Working With Policymakers
All policymakers want and need to hear from the constituents who are impacted by their decisions. Public officials must consider a vast number of issues. Depending on the political level and resources available, these issues could be divided among many staff members that are responsible for following all activity and constituent support for each of their assigned issues. A staff member may be responsible for 20 or more broad issues and is seldom an expert in all of them. You are in an excellent position to share with them information about your personal journey or provide them with information about your programs and how these programs affect your community. Once you have developed a working relationship with the official and his or her staff, they may look to you more often and ask for your input as these issues come forward. By establishing yourself as a reliable source of information, you are improving your access to the policymaker.
There are many options available for communicating with policymakers: letters, faxes, telephone calls, personal visits and e-mail. Logic dictates that if you are trying to influence something that is going to happen immediately, faxed letters and phone calls are the best option. E-mail is an option as well, especially when communicating with staff members who you have worked with previously. If you need to provide detailed information and have a longer period of time in which to work, a personal visit is more likely to get the official’s attention. Whether you write, call or visit your policymakers, below are some basic guidelines are applicable to all methods of contact:
Know your officials.
Learn as much as possible about your federal, state and local officials and where they stand on issues. How have they voted in the past? What is their political philosophy? Officials who support your position can help you develop your strategy; those who “don’t know” need lots of your attention; and those who are opposed can sometimes be persuaded to change their minds. Never assume you know what your official thinks – find out. Usually, there is a copy of their biography and information about their positions on their Web sites.
Identify yourself as a constituent by providing your address, location of your organization, if applicable, and if contacting federal legislators, your congressional district. Identify yourself as a constituent facing poverty, or someone with experience working on issuers related to poverty.
Know your issue. Know the legislation or program you support and the impact it will have on your family, organization or local community, and, if appropriate, on the nation. Know and use statistics and facts whenever possible. In this age of accountability, data and numbers matter.
Be specific and state the action you want the policymaker to take, such as: vote in a certain manner, introduce legislation, or co-sponsor a bill or make a floor statement. If the policymaker expresses support for your position, hold him or her to that commitment. Whenever possible, refer to a specific piece of legislation by its number.
Be concise in your written or verbal communications. Public officials and their staff have limited time to devote to any one issue. A one- or two-page fact sheet can summarize your points and is more likely to be read and filed for future reference than a 10-page document. In face-to-face meetings, highlight key issues and leave behind a fact sheet as a reminder of essential points you want the official to have on hand.
Be pleasant, polite and use a “soft-sell” approach even if a policymaker does not agree to support you in a specific instance. If there are problems with a particular program or bill, admit it and identify alternative solutions. Do not threaten or make negative comments. You are looking for a continuing relationship and will probably need the official’s support on other issues in the future. In the meantime, feel confident that you have shared your information in a positive manner.