A Publication of WTVP

Figuring out how to get what you want from government is no simple task. In Illinois, for example, we have at least four layers of government: city, township, county and state. That doesn’t count regional offices of education or park districts, either. Add the three branches of government at both the state and federal levels, and you have a recipe for confusion and frustration.

Here’s a favorite letter that illustrates the difficulty—this to Wallace Bennett, U.S. senator from Utah:

Dear Senator Bennett:
I have to draw a tree diagram of our government and I am
stuck on the legislative branch. You are equal to the executive
and judicial branches. Right? But does this mean executive plus judicial equals legislative?

Also are there other limbs I should draw on the legislative branch except the Senate and the House? Which branch should
I draw shorter? That is, are the Senate and the House exactly
equal to each other, or are they greater or lesser equal and what
are the chances of getting things simplified?


Simplification? Not likely. The first rule in any advocacy effort is to be sure you know what you want. Only when you know your specific goal can you be sure that you’re talking to the right people. If you know that you want a new sewer in your neighborhood, for example, you will need to approach your city or county government. On the other hand, if you want to change the way federal tax laws apply to your business, you’ll need to reach out to your federal government.

Once you’ve decided what you want and whom to ask, you need to summon the courage to make the “ask.” In fact, the main difference between “advocacy” and simple education is this issue of asking for a specific action. When we think about advocacy, the asks we usually focus on are “policy asks.” There is a pretty specific set of policy-related or “official” actions that a legislator can take. These include:

Of course, there are some bills that legislators won’t introduce. Consider this request of Congressman George Andrews from Alabama: “Our band bought some uniforms and the bill came to $675. Please introduce this bill into Congress.”

These four types of “asks” are appropriate, and your legislators are well equipped to respond to them. Knowing what you want will help you appeal for help from your elected officials. But it won’t always be easy. Our form of government will test one’s patience:

Dear Congressman:
I have a question that is driving me batty. You must figure it out for me. It is in the next paragraph.

I am represented by one representative and two senators. Okay? Everybody else has one representative and two senators. Okay? So why aren’t there twice as many senators as representatives? Tell me this and how long it will be before it can be fixed right.

Yours truly… iBi