Understanding the Communications and Information Needs of Elected Officials for Transportation Planning and Operations
January 5, 2005
Federal Highway Administration,
Office of Planning, Environment and Realty and the
Office of Operations
Table of Contents
Background and Rationale for Interest
A Few Caveats
Organization of Paper
State and Local Elected Officials and Their Transportation Interests
Environment in Which Elected Officials Operate
Communicating with Elected Officials
Outreach Principles to Consider
Appendix 1. Key Transportation Decisionmakers
Appendix 2. Communicating with Elected/Appointed Officials
Appendix 3. Glossary
Appendix 4. List of Elected/Appointed Officials Who Have Reviewed Paper
This white paper is to help the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Office of Planning, Environment and Realty and the Office of Operations understand how local elected officials (and senior appointed officials) perceive transportation planning and operations and the role they play in stimulating planning and operations. The objective is to enhance FHWA's communications capabilities and approaches with non-Federal elected officials.
The focus of this paper is on non-Federal elected officials who play a decisionmaking role in surface transportation planning and operations. This includes officials who affect transportation planning and operations decisions of executive and legislative agencies at the State, regional, and local levels. From a modal perspective, the emphasis is on surface transportation planning, primarily highway and transit. Non-surface modes, such as air and sea, often involve a different set of players and are not addressed in this paper. The aim is enhanced communications, not lobbying. U.S. Department of Transportation employees are prohibited from lobbying at both the Federal and State levels. 2
With over 100,000 elected officials at the State and local levels, it is challenging to characterize their perspectives of transportation planning and operations and to suggest ways of enhancing communications between FHWA and these elected officials. This brief survey, however, does suggest several key observations:
- The vast majority of elected officials are part-time, holding regular jobs, and involved with family and community. Their time dedicated to transportation issues is very limited and tends to be focused on problem solving (e.g., intersection improvement, traffic calming, etc.)
- In general, elected officials are not conversant with the complex transportation planning process and its vocabulary. The exceptions are typically elected officials who have specific reasons to become familiar with process, for instance those on a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) or regional transit board. Using "plain speak" is essential.
- In communicating policy and concepts to elected officials, priority should be given to those who are key decisionmakers and those who can influence others (e.g., transportation leaders/champions).
- As it is not realistic to envision working directly with thousands of elected officials, strategic approaches must consider partnering with associations and advocacy groups (e.g., Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO), National League of Cities (NLC), National Governors Association (NGA), National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), National Association of Regional Councils (NARC), Conference of Mayors, etc.) that can provide conduits to key elected officials. Most of these associations have State-level counterparts, and they form an excellent forum for reaching key local decisionmakers, both elected and appointed. Recognize, however, that the associations themselves are not the doers; they are potential conduits to the doers.
- The type information and how it is disseminated is critical. Elected officials are deluged with paper and email. Information needs to be clear, understandable and concise. Time is of the essence - information should be factual and brief.
- "Buy in" of senior staff (e.g., staff directors to legislative transportation committees, MPO transportation directors, etc.) is critical to reaching senior elected officials. Especially for operations issues, local elected officials depend upon their staff engineers and are reluctant to challenge an "engineering solution" unless local political imperatives override.
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To ensure a common appreciation of the scope of this paper, some definitions are in order:
Additional definitions of transportation terminology can be found in Appendix 3: Glossary.
- Management and Operations (M&O) also referred to as Transportation System Management and Operations (TSM&O). An integrated program to optimize the performance of existing infrastructure through the implementation of systems, services, and projects designed to preserve capacity and improve security, safety, and reliability. The term includes improvements to the transportation system such as traffic detection and surveillance, arterial management, freeway management, demand management, work zone management, emergency management, electronic toll collection, automated enforcement, traffic incident management, road weather management, traveler information services, commercial vehicle operations, traffic control, freight management, and coordination of highway, rail, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian operations. Management and operations (M&O) is distinct from the traditional operations and maintenance (O&M), which focuses on internal agency operations and recurring maintenance and preservation.
- Transportation Planning. A continuing, comprehensive, and cooperative ("3 C)" process to encourage and promote the development of a multimodal transportation system that ensures safe and efficient movement of people and goods while balancing environmental and community needs. Statewide and metropolitan transportation planning processes are governed by Federal law and applicable State and local laws. Generally, transportation planning is the responsibility of States and MPOs. The States and MPOs may accord considerable deference to local community comprehensive or master plans, creating a real challenge to regionalism.
