As we struggle with a bad transportation bill in Washington, D.C., now is the time to work directly with elected leaders and their staff. Doing so effectively requires care and attention to some basic advocacy skills.
In order to be effective with legislators it is important to get to know them and their districts. Spend some time learning their biographies, whether it’s their educational background or their previous profession, to try to understand how your legislator’s experiences might guide their policy interests. Get to know the legislator’s district in terms of demographics, local issues, the economy, and any unique challenges they might face. With this base of knowledge you are better prepared to make your case in the appropriate context, build support for your issue, and be on your way to building a relationship.
Equally important, give legislators a chance to get to know you and your interests before you ask for support in the middle of a decision-making process. Invite them to your neighborhood or office to take a tour of a recent project or area in need of attention. Let them know how your work improves peoples’ lives. Bring local supporters to tell personal stories that demonstrate the human impact of policy decisions. Take the time to listen to elected officials and get to know their concerns. This process of getting to know each other over time will help you find shared policy interests and opportunities to work together.
Most of the actual work you do with an elected leader will be with their staff. It is vital to build strong working relationships with your field representatives and key policy staff. Focus on providing brief, clear communication that is directly relevant to your work. This will allow you and staff members to hone in on specific actions each of you can take to support your shared policy interests. Avoid sending long rambling emails, unfocused questions, or asking them to read a lengthy research project. Serve as a reliable resource and community partner, and over time, you can build trust and develop more frequent communication.
Bring Good Information
To build support for our issues, we need to provide both facts and personal stories that bolster our case. We need to make the case in a way that connects real challenges and real success stories with our desired policy change or decision. It is best to bring the facts and figures and provide them as background documents that support more personal stories.
For example, we might want to generate a list of all the bike and pedestrian projects built in a certain Congressional district with the federal Transportation Enhancements program. We can highlight the jobs created during construction and educate legislators about the health, environmental, and economic benefits proven through research. When we combine good information with a good storyteller, someone from the district who is knowledgeable, well spoken, or well respected, we have a better chance of connecting with lawmakers.
In order to be successful we must follow through on our commitments with legislators and be persistent in our approach. Too often we attend a single meeting or send a single letter and move on to the next issue. After you make a specific request, it’s important to continue to reinforce your message by sending a thank-you card, following up with an email to summarize the meeting and list action items discussed, and attending additional meetings and public events while carrying your message. Stay in touch with your legislator’s staff on a regular basis. Clear and consistent follow up will produce results.
This level of relationship building and effective advocacy requires an investment of time. Doing so will pay dividends in the long run through increased access with decision makers and a greater support for your particular policy goals.