Meeting with policymakers matters! Public officials make hundreds of important decisions during their terms and there is no way they can be experts on all topics brought before them. For policy decisions to be grounded in the needs of the people, it is imperative that we both educate policymakers and advocate for change. How do we do that effectively?
As an advocate in my personal life and in my role as executive director of the Council, and as an appointed public official on the Madison Transportation Commission, I’ve gained insight on how to make the most of time spent with policymakers to drive change. Here are four guideposts to maximize effectiveness when talking with public officials:
- Know your subject and audience.
- Figure out what outcome you want to achieve.
- Tell your story grounded in accurate information.
- Listen, learn and respond.
Know Your Subject and Audience
While you don’t need to be a subject matter expert to talk with a policymaker, it’s important to know the basics to ensure that you are connecting with the people who have the authority to make the changes you want. Many issues can be addressed effectively at a local level and don’t involve our state lawmakers. Check with advocacy organizations like the Council for background information and suggested advocacy actions. Often we’ve already done the ”leg work” that can provide you with what you need to feel well prepared.
Get to know the official before the meeting to discover where you may have common interests and how they view issues that are important to you. Their webpages and social media channels are great tools. As we move into a busy election season, our officials will be at town hall meetings and other forums. Attending these in person or virtually can be very helpful for learning about the individual. This knowledge can be useful to build rapport, find common ground and make the best use of your limited time with the official. Unfortunately, I’ve observed people “preach to the choir” when meeting with policymakers who are already well versed on a particular topic. The time could have been far better used to generate ideas for solving the problem.
Figure Out What Outcome You Want to Achieve
Before the meeting, determine the goal: What do we want this policymaker to do? All too often policymakers hear from constituents who share compelling stories but do not have a concrete request. While lawmakers might be moved by the story, they don’t know what to do with the information. This results in either no action or actions that don’t lead to the changes we’re hoping for. Advocacy organizations can often supply concrete and achievable system change solutions to help guide your requests.
Tell Your Story Grounded in Accurate Information
“Your story matters” is a phrase tossed around a lot in the advocacy world. Personal narrative puts a human face on an issue, and it evokes emotions for the listener. Focus on a couple of powerful examples that illustrate the point you want to make. When telling our stories, it’s easy to get carried away with too many examples or to switch to other topics. Stay focused or you’ll lose your listener.
Personal stories are not enough for a policymaker to be motivated to make change. It’s too easy to assume your situation is an isolated incident or a “problem” for you as an individual. Our job is to connect the dots for officials, bridging from our personal stories to systemic impacts. This is where data points come in handy. It’s also an opportunity to note other impacted groups. We can then point the way to how our suggested changes help the broader community beyond just ourselves.
Listen, Learn and Respond
The most impactful meetings with policymakers are ones where learning happens on both sides of the table. When planning a meeting, make sure there is time for dialogue. Examples of valuable things I’ve learned from lawmakers when I engage in listening include:
- Their personal stories and connection points to the issues. People are often more willing to act when they have a personal connection.
- Their ideas and strategies for how to move forward. Lawmakers have knowledge that we don’t have about pending bills or ordinances that tie to our issues. Once we know what proposals are out there, we can better align our efforts.
- Their relationships, which can tell us who else we need to connect with to move an issue forward.
- Their perspective on the situation, the climate of the lawmaking body, and the challenges they’re facing. This helps us better understand both opportunities and barriers in trying to advance our cause.
All these things help inform strategy going forward. When you meet with a policymaker and get these valuable insights, sharing them with the right advocacy organizations, like the Council, can support our efforts to be more effective.
Policymakers may have questions that they need answered to know how to move forward. It’s okay to not know the answer to a question or to need time to think about or research it. If you don’t have the information you need to accurately respond, let the lawmaker know you’ll get back in touch with them. It is vital that we give correct information.
An Attitude of Respect and Collaboration
Foundational to our effectiveness is our ability to interact with policymakers with respect and kindness in a spirit of collaboration. Because the issues we bring before lawmakers affect our lives significantly, we need to channel our passion into compassionate action, using the fire that lives in our bellies to illuminate the situation rather than to burn bridges. Good working relationships are built over time, and given the complexity of issues, we may need to reach out to the official at other times. We also want them to seek us out for advisement and perspective. That will only happen when there is mutual respect and trust.
All of us can be powerful advocates when we reach out to our public officials. We don’t need to be brilliant orators or policy wonks. We need to be well prepared and ready to share our passion about our issues in ways that open the hearts and minds of those charged with making decisions about the quality of our lives.
Denise Jess, Executive Director