Some time ago now, I had the opportunity to go for dinner with two Baronesses. The conversation got round to the challenges of advocating for the arts, museums and libraries. “If you had to choose”, I asked, “between influence and evidence, which would you choose”.
Both replied instantly and decisively, “Influence, of course. It doesn’t matter how good your numbers are, or how robust your methodology, if they aren’t disposed to listen to you, no amount of evidence will help”.
This got me thinking about the current culture of ‘measurability’, and specifically of conversations about impact and evidence.
The audience for library advocacy
I don’t think evidence can be developed in a vacuum. There is no such thing as ‘pure’ evidence – it always has a customer or client who is intended to receive it and act on it. When we think about valuing the impact of libraries for their communities, companies or organisations, then, we ought to be wary of developing approaches that fail to identify who the ‘customer’ is and what we want them to do with the information.
In advocating for most types of library, we have four audiences:
- Political stakeholders
- Senior decision-makers
- The profession
- The public (and by association the media)
There is a real risk that the bulk of evidence-gathering and analysis focuses on the needs and interests of the profession. Worse, there is a risk that we will expend a colossal resource in the pursuit of a definitive resolution to our own existential questions about what and who libraries are for, and in the process fail to do the more urgent job of ‘selling’ libraries as a proposition to the people who are in a position to invest in them.
The key audiences to whom we need to ‘sell’ libraries as a proposition – politicians, the public and senior managers in different sectors – also act on each other. Politicians and senior managers are highly-attuned to the overall public perception of the currency and relevance of libraries, and public libraries in particular.
If we are going to advocate for the role of libraries to the public, we need to stop talking in general terms about their value and focus instead on utility and benefits – not ‘what do libraries do?’ but ‘what do libraries do for me?’.
No amount of generalised evidence or case studies is going to convince a member of the public of the value of libraries. The three primary factors in influencing public opinion are visibility, experience and recommendation.
For public libraries, this means regular media coverage, a quality product (location, stock, activities, customer services) and people recommending the library to their friends. For other types of library service, this is trickier but still holds true as a general principle.
There is a close connection between raising public engagement with their local library service and the general perception of and association with ‘libraries’ as a brand.
There are two central components of a successful brand:
- A clear brand proposition which helps the consumer ‘situate’ the brand within their daily values and activities and it’s alignment to their self-image, and;
- A consistent experience of that brand through all of the channels in which they encounter it – physically, online or reported and advertised elsewhere.
This idea of ‘brand integrity’ is challenging in libraries where the local structures for management and delivery are increasingly divorced from the national structures for advocacy and representation.
People tend to hold a very simple association with a brand, associating it strongly with one clear product or proposition. Shifting that proposition requires serious, planned intervention – the more so if the proposition is firmly entrenched in the public psyche. Moving the public from ‘I go to the library to get books’ to ‘I go to the library to get books, Internet access, information and access to services’ has not so far been well-implemented as a joined-up campaign.
Media representation of libraries
Increasing the visibility of all libraries, and particularly public libraries depends in part on securing accurate positive coverage about them in the media.
People get frustrated with the media for reinforcing and perpetuating stereotypical images about libraries but I have spoken to many journalists who insist that these stereotypes are embedded in the public consciousness and that all they are doing is responding to the language the public itself uses.
There are three key strategies in shifting media representation of libraries away from the ‘tired’ tropes of the 80’s and 90’s:
- Waiting for the contemporary proposition to reach the mainstream – many journalists point out that the image of libraries in the public eye hasn’t been accurate for a long time. Libraries have modernised, librarianship and librarians have changed and for the generations growing up today, their memory will be of a vital, modern and attractive places offering a range of services. It is unlikely that the 11 year-olds of today will have the same ‘tired’ stereotype of libraries in mind when they hit 40 as today’s 50 year-olds do;
- Actions speak louder than words – it follows from the previous proposition that it is key to get people into the building and experiencing what a modern library service has to offer. The best way to do this is through a combination of ongoing promotional activity and time-limited, high-visibility and high-impact marketing campaigns (such as National Libraries Day);
- Making new and interesting friends – we sometimes forget that libraries (and particularly publicly-accessible libraries) are a high-status partner. We offer a network of trusted services, expert and experienced staff with a strong customer-service ethos, geographically-distributed, attractive places and high-quality IT access. Partnerships at a national scale with organisations like the BBC, commercial partners or even Government offer an opportunity to surprise people with the range of what their libraries can offer.
