As we settle into the new year, yet a third year challenged by COVID with political discord everywhere, I find that I must constantly remind myself that there is more we share than divides us. Yet so many of our most pressing public policy issues appear more intractable than ever.
To paraphrase an old quote, too often as we try to advance new policies in Minnesota we discover that there is a 12-foot gap between where we currently stand and where we want to go. While it is a significant concession when someone offers to bring forward a 6-foot board, it is also insufficient to the challenge.
Even when multiple groups step forward with their 1- or 2-foot boards, we’re not going to make it across the chasm. The challenge is 12 feet, and nothing less moves us forward.
We need to bring a balance back to our public discussions, acknowledging real challenges and the threat they represent to our shared economic prosperity while admitting that we also have to identify priorities and focus action where it is both needed and can be accomplished.
As a public affairs practitioner, I believe that the answer often lies in stronger communication and more effective engagement with stakeholders, including members of the public.
- What do stakeholders really know about a problem?
- Why is it important to them?
- How will you create value that they share in?
- What can they do to help?
Look to Rent Stabilization for Lessons
Take the recent fight that erupted in Minneapolis and St. Paul over rent stabilization. At its core, there is a shared view that the lack of affordable housing in the Twin Cities is the biggest impediment to addressing many of our most pressing problems: educational achievement gaps, workforce availability, racial equity, economic growth, and shared prosperity.
But like shards of glass, almost any way community leaders try to pick up the pieces it’s almost impossible to avoid a cut. Three months have passed since the election and leaders in both cities remain deeply divided over how best to address this need.
In Saint Paul, voters (where only about one third of registered voters showed up to the polls) supported a rent control ordinance that is arguably the most aggressive in the entire country. A majority of the City Council opposed the ordinance and continue to express frustration at the lack of clear direction.
Yet, the actions of proponents and opponents alike stem from a shared sense of urgency and a rejection of the creeping incrementalism that has allowed the problem to grow steadily worse despite the growing spotlight focused on it.
How, then, when there is widespread agreement that the problem must be addressed, is there more acrimony than consensus? I cannot help but believe that the split can be attributed in large part to a lack of communication and ineffective engagement.
This issue raised a lot of emotions, but few residents truly understood the proposed ordinance or the implications for future investment in St. Paul. As I tried to process the election results and what I know of the efforts to support or oppose the rent control ordinance, I landed on the following five themes.
- Messaging appeared focused on claims that “rent control is bad” or “rent control doesn’t work.” These were not bad messages, but they were not enough. Opponents of the ordinance needed other messages and other voices, particularly from smaller landlords and community members concerned about affordable housing.Given that the referendums in St. Paul and Minneapolis were very different, voters also needed to hear more about why these differences mattered. Perhaps less impactful, and certainly more complicated, there was also just not enough public discussion about the risks versus rewards of a referendum.
- Medium/Channels. The opposition campaign seemed to rely almost exclusively on mailers. Other important channels for communicating, including digital messaging, targeted cable ads, and grassroots engagement were underutilized if employed at all.There was considerable social media chatter, but it did not feel like opponents were present in these discussions.
- Faces/Voices. A majority of the city council members opposed the passage, but their opposition needed to be more visible. As noted above, opponents also should have engaged voices beyond business leaders.When an issue engages voters’ emotions, at least some of your messaging must also engage those emotions.
- Admittedly I do not have strong insight into how closely opponents or proponents of the ordinance coordinated their efforts to lobby city leaders, but a strong coordination between what is communicated to the public and what is shared with community leaders is always essential.While no amount of coordination might have swayed voters one way or the other, closer coordination can eliminate wiggle room for any leaders hoping to safely stand in the middle of the intersection.
- Finally, with regard to timing, the main push just came too late. While I appreciate that most voters do not pay a lot of attention until just before they vote (if then), early voting had been going on for four to six weeks before strong public declarations of opposition were raised.How many ballots had been cast before the first mailer ever hit voters’ mailboxes?
The most important question at this point is how St. Paul and Minneapolis will proceed going forward. Rent stabilization is important, but we need a solution that will cross the entire chasm, helping renters stay in their homes while also encouraging and supporting greater investment in housing.
Leaders on both sides need to go beyond proposing single, simplistic solutions and instead open communications that will result in comprehensive solutions that will get us from where we are to where we need to go.
Of course, hindsight is almost always 20/20 and there are always different ways to approach any issue advocacy effort. The need to communicate and engage effectively with decision makers, however, whether they are voters or elected officials, never changes.