Lobbying: by Tim

Posted by: | April 19, 2007 | 6 Comments

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.


6 Comments so far

  1. Reka on April 19, 2007 7:57 pm

    I maintain that I have excellent jellybean-hiding skills. You didn’t even know they were hidden for the first eight hours. You could even say I hid the fact that they were hidden from you! Clearly a genius idea on my part.

    … but I digress. Your post focused mostly on how ineffective hardcore ideological lobbying can be, but there’s another group of people out there who are equally ineffective, and those are the ones who are just plan scared of (or awed by) anyone with a fancy title or position of power at UBC. One of the most important things that I learned was that senior administrators are still UBC staff members too… they have e-mail addresses and phone numbers in the UBC directory and can be contacted more or less the same way as everyone else. The fact that Maayan got an interview with Carl Wieman with about two days’ notice shows just how easy it can be to reach people, if only you try. Talking to administrators is surprisingly easy – it doesn’t have to be a big scary deal.

  2. Tim Louman-Gardiner on April 19, 2007 8:30 pm

    I didn’t mean to suggest that “hardcore ideological lobbying” is ineffective. It just has to be done right.

  3. Matthew Naylor on April 20, 2007 8:06 am

    As someone who tends to use, inaccurately, ‘ideological’ and ‘inflexible’ somewhat interchangeably, I think that there is a place for ideological lobbying, but not when it is insulting or filled with rage.

    Hmm, it’s 1AM and I should be asleep. I have some thoughts on this.

  4. Reka on April 21, 2007 4:29 am

    “Nobody wants to hear ideological ranting.”..? You’re right, I guess you don’t explicitly say it’s ineffective, but when I read it it sounds implied. That wasn’t the point of my response though. What gets to me more are the people who only smile and nod in the presence of administrators and are too chicken to speak their minds on an issue… provided they have a mind. Sometimes those people are just wastes of space in general, not just in meetings with sr admin.

  5. Anonymous on April 27, 2007 10:59 pm

    tristan here:

    some good points, tim, especially about being conscious of peoples’ past.

    what does “ideological” mean as used above? (matt said “inflexible” – that sounds good. indeed the tao te ching says “the stem that doesn’t bend, breaks” . but that applies just as well to university administrators, no?).

    tim said we ought to speak “their” language. what is that, exactly? and why shouldn’t they speak our language? what is our language, anyway?

    in my humble opinion the biggest problem with student lobbying at ubc is that students think they are powerless. they think there is no point trying. apathy is not the right word. resigned, perhaps. thoreau said “resignation is confirmed desperation”. (sometimes it’s worse than resignation, and you get the “if you can’t beat em join em” student politicians. ick).

    when we have done lobbying, something, ANYTHING, we often get results. you have to TRY. i have not seen any ideological lobbying going on, so i don’t know what you all are referring to. there has hardly been any lobbying at all. jeff did some in regard to governance, and it worked. the moral: do more lobbying of all kinds. try different things. take many approaches. use different tactics. not everyone has to agree with all the tactics. just do something. like it or not, we have the power. if we don’t send clear messages about what students needs are, and how their lives are being affected by policies, who will? nobody.

    that said, of course, we ought to always be careful, strategic, thoughtful, etc, rather than wreckless and counterproductive.

    bad lobbying is unclear lobbying. for example, read the ams’ policy on the towers over wreck beach. to paraphrase: “the ams is worried about the towers over wreck beach, but no we’re not, so we have nothing to say”. great policy (i recommend reading that one).

    we’ll see how clear a message the AMS will send about U-Blvd next week. for the love of god let’s hope that we have SOMETHING to say.

  6. Alfie on May 1, 2007 6:41 am

    Tristan, just for another point of curiosity, as i am new to the AMS council, did we actually pass a motion specificly telling the U-Blvd projection to halt imediately?
    I help Margaret collect about 14 petitions by just walking into complete strangers for only 5 minutes. They all agree that we have to stop and think and plan the project.That’s a fairly powerful indication of students’ resentment.

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