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Background and Rationale for Interest
Historically, FHWA has relied heavily on achieving national transportation goals through a classic hierarchical structure that focused on the Federal-State relationship, with division offices in each State as the primary interface. This is understandable from a constitutional perspective and in light of the traditional responsibilities of States for transportation infrastructure development. With the advent of metropolitan planning organizations, Federal regulations guided MPO functioning with a certification process and detailed administrative procedures to ensure a reasonable level of compliance with intended Federal policies. Guidance to States and MPOs has been both categorical, including the Surface Transportation Program (STP) and Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) and process such as the transportation improvement plan (TIP), long range plan (LRP), and conformity analysis. In practice, the result has been a transportation planning process that is largely project-oriented with procedures influenced by Federal guidelines. 3 Transportation funding and system operations are largely the responsibility of the States, local jurisdictions and operating agencies. 4
The continuing transportation concerns (commuter congestion, incident delay, goods movement, homeland security, emergency response, weather, etc.) cannot be satisfied simply by constructing new infrastructure. Transportation dollars are very limited, metropolitan areas are largely built out, and environmental concerns remain. This suggests that the traditional Federal approach to fund allocation and guidance on how to use those funds is outdated. 5 The 21st Century calls for an expanded dialogue between FHWA, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and non-Federal players that goes beyond the issuing of project-related rules and guidance. A "cultural shift" from a project-oriented process to a more holistic way of managing and operating State, regional, and local transportation systems requires a broadened approach to sharing concepts and stimulating innovative thinking at all levels. 6 This should be accompanied by a greater recognition of the use of Federal and State revenues to support non-capital investments that are considered in the transportation planning process.
Given the need to move beyond traditional approaches to disseminating planning and operations information and guidance, it is necessary to understand who the players are that affect transportation planning and operations at the State, regional and local levels. These are essentially the elected and senior appointed officials who provide the guidance and make funding decisions about transportation at the non-Federal level. They are the focus of this paper. By understanding who they are and how they think, FHWA may enhance its outreach and dialogue with these key officials. Without their "buy-in", broadened approaches to resolving the nation's, and especially major metropolitan areas', challenges will be thwarted.
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The basic approach taken in this paper is to identify the players, briefly characterize them, describe the environment in which they operate, and suggest some principles in designing FHWA outreach to local elected officials.
A Few Caveats
- Generalizations are dangerous as they easily set up the situation in which a reader may have experienced an exception. This paper is not a scientifically-based, sociological study. Instead it is a white paper based primarily on the author's experience and observations, 7 supplemented by discussions and limited research.
- State and local government organizations and terms vary greatly. Louisiana's parishes, for example, are equivalent to counties elsewhere. In Texas, the term "judge" is used for certain local elected officials. For ease and to avoid detailed explanations in each section, the following generic terms will be used:
- General assembly is used as a generic term for the legislative body at the State level. All are bicameral except Nebraska, which is unicameral.
- Mayor means the elected leader of a city, town, county or similar jurisdictions, although not necessarily the chief executive officer as explained below. The term "mayor" is common for cities and towns. Counties have a wide array of terms for their chief local elected official.
- Council is to include city/town councils, county boards of supervisors and similar bodies.
- Appointed official(s) refers to the executive branch officials who execute and oversee transportation planning and operations and also refers to the executive or transportation directors of operating agencies and transportation agencies. These range from State secretaries of transportation to directors of public works agencies to MPO transportation directors.
- Region or regional typically refers to areas with multiple jurisdictions engaged. This may be a metropolitan area (e.g., multi-jurisdictional MPOs), a corridor (e.g., I-95 Corridor with multiple States involved) or a geographical clustering (e.g., High Plains Coalition engaging multiple States).
- The appendices included in this paper are incomplete. They are designed to stimulate thinking about the topics cited. Considerable additional research will be necessary to complete and verify the details.
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Organization of Paper
- The next section describes who are we addressing - the elected and senior appointed officials who affect transportation planning and operations decisionmaking - the players.
- After identifying the players, the third section describes the environment in which elected officials operate.
- This leads, in the fourth section, to a discussion of the nature and type of information needed to help elected officials understand transportation issues and opportunities.
- The final section suggests some principles for FHWA to consider as it enhances its dialogue with non-Federal elected officials.
- Supplementing the discussion in this white paper are several appendices that provide detailed information on elected/appointed officials, conduits for engagement and supplementary information, a glossary, and a listing of elected/appointed officials who provided quotes and/or review of this paper.
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State and Local Elected Officials and Their Transportation Interests 8
There are over 100,000 State and local elected officials in the United States! They range from governors to village selectmen. Many of this number will have local transportation concerns, however, a significantly smaller set of elected officials may be defined as leaders or champions on transportation issues. There are tens of thousands of appointed officials who are key to the transportation perspective of the elected officials. Appendix 1, Key Transportation Decisionmakers, provides an overview of the nature and numbers of officials who are engaged in transportation policy, budgeting, planning, and operations.
