The Citizens Handbook
Strategic Thinking

The smartest and most effective activists think, plan, and act strategically. Inexperienced activists make the mistake of focusing only on stopping things. Their only action is reaction. Duff Conacher of the (Canadian) Democracy Watch says, "All they do is maintain the status quo and they actually lose in the long run, because the rules never change and there are all sorts of things they're not stopping." (Quoted in Tim Falconer's Watchdog's and Gadflies, Activism from marginal to mainstream.)

Strategic action is necessary in situations where an opponent blocks the way to an objective. In such cases, smart activists use strategic thinking to identify where an opponent is vulnerable, and then try to figure out how to exploit that vulnerability. They also use strategic thinking to solve problems before they happen, coolly examining the pros and cons of various moves in order to identify the best course of action.


Creating a strategy for a public interest campaign involves:
~ defining goals and intermediate and short-term objectives,
~ carrying out a SWOT analysis,
~ imagining and playing scenarios,
~ identifying opponents,
~ identifying primary and secondary targets,
~ identifying allies,
~ identifying useful networks,
~ deciding what resources are required (salaries, expenses, other),
~ devising tactics, and
~ drawing up an action timetable.

Because this is a problem-solving process it is a loopy. In other words, you might define an objective up-front, but realize later that resources are inadequate to achieve this goal or that there is no clear target. This will mean looping back to redefine the objective.

Defining goals and objectives
Your goals are the broad results you wish to achieve over the long term. Objectives are what you want to accomplish more immediately. Your objectives should follow naturally from your goals. They help you reach your goal. If the goal is winning the war, an objective might be winning a particular battle. If you lose sight of your goals and objectives, everything goes haywire. Consider a project to address the problems of global capitalism; it leads to a street protest, which brings about a police attack on protesters. A protracted inquiry into police brutality then sidetracks the whole project, obscuring the message of the protest and trumping its main objective.

Identifying opponents and obstacles
What stands in the way of reaching your objective? Who can make the necessary changes? Who specifically do you need to influence? In many cases you will be trying, in some way, to bring about changes to government policy or legislation. You will want to avoid making incorrect assumptions about how government works, who is responsible, or what is the most effective route for bringing about change.

Carrying out a SWOT analysis
It's easier to make choices after identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. A SWOT analysis can be applied to a position, an idea, an individual, or an organization. Do a SWOT analysis for your group as well as for your target.

Imagining and playing scenarios
Strategic thinking is often described as reflective dialogue about the future so that one can avoid pitfalls as well as take advantage of opportunities. One way to do this is by imagining how events will play out, then devising effective responses. Future scenarios may be framed as "what if" questions. Let's say you are planning to hike up a mountain. The sun is shining, so you may prepare gear and clothing based on a default scenario that assumes an easy hike in fine weather. But your preparations will change if you consider "what if" questions. "What if fog makes it difficult to see?" "What if it snows?" "What if someone sprains their ankle?" Good scenarios require informed imagination. If it's not informed, you can waste energy on the improbable. If it's not fueled by imagination, you can be blindsided.

Identifying primary and secondary targets
If your group cannot itself deliver a public good, you must be able to identify a decision maker or primary target who can. Campaigns directed at getting a target to do something usually require negotiation, campaigning, and confrontation. These tactics work best on people who are elected. Hired bureaucrats and appointed officials are more resistant.
You should also identify one or more secondary targets. These are people who will cooperate with you, who have some power over the primary target, Secondary targets might be regulatory officials, important customers, or politicians from a more senior level of government.

Identifying allies
If you can't influence a decision maker on your own, are there others who can help? When groups with similar interests create strategic alliances, they are much more likely to achieve their goals. The tendency for groups to compete for funds and influence merely serves the opposition.
Allies may also be sympathetic insiders. Citizens need intelligence to make the right moves. The best intelligence comes from inside organizations that can influence the success of your project. Let's suppose your goal is to change government policy. Reading government reports will provide some useful information. But talking to bureaucrats will provide additional, up-to-date information and a quick rundown on attitudes inside government. A sympathetic senior bureaucrat who understands your project can provide the most help. Finding such a person will help you make all the right moves.

Devising tactics
Tactics are the action part of a strategy. Generating good tactical alternatives requires creative thinking. Choosing which ones to use requires a knowledge of what works in a particular context. It also requires some consideration of what will be good, interesting, or exciting for the group.

Does the key decision maker agree with your objectives and your solutions? If so, cooperative tactics make sense. Does the decision maker agree with your objectives but not your solutions? If so, consider tactics focused on persuasion and negotiation. Does the decision maker completely disagree with both your objectives and your solutions? Then confrontation may be the only option.

Tactics differ in what they try to accomplish. They can aim to:
Win an objective by giving the other side something it wants (credit, votes, support).
Win an objective by depriving or threatening to deprive the other side of something it wants (credibility, respect, money, labor, employment).
Build public support in the media, or build the support of allies or show a target the size and concern of your constituency or,
Build the morale of your group.

Most campaigns include many different kinds of tactics. To evaluate potential tactics, try to answer the following questions:

  1. Is the tactic focused on a primary or secondary target?
  2. Is it based on a thorough understanding of the target?
  3. Is the tactic in tune with other things that are happening?
  4. Does it demand action?
  5. Is your group comfortable with the tactic?
  6. If it is confrontational, has your group exhausted all options for cooperation and negotiation? Confrontation should be a last resort.
  7. If it is confrontational, does it respect Alinsky's Rules for Radicals?
Drawing up a detailed action timetable
Your timetable should be a multilevel chart with start and completion dates for everything you want to do, as well as start and completion dates for all significant external events such as voter registration. Strategies that involve winning something from a target usually begin with opening a line of communication with the target, and then move on to action meetings.

The Citizen's Handbook / Home / Table of Contents
The Citizen's Handbook / Charles Dobson /
cover image

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.