For an advocate who's spent a career devising 'asks' to press with government officials, my service on the Stevens Point, Wisconsin city council has offered a glimpse of life on the the other side as a decision maker. And as an evaluation consultant who analyzes policy change work, some of our local issues and debates have been grist for reflection and writing.
Running for a fourth term in the April 2022 spring election, I found myself in a full-on political showdown—with a complete set of challengers ran against all five councilmembers up for reelection. As in other communities, many of our hottest debates have been about street design and road diets. In this case it was controversy surrounding the plan we approved for an eight-figure road reconstruction project spurring our opponents to try flipping control of the council. Earlier on, I devoted much my first council term to fighting for the community's first road diet. Afterward I examined that episode for broader lessons, which yielded the three published treatments below: a narrative account, a long-form case study, and a blog post summarizing the study's findings.
My city council colleagues and I make the best decisions we can for our community and its future. We take our responsibilities seriously and has resolved some of the community’s longest-lingering issues. Yet we generally do a lousy job of touting our successes or cultivating our public image. For all the time we devote (as part-time legislators) to meetings, learning the background on the items on our agenda, and following up on constituent concerns, until recently we haven’t done a lot of ribbon-cuttings or media work. So heading into an April 2022 reelection showdown with an opposition riled up over a massive planned road project, we had good relationships with constituents but hadn't really made our case,. Come Election Day four out of the five incumbents earned another term. Courtesy of WisPolitics, this is the story of how we did it... READ MORE
My decades spent as a progressive policy advocate and newer role as an evaluation consultant for foundations and nonprofits were bound to shape my approach to public service when I was elected to my local city council in 2016. It had always been my job to come up with things to request of decision makers, and now I was one. In terms of substance, I picked bike- and pedestrian-friendliness, walkability, and transportation equity as my top issues, beginning with a fight for a 4-to-3 lane conversion on a main arterial that consumed much of my first term. Not only have I applied my advocacy skills to proposals I've pushed or supported, that background also heightens my interest in the workings of local government and politics. Several months after the Stanley Street road diet battle concluded, I wrote a first-hand account for Strong Towns, a mainstay of New Urbanistm. READ MORE
The first-person account of the Stanley Street road diet battle for the Strong Towns blog was good as far as it went. But the episode yielded enough of an archive and interesting questions to be grist for a deeper inquiry. This seemed like a case where looking through the lens of the evaluation of policy change work could yield further insight. Realizing that I lacked objective distance from the episode, I teamed up with colleague evaluator and frequent writing partner Kathleen Sullivan. (We were fortunate to find a home for the resulting paper at the advocacy group America Walks.) Once we started, we saw a need to look squarely at the reasons local transportation equity fights get so messy and how to deal with that messiness. We observed that many writers avoided focusing on the political and cultural battle lines for such debates. Our paper argues for treating the conflict as a political obstacle to be overcome, rather than a set of substantive concerns that can be assuaged with more public engagement and bridge-building. READ MORE
Given the vehement local opposition that road diets have sparked in communities across the country, we focused particularly on strong advocacy practices in the face of counter-advocacy. The paper's key finding is the idea of policy change through perseverance. When faced with a vocal minority claiming to represent majority sentiment, the best thing is to push through the rancor and put the opposition's political strength to the test. When our paper was released, STREETSBLOG published our post summarizing the paper's seven takeaways: