This is a column about legislative advocacy. We offer ideas about how to make your voice heard—at any level of government. The most important thing for an effective advocate to remember is that while city councils, county commissions, state legislatures and Congress all have different structures, every legislative organization has one thing in common: each is comprised of people elected by citizens to represent their interests. Those representatives are accountable to you.
Advocates can do a great deal to influence legislative bodies. But you have to keep in mind four basic principles for effective advocacy.
- Know What You Want. Your communications with elected officials will be effective only if you have a specific goal in mind. Too often, advocates spend a great deal of time telling their happy or tragic stories without any idea of how a legislator can help them. To be successful you’ll need to know at least a little about what an elected official can (and cannot) do for you. Mel Price, who represented the area around Belleville, Illinois, in the U.S. House of Representatives, received this letter from a constituent: “I know you are getting letters complaining that prices are too high. It’s not that prices are too high. It’s just that people haven’t enough money to buy anything.” Or this letter to Les Arends, a member of Congress who represented the Bloomington area: “I understand that you have free mailing privileges. I am sending you all my Christmas cards. Would you be good enough to drop them in the mail for me?” Or this to Senator Wallace Bennett of Utah: “I am ready to be a national hero. Please send instructions.” What’s an elected official to do? These folks knew what they wanted, but they did not have the faintest idea what their legislator could do. Visit the websites of the city council members, state legislators or members of Congress you want to influence and see what types of services they can best provide. Once you’re clear about how your elected officials can help, be sure to “make the ask.” Don’t simply “educate” your elected officials on the importance of your issues. Make it clear to them what action you’d like them to take.
- Know Who You’re Talking To. Your voice has the most power with those elected officials who represent the area where you live, work or serve others. This makes you a “constituent.” The communications that matter most to legislators are those from constituents. Through the constituency connection, you demonstrate your relevance to your elected officials—and set the stage for a truly powerful advocacy experience. You can find who represents you at the state or national level through a website like congress.org. And as you’re thinking about your audience, don’t forget the staff! Most legislators have staff who are eager to work with constituents. They can become your biggest allies in a legislator’s office.
- Know How to Talk to Them. You will need to develop messages that resonate, and you’ll need to deliver those messages in a meaningful way. The most important thing to remember in developing your message is that you have something of value to contribute. One of your main jobs as an effective advocate is to act as a resource for the policymaker. Elected officials and their staffs can’t be experts on everything. If you can demonstrate that you know a great deal about an issue and how that issue will play in their district or state, you’re ahead of the game. In the end, you need an elected official who cares enough about your specific idea to say to his or her colleagues, “I’m not voting for this bill unless it includes [insert your issue here].” To get a legislator to that point, you must be able to demonstrate how your issue a) connects to people that legislator represents, b) connects to that legislator’s overall policy agenda—what he or she is passionate about, and c) will help that legislator achieve other goals he or she may have within the institution. By the way, and this should go without saying, resist the impulse to insult your elected officials. A man once wrote Senator Stephen Young of Ohio saying that Young was a “stupid fool” for favoring gun control and added, “I am sure you could walk upright under a snake’s tail with your hat on and have plenty of head room.” Young did not change his stand on gun control.
- Know How to Follow Up. You will need to apply all the persistence, tenacity and downright stubbornness you can to the problem of getting legislators to listen. In a perfect world, you would simply be able to reach out to your elected officials with a relevant, compelling story, make your request, and then watch the wheels of government turn. Not going to happen. But the more persistence you show, the more likely your elected official will take you seriously. Once you show them you know how to “play the game,” you’ll find that gaining their attention and support will be much easier.
Follow these four principles and you’re on your way to effective legislative advocacy. iBi