving you the skinny so you can actually succeed.

In short: the bar is really high to get anything done. But it is doable if you’re willing to put in the work. The real question is: are you willing to put in the work? If the answer is “You bet”, let’s get started. 🙂