The Citizens Handbook
The Control Game
A Guide to the Tactics of Power Brokers
Edited and updated from the original version created by the Environmental Information Network

Tactic 1, Make it difficult for people to be involved

Set things up so that it's hard for interested parties such as the affected public to participate.

  • Schedule meetings at inappropriate locations. Or schedule at inappropriate times such as regular working hours, rush hours, dinner times, or times that conflict with similar interest meetings. Set strict meeting "guidelines", or use question cards to discourage real dialogue and keep attendees under control.
  • Schedule lengthy one-way presentations that will not allow give and take exchange, and preclude the public and the press from asking questions.
  • Insist that all questions be held until the end, by which time people are tired, the meeting area must be vacated, and the press has had to leave to meet deadlines.
  • Allow the public limited time, and a limited number of questions that must conform to a set of allowable topics. But allow conveners drag out their answers, essentially filibustering away the rest of the meeting.

These tactics are used to fulfill requirements for public outreach in order to legitimize a process. If attendance is sparse it will be blamed on public apathy, rather than a deliberate effort to exclude public participation. Reject this pretense for public involvement.

Short circuit this tactic by standing up as a group and announcing an immediate press conference that will give the press the real story from the citizens outside of the meeting room or across the street from the building. Then get up and leave as a group.

If this is not immediately possible, let the conveners know that your group will hold its own meeting, protest, and/or press conference the next morning and will continue to inform the media of their non-cooperation on these issues.

Tactic 2, Divide and Conquer

This is a well-established tactic that effectively places similar interest groups at odds with one another, when they would otherwise be a formidable collective force. This tactic uses existing tensions and divisions between organizations. Here are a number of variations:
  • Divide a large issue into many small ones. This forces people and/or organizations to fight many small battles, dispersing their energies. Small groups working in isolation will less effective at coordinating their efforts.
  • Provide enough resources to cover only part of the problem. This can include preparing only a few copies of handouts or important documents.
  • Appoint a committee using key members of the public, including appointees with views similar to the convener, funder, or directing agency to maintain their control of the committee. Their involvement is then publicly highlighted, whether or not they attend or participate.
  • Co-opt key activists by giving them jobs or paying them for their input. If the leader of a grassroots group goes over to the dark side, the group will often fall apart.
  • Break up a meeting into small discussion groups. This effectively keeps valuable information that would otherwise be revealed in the general discussion from being heard by the larger group, which would have enhanced communal brainstorming and questioning of the process or problem at hand. Insert shills to serve as group leaders to control group feedback. This will suppress discussions that don't fit the agenda.
  • Arrange seats in "audience fashion" which gives citizens a passive role. Short-circuit this by moving chairs into a circle or horseshoe, placing citizens at the same level as the power brokers.
  • Seek out homeowners associations, service groups, schools, elected representatives, and public officials to present biased, incomplete, or misleading information to sidestep opposition and win over public opinion.

Name this tactic as soon as you recognize it to short circuit its effectiveness. Make sure that everyone understands what interests they share in common, and why it is in their best interest to continue to work together.

The Government in the Sunshine Act legislation was passed by the US Congress to discourage clandestine or private meetings of government bodies or officials for the purposes of excluding general public or interested parties.

Tactic 3, Pack the meeting

Power brokers will often encourage employees and supporters to attend public meetings. They may try to simulate public support for their position on an issue, and to set the tone of the meeting. Sometimes they will use comment or question cards in place of a audience microphone. Their supporters will stack the deck of comment cards with time-wasters, and may continue filling out more cards throughout the meeting to defuse opposition discussion.

Short circuit this by meeting with your neighbors, colleagues, or constituents for a pre-meeting conference to discuss opposition tactics.

Come up with your own list of strategy and critical points, then divide them up among yourselves. Go to the meeting prepared with fact sheets, questions, counter-examples, and comments that support your views. Brainstorm with your colleagues, refine the information, then pass it around the neighborhood, or the target audience for and after the meeting. Call the tactics as you see them occur in the meeting to defuse them. Insist on a fair and open airing of the issues, with everyone's participation.

Tactic 4, Raise the specter of economic hardship
Power brokers often threaten massive layoffs if they have to change a process, or stop polluting, or fix safety problems, or clean up contamination. This is a usually a scare tactic. Offer a counter-example that suggests the possibility of economic benefit:
  • In 1988, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility (RFP) was faced with changes that included decommissioning, the contractor threatened massive layoffs. Economic developers and chambers of commerce predicted local devastation. To the contrary, the cleanup has been a huge economical boost for subcontractors and RFP personnel, who have nearly doubled the numbers of employees that were needed for full production and chemical recovery of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads.

