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Fighting City Hall with a British Accent

By Kim Knox

The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.

— Anthony Jay

Prime Minister Jim Hacker: “Humphrey, do you see it as a part of your job to help (politicians) make fools of themselves?”

Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby: “Well, I’ve never met one that needed any help.”

— Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, “Yes, Prime Minister”

Sir Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn wrote the BBC series of “Yes, Minister” (aired in 1980-82) and “Yes, Prime Minister” (aired in 1986-1988). The series centered on a politician, Jim Hacker, who had risen from a backbencher to a minister of a department and on to prime minister. He had to battle bureaucrats / civil servants who had seen ministers come and go throughout their long career in civil service. The series was not only highly entertaining and droll, but it was also educational. It gave hints on how you should deal with politicians and bureaucrats.

Then in 1998, Sir Anthony Jay wrote a book called “How to Beat Sir Humphrey,” which was a citizen’s guide to fighting City Hall. BBC Radio recorded the book and has been playing the recording throughout last week.

Jay points out that almost every government plan started as a quick decision by a very busy (and important) person (mayor, supervisor, department head, etc.) several years earlier. Before the decision was made, cost considerations and reducing community disruptions were usually considered.

But in the end, someone in power had to make the final decision. And they may have made the decision based on less admirable criteria, such as avoiding endless, boring meetings with the Planning Department; making sure that they didn’t create new plans but rather used old ones from another project, and/or not having to deal with a community leader whom they would rather avoid. Face it, bureaucrats (and politicians) are human.

So what if a plan or project negatively impacts you and/or the community? What should you do to fight against the plan (and City Hall)? Jay outlines several key strategies:

1. The time most advantageous in defeating a measure is at the very beginning. The minute that the news about the project has been released, you should recruit as many people as you can to call as many officials as possible. Make sure that you recruit members of various communities to show the politicians and bureaucrats that there is widespread support against the measure.

2. If this fails and the draft plan is released for comment, you need an organized grassroots campaign to begin the “war” to stop the plan.

Work with experts to find what inaccuracies are in the plan. Find out what alternatives are out there. Does the plan have an EIR? Has the project taken into account future plans for schools, homes, and/or shopping precincts?

Can you recruit an academic or expert to show how the plan is based on inadequate information?

Then outline those inaccuracies and miscalculations in alternative studies, letters, and reports to politicians, newspapers, radio stations, and commissions. Make sure that everyone who has anything to do with the project has at least two pieces of paper outlining the flaws of the project as well as the strengths of an alternative plan.

Jay gives an example of a student in Cheshire. British Railways decided to close the railroad behind his house. When the fourth grader looked at British Rail’s report, he noticed that there was something wrong with the figures. So for a month, he kept an account of the number of trains that used the rail on a daily basis. It turned out that British Rail had conducted their survey during the holiday season, when a nearby quarry was closed. Cheshire kept its rail line, thanks to a fourth grader.      

If you are fighting a building or construction project, you need to create your own architect’s drawing. Most politicians can’t read blueprints — but they are awed by a developer’s idealized drawing of a beautiful building(s) with one car on the road and surrounded by a gorgeous park. So create a more realistic rendering — scores of people jaywalking in front of the building, cars stopped at a standstill, and other buildings crowding around the project.

3. Don’t forget the paperwork. Create letters that make developers, bureaucrats, and politicians respond to the real questions surrounding the project. Ask specific questions about code requirements, environmental impacts, and appropriate sections of the City Charter. If they have to research to respond to your letter as well as other letters from other protesters about the project, they may become more amendable to talking about alternatives.

4. Finally, when the project comes in front of the Board of Supervisors or a commission, organize a mass of people to come and raise the emotional tone of the meeting by keeping strictly to the topic, “Will the plan or project happen or not?” Each speaker should ask a specific question that casts doubt on the future of the project and inflicts damage on the proposal itself. It is also helpful if each speaker provides a letter with that question to each of the commissioners and/or board committee members. This will keep a record of the questions as well as force the politicians to address the questions in a written format.

5. But Jay correctly points out that you also need to give your enemies an alternative route. If you refuse to provide an escape route for the politicians or bureaucrats to use when they have to scamper away from the original proposal, it will become a “fight to the death” proposition.

So you need to create an alternative proposal that has the least impact on the community around it — and provide this alternative in writing. Then you also need to provide speakers to speak toward the alternative and offer to work with the commission, supervisors, and/or impacted departments to implement it.

As Jay points out, you can fight City Hall (or Whitehall). But you have to make sure that you have created an organized response with a large group of neighbors in order to get the attention of the bureaucrats and politicians who have already made the decision about the project long ago.