Of the elected officials, both at the State and local level, the vast majority are part-time. This is often not understood by voters and advocacy groups. In a few States, being a State elected official may be a near full-time job and in several major cities, at least the mayor may be a full-time job. Aside from these, however, most elected officials earn a living doing something else. Nevertheless, most are very dedicated to their roles as elected officials and take seriously their duties.
At the State level, the key elected officials of interest are:
Many regions (metropolitan areas, multiple States, etc.) have collaborative transportation-related agencies, such as MPOs and regional councils, that are governed by elected officials. Normally, these elected officials are representing their jurisdictions (or agencies) on these regional bodies and must constantly balance a regional perspective with their constituents' desires.
- Governors. Governors are the chief executive officers of their States. Outside of the major transportation issues - usually projects or congestion - they rely heavily on their senior executive staff (often headed by a secretary of transportation) to execute broad policy guidance, ensure that certain projects are implemented and carry out the routine operations of their departments. Governors are not directly engaged in the transportation planning process. They do have responsibility for approving the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), which may be done personally by a governor or delegated to others. Success is measured in terms of projects delivered and, in some cases, congestion relief.
- State legislators. State legislators represent specific geographical constituencies within their State. It is important to be seen as responsive to their voters. In the transportation arena, this tends to center on projects for their districts. The aim is to get their projects on any list of projects being developed by a transportation or appropriations committee. Most would have no familiarity with the Federal transportation planning process and probably little interest in its complexities. The exception to this will be a greater exposure on the part of legislators who are on transportation committees, sit on an MPO board, and/or are champions for transportation issues.
At the local level, there is a plethora of elected officials of many types. At the risk of over simplification, they may be categorized as:
- Mayors. The perception of the role and authority of mayors and the realities are significantly different. Academically, there are two types of mayors:
- "Strong" mayor or "council-mayor". A strong mayor is one who is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the jurisdiction in which he/she is elected. This means he/she has line authority, typically hiring and firing the department heads. Strong mayors are normally found in major cities (e.g., Boston, New York, Chicago, etc). In these cities, there is normally a senior appointed official who is the chief of staff and/or the chief operating officer. 9
- "Weak" mayor or "council-manager". This is the more typical situation and usually involves the "council-manager" form of government. Irrespective of how the mayor is elected (direct or from within council), he/she does not have line authority and is not the chief executive officer of the jurisdiction. The CEO is typically a city, county or town manager, a professional who serves at the pleasure of the council. 10
- Council members. Most council members are part-time, with less than 10% of them full-time in small- and medium-sized cities. 11 In larger jurisdictions, council members tend to be focused on representing their precinct or ward. Transportation issues will be focused on problem solving.
- Elected executives. Some counties, such as those in Maryland, have elected county executives who are the CEOs in their jurisdictions. Like mayors, they will be focused on problem solving within their jurisdiction.
Irrespective of whether they are mayors, council members, or elected executives, jurisdictional elected officials tend toward problem solving within their jurisdictions. They also focus on specific projects, such as widening a road, improving an intersection, or installing new traffic signals to solve transportation/traffic problems. In general, elected officials have little familiarity with the transportation planning process or conceptual approaches to systems operations. Exceptions to this generalization will center on elected officials who sit on regional boards (MPOs, transit authorities, etc.) or who take a particular interest in transportation issues.
"At the local level, the responsibility for transportation functions varies greatly, generally reflecting the jurisdiction's size, state constitutional arrangements for local government, priority of transportation issues and responsiveness to various political agendas. It is a no-nonsense place where the 'rubber meets the road.' To interact effectively, versus dictate, with local jurisdictions requires an appreciation of the differences between, and the dynamics within, the organization."
- Wayne Tanda, General Manager, Department of Transportation, City of Los Angeles
Elected officials that are in jurisdictions that own or operate transit systems may have considerable familiarity with transit planning and funding. On the other hand, these same elected officials may have little familiarity with the highway planning and operations side of transportation, other than urging a project of interest.
Elected officials are generally aware that environmental standards and rules are numerous, complex, and often affect transportation planning. Many recognize acronyms like NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) and that these considerations must be addressed; however, few are familiar with the details.
A recently commissioned study 12 by the National League of Cities observes:
"With locally elected officials generally being part-time, superficially conversant with transportation matters, and subject to the pressures of their constituents, the area of the greatest potential trouble lies in the NEPA law. While the law is full of good intentions, it has lead to a slowing, lengthening the time and in some cases interruption of implementing of new transportation projects. A major cause of these problems is the public participation section of the law that allows people to pressure their local officials directly, and bring 'not in my back yard' (NIMBY) directly into play. This leaves the elected official with having to take on neighbors, friends, and CONSTITUENTS ... not a recipe for great political courage."