Tactic 5, Seem to be acting while doing nothing
When faced with an obvious need for change, bureaucrats may try to give the appearance of taking action without actually doing anything. The tactic may sound like this:
  • "We have decided to appoint an advisory, sub-committee, or commission to address the problem."
  • "Your knowledge, input, or time is so valuable. We would like you to help us work out solutions we call all agree on" (But they will fail to assimilate your information, suggestions, or concerns).
  • "We plan to issue a policy or statement regarding that problem next week, month, year..., so that everyone will know what to do in the future..." (Beware of bureaucrats keeping you out of circulation in the community.)

Don't accept inconsequential actions, and excuses. Set a reasonable amount of time for genuine action, and then tell everyone that you expect action by that date.

Think twice before joining "study committees or advisory groups" with no real power to do anything about the issue or problem at hand. Think twice about processes run by adversaries, or processes the do not record what happens. Refusal to allow a meeting record is a serious red flag.

Tactic 6, Point out that citizens are not experts

Playing expert is an easy way to belittle, patronize, or confound citizen efforts.

  • Say: "I don't know what you're talking about; You don't know your facts; You have not done enough research; You aren't an expert; Your issue is beside the point, irrational, emotional, or not practical.
  • Engage attendees in detailed explanations or debates that are intended to sidetrack the issue of concern, hoping that in the heat of debate, they will get tired, give up and go home.

When confronted with this tactic, provide examples of how experts on the issue have screwed up. You don't have to be an expert to ask questions, ask for information, or to have legitimate concerns.

Write notes throughout the meeting, this will help keep you on track.

Tactic 7, Refuse to provide information

Bureaucrats hope this tactic will discourage you, and you will go away. So don't give up. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) may have to be invoked to get cooperation. You must know what information you need, where to get it, and what to look for. The "Key and Lock" buzzwords and descriptions must be included, or the very information you seek may be withheld from you.
  • Bureaucracies protecting damaging information may try to charge exorbitant fees for information to be searched, copied, and sent to you. Request fee waivers based upon public interest needs and public right-to-know laws.
  • The requester may be flooded with huge amounts of useless information that is out of order and out of date. This is called a data dump in legal circles. This is a common tactic used by legal rivals on cases to eat up valuable pre-trial discovery time. It takes a critical eye, speed reading, and some time to find what you want.

The refusal to give out information may sound like this:

  • "We don't have that information; I'm not authorized to fulfill this request; We can only give out a summary (and they decide what to include); You don't not have the right to access this information."

Recognize these tactical phrases meant to put you off the track of the information you need to level the playing field with your opponent, and don't accept lame excuses for non-performance or non-compliance.

To deal with any issue effectively, you need the facts.

Citizen strategies to short-circuit the control game

As soon as a tactic becomes apparent, label it.
When you name a tactic publicly, it loses its power. You can counter these tactics with a minimum of wasted effort by keeping the lines of communication open with your colleagues and similar interest organizations.

Stay calm and carry on
Don't let them label you a troublemaker, or as someone with emotional or personal problems. Don't let them dismiss legitimate concerns because you don't have "x" number of constituents behind you. Stay calm, and don't give them the reaction they want. Any public-minded person might become angry or frustrated over the tactics of bureaucracies and corporations. But remember, 70% of communication is non-verbal. Don't assist the power brokers by appearing to be a radical or a hot head.

Make your issue and your adversary at the object of intense study. Never stop questioning your previous conclusions about them. Get all the information you can and keep on getting it. Put this information to productive and meaningful use, then network it around.

Never relax after a victory.
Don't underestimate the power of determination. Eventually the forces of darkness will give in.

Renew your outreach regularly.
Have current concerns and information prepared and ready to distribute at every opportunity. Use their meetings for opportunities to pass out your own targeted information. Use several people to see that all attendees end up with copies of your information.

Be observant of interactions and tactics, and who may be calling the shots behind the scenes.
Recognize that although individuals make up the bureaucracy, they should not be the targets of your efforts. Determine where strategic counter-tactics would be the most effective. A good motto to keep in mind: Always start at the top.

Editor's note: Do not assume bureaucrats are adversaries.
Government officials usually have a public interest orientation. If they seem uncooperative, this could be the result of their political masters. If they seem jaded, this could come from constant attacks by citizens who (in their view) do not understand an issue. Behind the scenes, a bureaucrat can be very helpful to a citizen's group with a public interest orientation. They can be especially helpful identifying secret documents that can be obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.