Reports, meetings, blue ribbon task forces, statistics, studies, budgets… blah, blah, blah. Yet, despite the blather the system does many things, runs things and sometimes you need to play the inside game, or someone on your group does.
Before you sign up for a committee though, look before you leap.
You don’t have to be on the committee to have influence.
Many – if not most — committees, task forces, and similar types of governmental groups’ meetings are public. They may not publicize this fact, but assume a meeting is public and until they say no, and be suspicious after that! Transit districts, legislative committees, non-profit boards of directors, among many others must have public meetings. Public means even if you aren’t on the committee you can go and watch. Most people don’t bother to go, so just your being there can make a splash. Sometimes (if they are discussing a lawsuit or employee pay or other private issues) they will go into something called “Executive Session” and either the public or the committee members leave the room for that part of the meeting, but the rest of the meeting must be public.
The first thing to know is that you don’t have to be on the committee to make use of their meetings. You can learn a lot just be going and listening. The topics and schedule for the meetings, called the agenda, is often posted on the organization’s website so you can see what they will be talking about before you even go. Sometimes they have handouts with more detailed information and sometimes you can get copies of these. If you don’t read print, fear not, they need to provide them in alternate formats if you request it (Braille, CD, tape, large print – whatever is effective for you.)
Also many public meetings have a public comment process; sometimes they set aside a block of the meeting time for remarks from the public, sometimes they let the public comment on the topics they are discussing. If you want to know their rules you can call ahead and ask what their public comment policies are – sometimes they want you to sign up ahead of time, sometimes they limit the number of people commenting. Go ahead and make comments, Sometimes the time each person has to comment is limited to a few minutes, so get to the point, most important stuff first. (If people in your group have speech impairments, they can request extra time as a reasonable accommodation for their speech disability.) You can even role-play and time yourself until you get the hang of it, or you may choose a strategy to ignore the time limit. If they let the public comment on the topics they are discussing, their agenda items, and they aren’t discussing your concerns remember, with a little creativity almost anything can be related to any subject.
If you wear a T-shirt with your message (in large bold print) you are communicating with them even if you don’t speak. But don’t stop there. Theater makes it more fun for your people and more out of the experience of your target. When the Texas Legislature wanted to cut services because they didn’t want to spend their emergency money which they called the Rainy Day Fund, ADAPT went in to testify wearing rain ponchos and carrying open umbrellas. Another time we threw fake money into the air. Sometimes just your presence tells a story. After several years of pushing for more funds for community services and supports, all we have to do is show up in our ADAPT shirts and half or more of our message is communicated.
Many of these committees, task forces, etc. will try other ways (besides just limiting your time to speak) to limit your comments. They may ask that one or two people speak for your group or some similar idea. We almost never agree to that because people have taken the time to come, and we have found that everyone says their piece of the story, hitting different highlights, or saying their message in their own unique way. We feel that if people have taken the time and trouble to come they should be able to speak if they want to; not everyone always wants to speak in public — but it’s their choice. And the more times governmental folks hear our message in various different ways, the better our chance that it gets through.
If you have been paying attention as you read so far, you will know that really you and your group are the ones who set your limits on how you will participate in a meeting. Make a plan before hand so you are acting as a group not a smattering of individuals. And afterwards it’s good to debrief for a few minutes just like for any other kind of action.
To be on, or not to be on? That is the question.
Sometimes, not all the time but sometimes, it is worth serving on a committee so you can be more involved. Remember being on the committee has its benefits but there are also potential costs.
If you start showing up and taking part in a committee, people will often start to pressure you to serve on the committee. Some will have good intentions of wanting someone with energy and ideas to be involved. Maybe you are one of the first to bring a disability perspective to their work. Some may not have such noble motives.
As a member of the committee you can sometimes get more information, and help point the committee’s work in a certain direction. However, you may find your hands more tied as “a member of the team” so to speak. Think carefully about this, because it is flattering to be asked to join and the down sides may not be so easy to see.
Set a goal for your involvement – why are you serving on this committee?
- Tell the bureaucrats you will do this work if they will use your input, don’t let your involvement become open ended.
- Have one to three action items per meeting, something you want the committee to accomplish. Use these items to see if the staff or their bosses are really doing anything.
- Create deadlines or timelines, for yourself if not the committee. That way you can tell if something has been done or not. Otherwise it’s always “in the works.”
- Ask about your goals frequently, and ask during the meetings not just on the side.
- If they don’t get concrete do it for them. Set a number. Set a date. Make it concrete.