- J. Kenneth Klinge, Former Member, Commonwealth Transportation Board, Virginia
It should also be noted that there is significant change under way among the key transportation staffs. Twenty years or more ago, transportation staffs at State and local levels were dominated by traditional engineers who were formally educated with a focus on building projects. As transportation decisionmaking broadens from a project-oriented focus, the leadership of transportation agencies is also changing. Planners, logisticians and operators have a much greater say today than even 20 years ago and will have an even greater say in the future.
- Council members are a well educated group; three-quarters (75%) had a college degree in 2001, and two in five (40%) had a professional or graduate degree.
- As in previous surveys, council members reported that the personal costs of their service are high, both in expenses for campaigning and in the loss of time for family and other work.
- Council members typically receive little or only modest compensation for their work, and two out three (66%) said they would welcome an increase in pay.
- Large majorities of council members rate their own performance as good or excellent in 2001. Effectiveness ratings tend to be lower in large cities than in small and medium-sized cities.
- When asked what factors limit the effectiveness of city councils and create problems for city government, council members cited "State and Federal government controls, as well as polarization within their communities over various issues."
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Environment in Which Elected Officials Operate
To understand how best to communicate with elected officials (and senior appointed officials), one must start with an appreciation for the general nature of elected officials at State and local level and the environment in which they operate.
Elected officials represent constituencies - voters in general, but more specifically, their cities, towns, and wards. Additionally, they generally represent, or at least take compatible positions with, advocacy groups of various stripes 13. These constituencies want results from their elected representatives - preferably tangible results that are visible and credible.
Elected officials must be sensitive to fulfilling the promises or commitments made in their campaigns - or they lose their credibility.
Elected officials live in an arena of competing imperatives.
"I am elected from a place, by its people. My job is to speak up for their interests and concerns. It's that simple."
- John G. Milliken, former member of Arlington Board and Secretary of Transportation (Virginia)
And the list could go on!
- Economic development versus environmental and quality of life concerns. For most communities, a high level of services and low property taxes are dependent on a strong economic base. It is the generation of business taxes (e.g., property, business licensing, sales, meals, etc.) that reduces the burden on the homeowner. Often, however, the very same homeowners who like good services and low taxes do not understand this relationship and continually press for restrictions on business.
"Changing the status quo is inherently dangerous for elected officials. As Machiavelli said:
'There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the old institution, and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.'
- Jim McKenzie, Executive Director, Metroplan, Little Rock, Arkansas
- Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince (1513)"
- Residential quality of life versus commuter cut-through traffic. For example, from a regional perspective, efficiency of through-put for commuters on arterials may sound logical. However, from a local jurisdiction's perspective, it may run counter to community goals, e.g., pedestrian friendly downtown. From a policy viewpoint, signal pre-emption for emergency vehicles is easy to support, but signal pre-emption for transit buses is a different story as it raises the issue of the majority of tax payers (drivers) seeing a priority given to a small segment of the traveling public (those in buses). Although the technology is the same, the policy implications are significantly different.
- The "American dream" (a single family detached home with a swing set in the backyard) versus sprawl. Open a magazine and look at the pictures of the American ideal - the family in a lovely residential setting, preferably at the end of a cul-de-sac with no through traffic and lots of room for a swing set and touch football on the lawn. This obviously raises the specter of sprawl to those who advocate planned living arrangements that usually maximize the regional greenspace while minimizing the individual family greenspace.
- Expanded services versus anti- or no-tax advocates. Most all States and cities are being affected by the increasing antipathy to taxes of almost any type. While this may have been exacerbated by modern media coverage of public sector shortcomings, it is having a particularly detrimental effect on bond referenda and the reluctance of elected officials to raise revenues, even though citizens continuously demand higher and higher levels of government services.
"Local elected officials must manage public expectations about transportation. We walk a fine line between almost unlimited public demand for unfettered mobility on the one hand, and very limited public support for increased tax revenue with which to finance these improvements on the other. In addition, achieving a public consensus about best solutions to congestion is riven with the challenges of NIMBY-ism, smart growth resistance, and roads vs. transit debate. It is a painful conundrum."
- Gerry Connolly, Chairman, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Virginia
- Air quality requirements versus mobility needs. The tension between these two imperatives is considerable! Although significant improvement in air quality has been achieved in some metropolitan areas, many are not yet in attainment of required standards. The transportation planning process provides an excellent venue for the debate of cars (especially sport utility vehicles) versus air quality; at least this is how the debate is often simplistically framed.
- Social imperatives and school needs versus transportation needs. Schools typically consume about 40 to 50 percent of local budgets. At the State level, education is generally about one-third and social services in the range of 30 percent. Transportation is usually a poor cousin to these 14. This is a huge shift from the 1960s and 1970s, when highway trust funds, especially in southern States, overshadowed the general fund. Illustrative is the fact that Virginia's highway maintenance budget now exceeds its capital program, with no increase in the latter since 1986.