Alongside the campaign to wash through the media with positive, accurate presentations of libraries it is also important to challenge lazy journalism. On a slow news day, it is still too easy for editors to reach for the hackneyed old stories about libraries and these do a lot of damage to the perceptions of people who think about libraries only rarely, if at all.
In the recent consultation to develop CILIP’s Action Plan 2016-2020, ‘political advocacy’ came back time and again as one of the central activities which library and information professionals expect of their professional body. But what are politicians and what does it mean to advocate to them?
First and foremost, ‘politician’ is an unhelpful overall term. For a start, there is the difference between the UK Government, Parliament and Civil Service and the corresponding organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Then there is the difference between MP’s – who are selected from political Parties and elected to represent the interests of their constituency within Parliament – and the Government, which is made up of Ministers of the governing Party. There is also an important distinction between the two ‘Houses’ of Parliament – the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
MP’s are involved in considering and voting on Laws and can ask questions of Government Ministers concerning specific policy agendas, but in practical terms their ability to influence national policy is limited by their position within the political heirarchy.
Parliament and the Government have two ‘levers’ they can use to influence daily life for millions of people – laws and policies.
- ‘Policy’ refers to a broad spectrum of activities, documents, proposals, funding and discussions which essentially represent something the Government wants to change and sets out a way of changing it. It might be a social issue, such as housing, or an economic one, such as taxation or competitiveness;
- ‘Laws’ are formal documents which regulate the actions of the citizens to whom they apply. Legislation is often used by Government in the pursuit of specific policy agendas.
It is important to understand how the policy process works. Political parties marshal resources to fight campaigns in a General Election and local Elections. In doing so, they set out their ‘vision’ of the principles according to which the country ought to be governed. This process more or less sets the policy agenda for the following 5 years of Parliament.
At the beginning of each Parliament, the Government sets out its legislative agenda – the areas in which they will seek to change laws or introduce new ones. The ensuing 4 years are essentially spent in horse-trading – using influence and argument to secure specific outcomes in either policy or law.
Securing national pro-library policy
While the provision of ‘comprehensive and efficient’ public library services may be statutory in England under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, libraries in the UK are an ‘unregulated’ (or perhaps better, ‘self-regulated’) sector. This means that while there is a professional code of practice, there is no specific legislation governing the library and information profession (unlike, for example, Barristers, Architects or Actuaries – see here for a full list of regulated professions).
(A regulatory body is like a professional association, but has no membership. Instead it protects the public interest by setting, enforcing and securing compliance with standards.)
As a self-regulated profession, the main focus of our political advocacy has to be on securing pro-library policy from Government (or pro-public benefit policy delivered through libraries) and promoting change to related laws which help libraries to fulfil their public purpose.
Unlike other nations in the UK, England currently has no ‘library policy’. Instead, we need to focus on pursuing 4 connected sets of national outcomes:
- Encouraging the development of policies which promote the interests of libraries and their users
- Encouraging (or forcing) Government to take action to mitigate the negative impact of other policies on the public benefits offered by libraries;
- Encouraging Government to be conscious of the impact on libraries of new policy directions and legislation (for example, policy and laws relating to Privacy or Cyber-security);
- Promoting legislation which supports libraries in delivering their public task
The primary target for advocacy when seeking to secure pro-library policy is Government Ministers, although to a lesser extent it is important for locally-elected MP’s to raise library policy as a priority to Ministers.
