Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lobbying: by Tim

You can tell it's exam time (and, in my case, hockey playoffs - Go Sens!) by the vastly decreased post count. And readership too, no doubt. Meh. I should be sleeping. But since I found the (remarkably poorly) hidden jelly bean stash in my living room I'm a little hopped up on sugar. So decided to write something on this sorely neglected blog. Something interesting? Naaah. But a rambling treatise on lobbying? I can do that.

See I haven't spent that long at the lobbying game. Really, I only spent 2 years of my life trying to get University officials to listen to me. (I'll note, however, that I spent a year trying to get things from University officials in non-political capacities. That experience helped.) I also get the feeling that, relative to some, I've had a fair amount of success. But at a minimum, I've learned a few tricks about successfully bending the ear of University administrators.

  1. They used to be students, too. Here's my overarching theory - who's still in a University by the age of 45? People who never left. They never left either because they're unemployable anywhere else or, more likely (if they're senior), they really like University environments. Moreover, most peoples' university environments were shaped by their student experiences; it follows that University administrators liked being students. Tap into that, into their memories, and you're one step closer.
  2. They like hearing from students. This flows from the above. They were probably young keen-eyed students back in the day. Chances are, in some way, you appeal to some part of what they love about Universities. I'll bet most of them were involved in a "sit-in" of some variety. Probably some anti-Vietnam protesters in there, as well. These administrators are normal people with University experiences; unfortunately, their perceptions of the University experiences are skewed by their 250k salaries (in the case of VPs) and their distance from the experience.
  3. Provide a unique voice - tell them something they don't know. Put another way, tell them things only students know. There's no point in re-hashing tired old arguments - they've heard them before, no matter how persuasive you find them. And no, your rhetorical brilliance will not change their mind. Additionally, they're probably more knowledgeable than you are. They do this every day. So question things where they can't pull rank or authority, provide value in an area they don't. I once went into a meeting with the Director of Financial Assistance and she was most interested in the dearth of campus community. She just shot down all my numbers and arguments, but was genuinely concerned about the impact that loans might have on student life. And that perspective was valuable.
  4. Engage them! Invite them! One BoG meeting, as we were preparing the terms of reference for the search committee for Martha's replacement, I made the point that Martha rarely showed up at events where students were there. A member snapped back at me: "that's because she's never invited." He had a point. When Prof. Toope came to AMS Council the day they announced the visit, a councillor quietly whispered "when was the last time Martha visited?" The answer: "when was the last time she was invited?" In my experience, people will just as happily take a meeting, or show up... just ask.
  5. Don't tell them they're wrong. Okay, tell them they're wrong. But think about how you do it. Nobody likes being told they're wrong. What happens when that happens? People get defensive. On BoG, I was struck by how human these administrators are. And it's a basic human trait - when challenged, we rarely back down. When pushed into a corner, people fight back. It's very important to challenge authority. But challenge in a constructive way that allows the authority to say "you're right" without losing face.
  6. Speak their language. Nobody wants to hear ideological ranting. The most effective student presentations have had measurable benchmarks, clear strategic thought, and clearly articulated outcomes. That's a fancy way of saying constructive engagement. Don't communicate in a way that allows them to easily dismiss you, and it'll all be fine.
Apologies for the "us-them" dichotomy. And for the perspective. But this is just my approach to lobbying. It is possible to get things done in the University's bureaucratic maze, it just takes patience and a willingness to play the game.