Elected officials have limited time in which to address any specific issue, e.g., transportation issues. Using the MPO context as an example, it is reasonable to assume that the typical MPO meets eight to ten times per year, perhaps at best for two hours. This suggests the typical elected official on an MPO board may be "at the table" 15 to 20 hours per year, during which he/she must address a plethora of required MPO actions (work plan, LRP, TIP, air quality issues, etc.). This further suggests that at most 15 minutes may be spent addressing a specific issue. Of course, most of these elected officials will have been provided advance information and may have prepping by staffs. However, given the many other issues that he/she will face in a typical week, it is fair to assume that most elected officials will have little time for the details of any one issue - unless it is controversial and therefore the elected official must address it.
"Elected officials at all levels of government are continually confronted with decisions ... transportation is but one of those choices. Not only must transportation compete with the resource demands of education and human services, but the issue of transportation is defined very differently depending upon the commenter. Our rapidly growing numbers of residents over 60 and those over 75 years have differing priorities from those of families in their thirties and forties and those of our graduates in their twenties. Solutions today must acknowledge safe walking paths, cycling, public transit as well as our familiar, congested roadways."
- Jane Woods, Secretary of Health and Human Resources and former State Senator, Virginia
Typically, elected officials have some particular area of interest. Interests may range from affordable housing, to education, to social services and others. A few will be especially interested in transportation planning and operations, becoming the local experts in this arena. Often this leads to legislative and regional bodies relying on specific individuals to provide guidance and expertise on an issue. As a result, certain elected officials become the champions or leaders in various functional areas.
"Participation in the MPO process ... consumes considerable time. Typically, the individuals who participate ... wear two hats - they may be a mayor, city council member, city planner, or county commissioner in the jurisdiction they represent, and a board or committee member at the MPO ... these representatives may have to rely on the MPO staff to guide them through."
"Metropolitan Planning Organizations: An Assessment of the Transportation Planning Process," A Report to Congress by Dr. Paul Stephen Dempsey, Dr. Andrew Goetz and Dr. Carl Larson, University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute & the National Center for Intermodal Transportation, March 2000, Vol I, Sec II, p. 7.
Elected officials are dependent on staffs. Most elected officials are not expert in the arcane aspects of any one functional area. Transportation planning is a complex, rule-driven environment in which few elected officials are familiar with the detailed guidelines and procedures. While elected officials will have a general notion of what they would like to achieve, e.g., congestion relief, most will not know the nuances of what is permissible, such as a CMAQ project and whether their pet project is eligible.
"My role as staff is to understand and synthesize. I don't need or want persuasion from outside groups. I want facts and analysis."
- Pierce Homer, Deputy Secretary of Transportation, Virginia
Elected officials are sensitive to process. Rather quickly, elected officials understand that there are rules to be followed. At the State level, elected officials will be especially focused on the "rules" associated with their areas of oversight, e.g., transportation. Unfortunately, given the complexity of the issues and the limited time and resources available to most State legislators, their real knowledge of the actual policies and rules tends to be limited. Not unexpectedly, they tend to be focused on products, meaning projects in their districts. Whether at the State, regional or local levels (legislative or executive), there are both formal and informal rules of the road. Appreciation for legislative process and courtesies, whether they are about committee turf or seniority, play a large role in a legislator's success.
Elected officials tend to be respectful of colleagues' turf. This applies both in the sense of geographical representation and roles, e.g., role of a transportation committee chair versus role of appropriations committee chair. Elected officials are generally reluctant to intrude on another elected official's turf or prerogatives, especially in a multi-jurisdictional environment. Aside from a tendency to be polite and respectful of others' views, the reality is that to be effective most boards, especially multi-jurisdictional boards, need to have a reasonable degree of consensus on main issues. The downside of this is, of course, a tendency to divide project opportunities by political districts and/or population, thus often losing sight of the synergy to be achieved by a holistic, systems approach.
"The chair of the legislative committee has great power. The chair controls the agenda, the testimony, and the amount of time allotted to the issue. Committee members defer to the chair and it is rare the chair does not prevail."
- Thomas D. Rust, Member, House of Delegates, Virginia
Elected officials recognize that inter-personal relationships are usually the key to getting things done. Good working relationships are the key to accomplishing goals.
Elected officials like to be given credit and recognition for successful projects, programs or solutions. For example, ribbon-cutting ceremonies provide the opportunity for public acknowledgement for "concrete" projects.
Elected officials are extremely sensitive to fiscal constraints; virtually all decry the growing shortfalls. This is the reality with which most State and local officials live.
