Back when Indy Hall was just a few days old, we were “lucky” enough to get some really good front-page newspaper coverage.
Pretty quickly, our phone was ringing. But it wasn’t prospective community members who were calling, it was folks from our city government.
I vividly remember a call with someone in the Department of Commerce. It went something like this:
Dept of Commerce Rep: “Hi. Is this Independents Hall?”
Me: “Yep, hi, this is Alex!”
Dept of Commerce Rep: “We read about you in the newspaper. What you’re doing sounds very interesting. We don’t exactly understand it.”
Me: “We’re coworking. It’s going to make Philly better. I promise.”
Dept of Commerce Rep: “What can we do to help?”
Me: “I’m not even sure what you do, really. Probably the best thing you can do is to just stay out of our way.”
Dept of Commerce Rep: Oh, okay…”
In hindsight, 23 years old me was kind of a dick. I saw them as a slow, lumbering institution, incapable of change.
Right or wrong about that assumption, I changed my approach. The results have been tremendous, including being a featured part of a national case study on “bright spots” in cities to our recent successes in officially naming a city street to bring attention to an emergent creative cultural district.
So, what do you do when the government wants to work with you?
Recently on the Coworking Google Group, someone posted about her congressman’s sudden interest in their community. I took a few minutes and shared some things that I would like to go back in time and share with 23 year old me. Here are 5 tips that I wish someone had told me:
1. “Don’t mistake their quickness to plan a meeting with their quickness to act”
Over and over, I’ve seen people in gov’t and pseudo-gov’t bodies get excited about doing things with us, but when it comes time to actually get the doing done…slower than molasses. Their default speed is very different from yours, and they don’t really respond to any sort of deadlines except for when the polls close. Tip: Keep your expectations in check to avoid disappointment.
2. Don’t get caught up in doing “big things”.
Yes, I understand that their interest in you is VERY exciting, but whatever you do, don’t lose yourself (or, for that matter, your community) in the act. Gov’t folks are used to having to work at a scale where, frankly, most things don’t work. That’s why it always feels like they’re not getting anything done. It’s so expensive for them to get approvals & buy in that the things they’re used to doing MUST be at a certain scale, other wise it’s not worth it. Tip: Resist getting wrapped up in other peoples’ need for scale. Think big, but act small.
3. Focus on helping them deliver a single small win.
Related to the “big wins” mindset that gov’t folks bring to the table, they’re also not used to success. It’s AMAZING how the conversation can change when you can help them deliver a tiny success. Note the difference in what I said: not for you to deliver that win, but help them deliver the win. They need to feel it for themselves. Tip: This is the ultimate quick-start for building real trust, and getting a sense for how you might work together in the future.
4. Especially when talking to the press, keep the message laser-focused on what’s already been done.
Avoid talking about “what could be” or “what will be”. Instead, do things and then talk about them.
This will keep you (and your political partner) from making promises that you can’t keep.
5. Don’t stop being yourself.
…don’t forget to have fun. If all you ever do is talk about is government/economic development stuff, you’ll never find out the other things you have in common with your local gov’t reps. Don’t be afraid to talk about things you really care about – books, music, history…really, whatever gets your whistle wet. One of the best parts of working with people in governments is that we get to be the people who they can be themselves around, too. Just because they’re in a suit and tie, and we’re in jeans and converse shoes, doesn’t mean that we don’t have things in common.
“Be yourself- not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.” – Thoreau