Central Government spending
The Government sets an annual budget for its forecast spending and estimated income. The Government’s income is derived from several sources:
- Taxing income (Income Tax – currently the largest source of income by some margin)
- Taxing business (VAT, business rates, national insurance, corporation tax, excise duties)
- Taxing for services (Council Tax)
- Borrowing against public assets
Any Government’s fiscal (financial) policy is based on balancing these forms of taxation so that they can generate sufficient money to do the things it wants to do while avoiding becoming so unpopular that they risk losing the next General Election. For Government, then, the primary ‘assets’ they are balancing are income and popularity.
The chart below shows the different areas in which Government spends money. In the UK, the biggest area of public expenditure is social security, normally accounting for just under 25% of all public spending. This money is used to finance a variety of benefits (State pensions, public sector pensions, housing benefits, income support, disability / incapacity benefits, unemployment benefits).
With a few notable exceptions, it is less common for Central Government to fund frontline services directly. Instead they tend to allocate block grants to distributing or funding bodies and agencies who then use those funds to ‘nudge’ (promote) specific policy agendas.
With the exception of specific services like the House of Commons Library, library services are not funded from central Government. In the case of public libraries, they are funded through a non-ring-fenced general grant from Central Government to Local Government. In the future, with the withdrawal of central grants, Local Government will need to fund statutory services themselves.
This means that in advocating for investment in libraries it is important to be clear whether we are asking Central Government to intervene in local funding decisions or whether we are asking Central Government to provide a stronger regulatory framework to influence how those decisions are made. Since there is no single ‘library budget’ or ring-fence, this necessarily means that advocating for money for libraries has to be done on the basis of their contribution to a wide range of policy areas on which National and Local Government wants to spend taxpayer’s money.
The role of the House of Lords
The House of Lords is an important but frequently-neglected focus of influence in political advocacy. Many Lords are themselves former Members of Parliament and Ministers and they retain significant influence both over policy making and the priorities of their colleagues in the House of Commons.
The House of Lords has two main roles:
- Scrutinising decision-making in the Commons, and;
- Making legislation by reviewing bills and statutory instruments
Because of their professional experience, Lords tend to be highly active in a number of fields. Many campaigns, causes and professional communities benefit from the influence and networking that can be achieved through a strong working relationship with members of the House of Lords.
Influencing local decision-making
In an environment of increased autonomy and devolution in England, local decision-making is likely to become as important in securing the interests of publicly-accessible libraries as national policy. This means engaging with the different types of Local Government, which include:
- County Councils
- District Councils
- Unitary Authorities
- London Boroughs (unitary authorities in London, governed by the Greater London Authority)
- Metropolitan districts (which are also, effectively, unitary authorities)
- Local Councils (Town and Parish Councils)
There are 375 Councils in England and Wales, with almost 18,500 Councillors. Councillors are generally elected for a period of 4 years to represent the interests of people within a defined area or locality. They represent these interests, contribute to local regulation and decision-making (such as planning control) and provide community engagement and leadership (for a primer on this, see also the Local Government Association’s Quick Guide to Local Government).
Within Councils, there are two common decision-making structures – either a local Leader and Cabinet or a locally-elected Mayor and Cabinet. The Cabinet is usually made up of appointed members who take responsibility for specific issues or sectors (including, frequently, libraries).
Local Government generally has three ways of raising money:
- Centrally-distributed Government grants (in 2010 this accounted for some 55% of local spending)
- Revenues from Council Tax (again in 2010, this accounted for 20-25% of revenues)
- Revenues from Business Rates
With the announcement of the withdrawal of the centrally-distributed funds, Local Authorities have faced huge cuts to their income, which has in turn had a dramatic impact on funding for public and other publicly-accessible library services.
A significant focus of advocacy for libraries therefore has to be on making the case for protecting funding to publicly-accessible library services to Local Government.