Elected officials prefer "plain speak". Like most folks, elected officials' eyes glaze over at much of the transportation jargon (signal optimization vs. signal coordination!). For example, take the term "Regional Concept for Transportation Operations (RCTO)." A formal definition might read "It is a description of the desired state for transportation operations presented as an operation objective accompanied by a set of physical improvements that need to be implemented, relationships and procedures that must be established, and resource arrangements that are needed to accomplish the operations objective. Both the operations objective and what is needed to achieve it are accomplished through deliberate and sustained collaboration among stakeholders. An RCTO is created out of ongoing collaboration primarily between managers responsible for operating the transportation system on a day-to-day basis, such as for traffic operations, transit service, and public safety. Development of an RCTO should include participation by the regional planning organization to ensure consistency with the region's vision and goals." On the other hand, when speaking to elected officials, perhaps this could be shortened to " ... presents a regional objective for transportation operations and what is needed to achieve that within a reasonable short timeframe." The glossary at Appendix 3 provides additional examples of "plain speak" versus technical jargon.
And, finally, elected officials like to get re-elected. For first-term elected officials especially, this can have considerable impact on their decisionmaking process. Results need to be delivered to constituencies within the term of office, which could be as short as two years. This imperative is exacerbated by the fact that elected officials cannot wait until the end of their terms for results; initiatives must occur with sufficient lead time so that successes may be used in the subsequent campaign.
"Have you often asked yourself, 'Who were those guys and what did they say?' The most frustrating part of an elected official's job is to listen to a presentation by a group of engineers, planners, or other highly technical individuals, who use their own language, often filled with acronyms, technical terms, and other professional forms of communication. These dynamics tend to create an environment that can prevent elected officials from taking a proverbial leap of faith to acceptance."
- Randall Morris, Commissioner of Seminole County, Florida
"If you don't have a real-world example for every concept or every position, you probably don't have a clear concept or a defensible position."
- Pierce Homer, Deputy Secretary of Transportation, Virginia
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Communicating with Elected Officials
Having described the range of elected (and related appointed) officials and the environment in which they work and make decisions, it is useful to consider their needs before addressing how to communicate with them. The needs of elected officials tend to revolve around their roles and their personal and political motivations.
The comments and observations in this section are largely drawn from an article by Robert Silverstein, Director of the Center for the Study and Advancement of Disability Policy 15. The original article is focused on advocacy for the disabled; however, the observations about interaction with elected officials are just as relevant for transportation. The thrust, and a considerable amount of the wording, is directly from the cited article. The phrasing has been somewhat modified to be relevant to this paper. Quotation marks have not been used as in many cases the phrasing is no longer a direct quote.
Political reasons why elected officials get involved in a given policy issue include:
At the same time, there are personal reasons that an elected official may become involved in a key issue. These include:
- The issue is of particular interest to the elected official's party or a major constituency group.
- Involvement affords the opportunity to become a leader within a legislature, board, or other body.
- Engagement may afford the opportunity for alignment with insiders or legislative leadership for the elected official looking for enhanced stature or advancement.
- The issue may be high visibility leading to good media coverage.
- There is a potential for perception among constituents that the elected official is engaged in important issues and is effective and responsive.
Staffs and senior appointed officials play an important role in influencing elected officials. This is especially true in States that have term limits, as legislators tend to be forced from office just as they have built expertise in their area of interest or responsibility.
At the State level, functional committees typically have staffs that work for, and are accountable to, elected officials. The staffs' power stems from the power of the elected official for whom they work. Staff directors of committees derive their influence from the fact that they work directly for the chairs of committees. Since elected officials usually set the general direction for policies and leave the content to staffs, the staffs rely on and consult with academics, bureaucrats, interest groups, and other staff. Committee staffs "borrow" extensively from reports, studies, and recommendations from other sources.
- A keen personal interest in the topic.
- The desire to address or respond to an identified crisis or significant problem.
- Enhanced knowledge on an issue that will strengthen the elected official's capability or committee role.
- A response to concerns raised by a personal friend, political advisor, or family member.
Many State legislators have personal staffs that generally are not experts in any particular functional area (rarely experts on transportation) and are focused on constituent services. These personal staffs are heavily dependent on others for information. In addition, staffs at all levels of support to legislators are under constant pressure from all sides, including their elected bosses, deadlines, and stakeholder/interest groups. Staff directors at the legislative level and personal staffs are gatekeepers for their elected bosses. It is challenging to get to a committee chair without having prepped the staff. (And it's probably not wise to try circumventing them!)
At the local level, functional staffs typically report to a city or county manager (except in major cities where the mayor is the CEO), who in turn responds to the elected leaderships' guidance. Given the reliance of city councils on the advice of their professional managers, this suggests that they need to be in the loop on major policy issues.
