Advocacy dos and don’ts

Advocacy from the perspective of someone who has been on the receiving end of it in national and local government.

Earlier this month, BEFS launched an advocacy toolkit designed to give organisations and individuals the information needed to confidently speak up for their local built environment with politicians and councillors. Coinciding with the launch and ahead of the local government elections in May, BEFS organised a workshop on advocacy for its membership. We invited former Labour MP for Edinburgh North & Leith and former Councillor, Mark Lazarowicz, to share his perspective. The aim of the workshop was to hear about the dos and don’ts of advocacy from someone who has been on the receiving end of it for over 30 years, both in local and national government. We were also joined by Museums and Galleries Scotland’s Relationships and Partnerships Development Manager, Devon McHugh, who shared ideas and her experience one year into an advocacy campaign of behalf of approximately 400 museums across Scotland.

By the end of the afternoon, our speakers had clearly identified a number of key messages on successful advocacy, including the importance of building relationships with politicians, the need to involve constituents and ‘keep it local’ and that the time for advocacy head of the local elections is now!

Mark Lazarowicz kicked off the discussion with pragmatic and practical advice on contacting your local politicians. The most effective advocacy is from constituents. Therefore, if you are an organisation, get your members involved. He emphasised the importance of contacting the politician responsible for the issue in hand; do not address local politicians on national policy and vice versa. Remember that both local and national politicians have full time jobs, so do not turn up unannounced or unprepared. Be practical in your approach. Bulk emails do have their place and a high volume of emails from constituents may well get an issue on the agenda. Summarise key points and link to further information as opposed to sending large chunks of text. Invite all your local representatives to your events, to meet your group or organisation, to visit that historic site or exhibition, as ahead of elections they will likely welcome the opportunity to meet constituents. Mark also stated that the role of cross party groups and providing evidence to cross party committees at a national level should not be underestimated.

In relation to the upcoming elections, this is the time to get pledges of commitment from your local politicians to champion your local built environment interests. A good option for making contact with politicians is at larger cross party hustings. Provide evidence and data to support your key points and link with human stories and the impact on communities and people. You can also contact your representatives via social media. Politicians often manage their own social media accounts and will follow discussions on local issues or respond to your questions. Remember that local party manifestos and councillors’ pledges and commitments are managed at a local level. There is no central party line. So, develop key messages based on local interests and the impact of the built environment on local communities.

Ultimately, both guest speakers highlighted that engagement with politicians and councillors is not only feasible but also expected. Politicians and councillors expect to be at the receiving end of advocacy ahead of an election and if invited to events in their local area or ward are often delighted to attend. Politicians are interested in and beholden to their constituents. Therefore, advocacy needs to be about people and communities not just things. As Devon put it, lead with the work you do, how it is important, and how it makes people’s lives better. Build relationships with your local politicians, approaching them with a positive message or invite them to an event or to meet your team. This will make them more receptive when an issue arises. Finally, tailor your advocacy to local needs and interests.

For more tips and tools on which of your local representatives to contact and how, as well as information around messaging and building the case for the built environment, check out BEFS Advocacy Toolkit.