Understanding the motivations of political stakeholders
Politicians are people, and predominantly motivated by a combination of political belief, social values and personal self-interest. As with any professional relationship, securing their support is a question of speaking to their values and self-interest without (necessarily) agreeing with their political beliefs. In enlisting the support of political stakeholders, there are 3 effective value propositions:
- Local political capital – local politicians support issues which they feel are important, which their Party has told them to support or which are likely to get them re-elected. They won’t support unpopular agendas, or ones which fly in the face of the policy lines established by their Party;
- National political capital – at a national scale, elected politicians support policy agendas which they feel are important, which their Party has told them to support through the Whips and where the political gains in terms of popularity and electability outweigh the costs (in terms of money or resistance);
- Electoral dynamic – all politicians support agendas which they feel on balance will ‘play well’ with the public via the mainstream press and media.
In other words, effective advocacy depends on promoting policy lines that are politically advantageous to Ministers and MP’s and which generate value for politicians in a way that they recognise and appreciate. This commonly means setting aside Party-political views, focusing instead on what a Government says about its policy priorities and aligning the ‘value proposition’ and approach to advocacy to these priorities.
It’s worth noting that the ‘electoral dynamic’ shifts significantly over the lifetime of a Parliament. Early in the 5-yearly cycle, the Government is usually confident in its public mandate and is able to push for less popular policy. Later in the cycle, ‘backbenchers’ (ie. MP’s who are not Ministers and hence don’t sit on the front benches in the House of Commons) tend to rebel more frequently against policy decisions which they see having a negative effect on their local popularity. In the 6-12 months preceding the General Election, the Government generally seeks to ‘claw back’ popularity by proposing more publicly-appealing policy measures.
As with the public, political stakeholders are also highly influenced by visibility, experience and recommendation. Advocating to both local and national politicians means getting them into libraries, giving them a positive experience which showcases the full range of what a modern library can do and ensuring that these positive experiences are reinforced through recommendation from others they trust (which is one reason for the subtitle of National Libraries Day being ‘Join it. Use it. Love it’).
Reactive versus proactive
Any group or organisation seeking to influence the political process (and particularly to influence public spending) has two options to choose from:
- Reactive mode – in which you monitor what the Government is doing and saying and seek opportunities to ‘insert’ the interests of your community into their decision-making process. Opportunities include public consultations and debates in the press, and;
- Proactive mode – in which you actively set out to secure a specific objective by creating a policy agenda which support its it.
Because advocacy is resource-intensive, most organisations move between these two modes – spending the majority of time in a long-term responsive mode but ready to shift into a proactive gear when and if an opportunity arises.
Senior managers & decision-makers
When approaching any form of advocacy, it is useful to ask who is in a position to help you achieve your objectives, and what it is that you want them to do. Policy and legislation are useful in influencing high-level, nationwide decisions but in an age of increasing devolution it is becoming increasingly important to be able to reach and convince individual decision-makers.
Take Education as an example. While the Government has an active role in defining education-related spending, setting standards, providing regulation and distributing taxpayer’s money to state-funded education services, the role of the Head Teacher and Governors is becoming increasingly important. With the growth of the independent schools sector and moves to transition schools to ‘academy’ status, the impact of UK-wide policy is becoming less important.
There is an old lawyer’s saying which I never tire of repeating when thinking about achieving positive change:
- When you have the law, argue the law
- When you don’t have the law, argue the facts
- If you have neither the law nor the facts, argue the emotions
The point is that when it comes to securing a specific objective, law and evidence are more powerful than pure emotional pull. In the case of securing support from individual decision-makers, we can’t assume that we have their emotional support. Many people regard libraries (wrongly) as an anachronism and don’t have a clear idea of what an ‘information professional’ is or does. Because they don’t understand it, many senior managers tend to revert to concepts they do have a firm grip on – like ‘Digital’.
Study your mark
Everyone has heard of the ‘elevator pitch’, the simple, clear expression of the reason why a person should buy into your idea or product. However, the pitch is only ever one part of the story. The other, equally important part is working out who you need to get buy-in from and making sure you end up in the elevator with them!
A company I spoke to was once bidding for a multi-million pound contract. The ‘decision makers’ on the other side were a small panel of 4-5 people, with one key influencer. The company doing the bidding invested a considerable amount of time and money in learning about this person – their likes and dislikes, networks and influencers. They figured out which magazines he read, and in the end ran a short, time-limited advertising campaign in those magazines setting out their competency in the area they were bidding for.