As outlined by Silverstein (and modified by author's and reviewers' perspectives), there are several factors that affect policymakers key decisions:
Appendix 2 provides an overview of the wide range of considerations that go into communicating with elected and senior appointed officials. Note especially:
- Merits/Content of a recommendation or proposal. It must be germane, well thought out, and relevant to the official.
"One fatal accident, hazardous materials (HAZMAT) incident, widespread signalization failure, etc. may suddenly open discussions on options, improvements, or solutions that have been closed to consideration for years. This has a dual significance: 1) where there are ready transportation initiatives in search of test sites or expansion, a local incident may provide a window of opportunity in which to engage local leaders, and 2) there is a collective community memory of significant local events that were transportation nightmares - beltway closures, storm closing, HAZMAT accidents on major highways, etc. When engaging local leaders, it is very useful to know and understand the history of such local events and how they may affect consideration of the proposal."
- Richard Rappaport, Chief of Police, Fairfax, Virginia
- How the issue is framed. In looking for a positive response, the issue needs to be framed in a manner that is relevant to the elected official, takes into account his/her role, and ideally shows awareness of his/her perspective on the issue. If the issue has been previously addressed and the elected official has voted against a particular item, it is important that he/she be given a reason why a change in position makes sense.
- Timing of the proposal. In influencing the actions of an elected official (or senior appointed official), the initiative must be introduced so that the official has time for reflection, review, and consultation with others before specific action is required 16. Additionally, he/she will not want to change his/her mind in public so getting to the elected official before a public position is taken is important.
- Reality check. Suggested approaches or programs should recognize the realities of the environment in which elected officials operate (see earlier discussion) as well as the realities of the State, regional body or local jurisdiction. It is critical to present the downside of every issue, its cost implications, or potential political conflicts. Any proposal should present both pros and cons.
- The form of the message. Whatever the specific form used (briefing, memorandum, information paper, discussion, etc.), the information must be easily absorbed and able to be translated into talking points, report language, or a floor statement. It also must be short.
"Three key points need to be made in any communication: 1) What action do you want me to take? 2) Why should I support this action? and 3) How does it impact my constituents?"
- Sarah Siwek, President of Sarah J. Siwek and Associates.
- Who delivers the message. This is absolutely critical. The person delivering the message often determines whether or not the message is heard and acted on in a favorable manner. Peers in whom the elected/appointed official is confident are often the best messenger.
- It is not easy to get to senior elected and appointed officials. Usually it requires two or three steps before getting to discuss an issue with a governor, secretary of transportation, or mayor of a large city.
"Involvement of local people and organizations will get the attention of officials more effectively than will the involvement of a contact in Washington."
- "Working with Elected Officials," TC Research Digest 3, July 1999.
- Professional and advocacy organizations offer an excellent opportunity for getting to decisionmakers in an environment in which they naturally operate. For example, mayors attend meetings of State and national associations of mayors and organizations such as National League of Cities.
- Each target or set of targets must be carefully analyzed for the best way in which to communicate with him/her.
As reflected in this paper, communicating with elected officials requires considerable understanding of their roles, the environment in which they operate, and the form in which communications is best undertaken. Appendix 2 provides an approach to thinking through the mechanism and approaches to communicate with selected elected and appointed officials. For example, when wanting to address an issue or an idea with the chair of a transportation committee in a State legislature, it is a good idea to have laid the groundwork for a meeting with the chair's chief of staff or legislative assistant. It is critical to have an advance understanding of the legislator's perspective and the buy-in of his key staff.
"City managers make decisions, in part, based on their knowledge of the successes and failures experienced by their peers ... what works and what doesn't ... and penetrating their professional network, formal and informal, is critical for their continued understanding of transportation policy formulation."
- Robert Sisson, City Manager, Fairfax, Virginia
"Do some homework on the local elected officials you are trying to communicate with ... look at their bios, voting records, affiliations ... 'Know your audience,' then speak from these hot buttons."
- Robert Grow, Greater Washington Board of Trade
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Outreach Principles to Consider
As stated in the Introduction, the purpose of this white paper is to assist the Federal Highway Administration in its design of outreach efforts intended to inform and dialogue with local elected officials 7. This final section highlights a set of principles that FHWA should consider.
Understand/Appreciate the environment in which local elected officials operate. It is a world of competing imperatives and elected officials have a need to satisfy the constituency group(s) that put them in office. Often this calls for short-term results that are visible and understood by the public or long-term programs that can be broken into clearly identifiable steps so the official can show progress.
"First, do your research. To communicate effectively with elected officials, start by identifying why they should care. Understand their perspectives and the issues in the area they represent. Maybe they have congestion of a major arterial in their district. Perhaps safety is a key concern for their community. By making clear connections to the issues they face, elected officials will be more likely to respond positively."
