Forms of Power

Now that you have identified a core group, goals and others who share your interest, it is time to consider what kinds of power you and your group can bring to the coming struggle.

It is important to recognize that when you advocate change, you take on special interests that will be threatened by any change. Usually the special interest groups have a great deal of influence, often by default, because they possess an abundance of a few types of power: money, knowledge and personal relationships with the policymakers.

Special interest groups are not necessarily sinister in their use of power. They use money to contribute to policymaker's campaigns, to hire lobbyists, to wine-and-dine and to develop detailed materials to document their particular need(s). Special interests can and do play an important role in policymaking. Community groups can learn a great deal from observing how they utilize power to affect public policy.

Community groups do not have the money to compete with special interests; therefore, they must seek to use other kinds of power. A core group of organizers must learn to mobilize other types of power.

(1)  Numbers Are Power: Policymakers (city council people, legislators) are very concerned about large numbers of voters especially if they are upset. It is important that you identify other groups that agree with your goals who will show up to a meeting to demonstrate your large numbers. Numbers give you additional legitimacy and credibility.

Policymakers have radar which continually assesses the impact of what they are doing or plan to do. They are extremely sensitive to organized groups. The larger and more diverse your group, the more likely that it will be taken seriously. Seek ways to expand your group. The group, however, must have well-established goals and strategies or it will become divided and ineffective.

(2) Conditions Are Power: Although your group might be small you probably can find others who share your concerns. Expanding the numbers of a group involves building coalitions; coalitions involve bringing together diverse groups to work toward a common goal. It's important to identify the goals because there will be areas where the various coalition members disagree. The group must learn to agree on the goals and agree to disagree on the areas of difference.

(3) Unity Is Power: A large, diverse group presenting a unified position before a city council or a legislative committee has power. Be careful. Choose wisely the person who speaks for your coalition in public meetings. If the spokesperson gets excited, exaggerates a point or gives misinformation, a smart policymaker will seize upon the occasion to destroy the credibility of all of the information and may discredit the entire group as well. Should the group seek to defend the misstatement, it risks its own credibility. However, if the group disassociates itself from the spokesperson or information presented, the group may become divided and ineffective. Do not let this happen! Unity is essential to maintain your legitimacy and credibility.

(4) Positions Are Power: It is important to bring to your group people who hold important, credible positions in your community.  Bankers, educators, business people, community leaders and clergy give your group legitimacy.  Try to involve them in your group. 

(5) Knowledge Is Power: Two kinds of knowledge are essential to effect public policy. 

First, you must be knowledge about the process of decision-making.  Each public body has rules and policies which describe how decisions are made.  Get the rules.  Learn them.  Remember there are also informal rules. Get to know those, too. Then monitor the meetings and impact the decisions at the appropriate time.

Second, you must be knowledgeable of the issue you represent.  Study know the issue. Do not exaggerate or misrepresent the facts. Develop good information.  Policymakers will learn to trust you and eventually will depend on you for facts. 

(6) Relationships Are Power: It is always helpful to know the city councilperson or county commissioner personally. Donít be afraid to help on a campaign or volunteer to work in a policymaker's office. You will develop a personal relationship with the policymaker which will give you access and credibility. You should get to know key policymakers to such a degree that you feel comfortable calling them or visiting their offices. You will know that you have power and influence with policymakers when they return your phone calls.

It is also helpful to know that policymaker has a hidden advisorósome trusted friend or associate who meets regularly with the policymaker who has an inordinate amount of influence on the policymaker's thinking and judgment. You can save yourself and your group a lot of trouble if you get to know that hidden advisor, working to gain this person's trust. This person can do more for your group over a cup of coffee than you and your group can do in months of organizing.  The hidden advisor must feel comfortable with you and perceive your group as a broadly based coalition of knowledgeable people who can impact the process if necessary. Hidden advisors can become important allies and key parts of your strategy.  Get to know them.

(7) Voting Is Power: Elected policymakers listen to voters.  Be sure you are registered and vote.  Be sure that all of your coalition members are voters and willing to vote as a block. 

(8) Use Of The Media Is Power: Policymakers dislike bad publicity. You must learn how to develop literature, talk to the press, go on radio, and speak before cameras so you can get your message across. Policymakers will go out of their way to avoid bad press if they can so donít be afraid to use the media. 

(9) Money Is Power: Although most citizens' groups are at a monetary disadvantage, they must have some funds to develop materials, pay for mailings and keep other members of the coalition informed. You will not be able to compete financially with special interests, but if you have the other elements of power, you can overcome the power of money. No group, however, can function without some funds!

These nine elements of power, if used in combination, will more than offset the special interest groups. No smart public officials will disregard the wishes of a large, unified coalition of knowledgeable voters who have expressed a specific interest to them. The power of money usually will dwindle as the organized community group becomes more knowledgeable, assertive and effective.