Your time is important. So is your energy. If things are turning into a planning session to plan on how to study the situation for a report, you know what to do: do actions. They keep the other side off balance & your folks fired up.
If you are on a committee don’t be a token or a figure-head.
Once you have decided to be on a committee, keep your eye on the prize. Over the years we have noticed how people with disabilities who get on these kinds of committees tend to lose sight of their disabilities and become just plain folks on the committee. Of course, we are all more than the sum of our disability, and we have other interests – just like everybody else. However, our purpose for being on this committee is to get stuff done for “our peeps” people with disabilities, specifically those from the group we are working with. Other people on the committee are doing that and so should you. Don’t be shy about it, advocate for the people you are there for. Everyone else does this, don’t be left out. Too many people with disabilities suddenly feel they are being unfair if they focus on disability. Don’t go there. Speak up for people with disabilities. You don’t need to be a chatterbox, but don’t be silent either.
You want to ask questions when you don’t understand, or if you want to know more. The old saying “there is no such thing as a dumb question” is true. How can you represent people about stuff you don’t understand? You can’t. Ask questions. And ask them of more than one person; before or after the meeting you can ask other committee members or people you think might have a different or interesting perspective what they think. By comparing answers you can see different sides of the issue.
Share your opinions and how this or that will impact people from your group. Speak up. I don’t mean blabber on and on, but do insert your point of view in the discussion. You are there to share a perspective, a set of experiences – not just to be a rubber stamp. You can be brief, that’s great, just don’t be a silent mystery. No one knows what you are thinking till you say something.
Talking alone is not the whole ballgame though. The way you make a committee, task force or other official group do something is by making motions. Motions are official calls for action. You just say something like “I move (or I make a motion) we tell the Governor he needs to make community services his administration’s top priority.” Or you could say “I move the transit authority allot $1 million for the next five years to make all their bus stops accessible and to buy announcer systems so the drivers do not have to yell out the bus stops and major intersections.”
Motions need to be seconded. Seconding is how another member of the committee supports what you are officially proposing in your motion. And after a motion is made and seconded it needs to be voted on and approved. For this to happen you need to convince a majority (more than half in most cases) of the group to support your idea. Talking in the committee meetings is one way to make this happen, but you can also talk to people before, after and in-between the meetings. Line up supporters ahead of time, especially for important votes. You won’t be the only one who does this.
Different groups, committees, etc. follow different rules but most of these rules are variations on something called Robert’s Rules of Order. They can be really complicated and you find stuff about them in many books and surely online there is tons of info on this. Don’t get too bogged down in it all. There is a great little summary (almost a comic book) about these rules that is put out by Channing Bete Company and it will give you enough of the basics to keep you on track.
Keep your eye on the money
In my dealings with government, policy and business money is usually the bottom line. There are many super attendant services programs around the country that have great rules for consumer control, flexibility, etc. but they serve only a handful of people. We think of them as “boutique programs” they are fine for the 20, 50, even 100 people on them – but what about everybody else? Maybe because I have lived so long in Texas, I think you gotta serve the masses. That takes dough-ray-me. So keep your eye on the money; once you have the funds you can refine the program, but without the dollars you have very little.
Setting the agenda
The agenda is the plan of the meeting. It’s a list of items to be discussed, usually the order in which they will come up, and sometimes who will present the information. Setting the agenda is one of the most important jobs. When Justin Dart was alive he used to focus on this. He would bring an agenda, he would let folks modify it a bit, but he had already decided the framework for what would be covered.
If you are on a committee that is staffed by someone else, you can still ask for your items to be put on the agenda. In this way you can get your issues addressed. If staff doesn’t add the items you asked for ahead of the meeting, ask again at the start of the meeting; if you wait to the end often people have started anticipating ending and will have little time and attention for your issues. Even if asking to have your issues added doesn’t make it happen, you still don’t have to take no for an answer. If worse comes to worse you can just start talking and making motions about your stuff – it’s not the best but it sure beats being ignored.
Use your power. If you are the only one who is a consumer on the committee, throw that out when you speak to your goals at the meeting. You are on that committee to represent a group of people and you need to use all the tools you can muster to do that effectively. So do not be shy about pointing out your unique perspective and experiences that inform your opinions and goals.
Bureaucrats, whether on purpose or not, will work to pull you into their murky waters. They regularly deal in a sea of rules, policies, and regulations and it is not uncommon that real life situations get swamped by these rules, or that priorities get misplaced so that the smooth running of the bureaucracy becomes more important than the final outcomes. So get out your hip boots and keep your eyes on the prize. Part of your purpose is to inject reality into a scene that is focused in the wrong direction.