- Anne Canby, President, Surface Transportation Policy Project
Identify the key leaders and champions relevant to the issue being pursued. With tens of thousands of elected officials (and thousands more of appointed officials), there is no way that FHWA can influence all elected officials. And, as a practical matter, there isn't a need to. For any given issue, focus on the key leaders or potential champions who can make a difference. As reflected in Appendix 2, a campaign strategy must take into account the relevant context in which elected officials views may be best informed. For example, if urging enhanced metropolitan regional transportation system management and operations, NGA, NCSL, NLC, AMPO, NARC, and Conference of Mayors are important. Even then, however, careful consideration must be given to which committees of these organizations are most important to influencing the broader range of officials. Extending this example, simultaneously, FHWA must be addressing transportation operations with the relevant professional associations as they influence the decisionmakers.
"One of the hardest things for staff to understand is the rules of engagement with local officials. [For example], with the advent of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), the mayors and chairs have to disclose if they intend to discuss any NVTA business. Most states have requirements that make it difficult to have several elected officials in the same room at the same time unless the media can be present. Regional bodies (e.g., transportation planning boards) are not necessarily subject to these laws, but individual elected officials are practically bound by them. One of the worst things any staff person can do is try to arrange a 'secret' briefing for a room full of elected officials. That whole dynamic can be very difficult for staff people to understand, let alone manage."
-Pierce Homer, Deputy Secretary of Transportation, Virginia
Appreciate that elected/appointed officials are heavily influenced by peers. Both elected officials and senior appointed officials operate in arenas in which peer perspectives and experiences are appreciated. Frankly, little gain will be achieved by having a Federal staff person brief a group of elected officials, even if he/she could get on the right agenda (the exception being, of course, the secretary or administrator level, but then it would necessarily be a broad policy perspective). Every effort should be made to identify the champions and natural leaders who can then be encouraged to engage with peers in their association environments.
Express issues and recommendations in a manner that will be relevant and understood by elected officials. As reflected throughout this white paper, elected officials are constrained by time, interest, and the demands and responsibilities of the particular positions they hold. Issues must be laid out cleanly, with relevance to the target audience and in plain speak. Elected officials have very different backgrounds; therefore, what may be clear to one is not understood by the other. 18
"I remain amazed that for every issue there is a constituency and a lobbyist! Few issues have a clear-cut right or wrong answer."
- Thomas D. Rust, Member, House of Delegates, Virginia
Consider how local elected officials can leverage funds. Almost all States and local jurisdictions are facing revenue shortfalls in transportation funding, as well as other programs. Elected officials are interested in how to get the maximum out of the few dollars available.
"What impresses members of the General Assembly is how you can leverage public funds."
-Whittington W. Clement, Secretary of Transportation, Virginia
Design a path that may include key advisory staff and/or the associations within which the elected officials operate. It is not easy getting to the right, usually senior, elected officials. There are many "gate keepers". For example, local elected officials will often consult with their police chiefs for insight on the potential impacts of highway improvements or proposed changes to traffic operations. At the State level, elected officials may work closely with the State police chiefs' or sheriffs' associations. In many States, the police chiefs' and/or the sheriffs' associations have standing committees that focus on highway safety and transportation issues. These organizations have become effective lobbyists, both in seeking legislation to support their own law enforcement objectives as well as offering subject-matter expertise to their legislators on the merits of other bills and initiatives involving a spectrum of related issues, including transportation. The intent of Appendix 2 is to underscore the careful consideration that needs to be given to creating a pathway to decisionmakers.
Don't wait until an issue is critical to establish a relationship with key decisionmakers. It is important to have ongoing, credible relationships. Riding in at the last minute as the cavalry is probably a non-starter. Relationships and trust are built over time and must be sustained. It's best to be in the enviable position of being called on by an elected official for advice.
"Working with gatekeepers is necessary and crucial to securing the desired support from elected officials."
- Sarah Siwek, President of Sarah J. Siwek and Associates
Recognize that key staff members influence both the substance and the process. "Legislative staff members provide access to elected officials. They exert significant influence on the legislator's schedule, priorities, and positions." 19 They are the information gatekeepers.
Be realistic and forthright. Overstating potential results and not addressing downsides and challenges simply reduces credibility. A good example of this is the last decade's experience with intelligent transportation systems. Many elected officials, aside from having their eyes glaze over at the language, have been disappointed in the subsequent complexities and have been disturbed by the lack of forthrightness with respect to the O&M costs following installation of systems.
Appreciate the need for short term products or deliverables (from elected officials to constituents). As mentioned above, elected officials live in the world of short-term measurement.
Listen to them!