They won the contract. Whether it was due to their research and highly targeted approach or not is a moot point – the real point is that they learnt everything they could about their intended customer, and this helped them sell to him.
The same is true when approaching senior managers and decision-makers who are in a position to hire library and information professionals or invest in the development of information skills in their company, community or organisation.
This is a key lesson which we need to learn when promoting the interests of the library and information professions. It doesn’t matter what we think about how important our skills are. It doesn’t matter how powerfully we believe in the value and impact of libraries. It *really* doesn’t matter how we feel about the words we use to express the different aspects of our work. These are all internal matters for us to discuss at conferences and meetings. What matters is what they (our key decision-makers) think, the words they use and the way in which they like to receive information and act on it.
This means learning to think as they think and speak as they speak.
Finding the right person
When you look right into the heart of any company or organisation, there is always a real human being who is in a position to make a difference. Sometimes they will be a trained information professional who has worked their way up to a leadership role. Most often they won’t be – they’ll be an experienced professional in their own right, but with limited knowledge of or interest in information management.
Before putting together any facts or figures, Powerpoint slides or ‘narratives’, we need to learn who this person is and what kind of argument they’re most likely to act on. Are they a level-headed, facts and figures kind of person, or someone who loves a story? Are they risk-averse or gung-ho? What kind of constraints are they operating under? What cycle does their year run on and when do they make decisions? Can they act unilaterally or do they have influencers above them who also need to be convinced? Learning as much as you can about them as you can before assembling your case is much more likely to achieve your desired outcome!
Thankfully, in the age of social media, this is easier than every. People broadcast information about their working lives pretty much every minute of the day. You can immerse yourself in the world of your intended audience quite simply by following them on twitter, engaging with them via LinkedIn, reading their blogs, setting up Google news alerts on keywords that will interest them and going to the kinds of events that they are likely to attend.
Getting to them
People are highly evolved social animals – we have learnt over millennia to award degrees of trust to our family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers. This means that when it comes to influencing people, recommendation counts.
Making a ‘cold’ approach to a key decision-maker or manager immediately puts them on the back foot. Bearing in mind that a significant part of their work revolves around saying no to speculative and ill-informed requests for support, it is really important not to become another one!
Getting to a position whereby your approach is ‘recommended’ takes time and effort. You have to network, talk to colleagues who work in the profession and be opportunistic – several times I have joined panels and committees with the express aim of reaching a specific individual.
Listen before you speak
Once you are finally in touch with the person or people you’re seeking to influence, it is essential to listen to what they have to say. Several times, I have gone in enthusiastically with a pitch, only to find that they have a completely different idea of the problem, or a different problem entirely.
Getting someone to express their problem to you is a fantastic opportunity to learn how they think and the language they use. Speaking that language back to them is an excellent way of securing their trust and ensuring that they are confident that you have listened to what they had to say.
One thing it is important to avoid is directly disagreeing with the person you’re trying to influence or making them feel stupid for not understanding your world well enough. It is sometimes tempting, when you’re embedded in a specific sector, to think that the world revolves around it. Many promising pitches have failed on the basis of presuming too much knowledge of or interest in the way we work!
Getting the message across
Once you have learned how your decision-maker works and learned as much as you can about their ‘problem’, you will be in a much better position to articulate why they should buy into your ability to solve it.
When advocating to decision-makers, it is important to bear in mind some key principles:
- Brevity and clarity
- Powerful facts and figures
- Be clear about what you want them to do
- Be prepared to work with them to change what you are proposing
Any organisation that is seeking to encourage employers to invest in a specific skillset needs to be able to engage with them in terms which they understand – even where this means riding roughshod over the niceties of detailed definitions and classifications!
Links and resources
There are a number of resources which I find useful when approaching advocacy:
- How Parliament Works (Walters, R and Rogers, R – 6th edition)
- American Libraries Association Advocacy resources