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Viewpoint: Influencing People Who Shape Public Policy

Making the media and the public aware of our public policy concerns can be important. Organizing a silent vigil or rally that gets media coverage can help raise public awareness of a cause. But if we want to have positive influence with the people who make the laws and shape policies, we need use truly effective methods of advocacy.

When I served in the Massachusetts legislature (1983–1993), there were frequent demonstrations in front of the state house. Rarely did I have the time to go out to see what they were for or against. Most demonstrators didn’t bother to enter the State House to visit the offices of their representatives or senators and drop off information about their concerns.

To advocate effectively for the preservation or modification of public policies, it makes sense to do things that enhance your chances of actually influencing the policymakers, without having to curry favor or make campaign contributions.

Advocacy is not a single action. It usually requires a series of actions and a willingness to commit to the effort for at least a few months, if not years. If you believe your cause is important and just, you might consider the methods I taught citizen advocates:

  1. Be prepared to present important facts orally and in writing. Cite sources and use bullet points.
  2. Always communicate respectfully with the policymaker. Call her/his office, and ask to speak with a staff person who works on related issues. Identify yourself; share your concern, and ask if the policymaker has a position on the issue. Provide your contact info, and request a response in a letter or email from the policymaker. The number of names on petitions is noted, but personal phone calls and letters are much more influential.
  3. Build a coalition of individuals and groups that share your concern and core values. Meet and come to agreement on a strategic advocacy plan.
  4. Make an appointment to meet your representative or senator in their district, where they have more time to listen without interruption.
  5. Develop and maintain respectful relations with staff. Without them, there is little chance of access to the policymaker or of positive responses to requests.
  6. Get to know the person you want to influence. What issues does he/she care about most? Relate your issue to their concerns, if possible.
  7. Before you meet with the policymaker, meet with those who will participate, and agree on the points you need to make, the questions to be asked, and who will be the primary and secondary spokespersons for your group. Before the meeting starts, know approximately how much time you can expect to have.
  8. Be prepared with clear, concise factual printed material and at least one powerful illustration of the need for the policy, such as a true story about a constituent.
  9. Avoid lecturing or making negative remarks about what you regard as the person’s past failings or mistakes. Focus on your hopes for the future. Ask how he/she might be helpful.
  10. Use your power of appreciation. Don’t end the meeting without recognizing and appreciating the policymaker’s service, citing some specifics. Express gratitude for the opportunity to meet and for their caring concern and willingness to help in any way, such as signing a letter to the president or sponsoring a bill.

This advice is shared in hope that it may enhance the reader’s chances of influencing public policymakers like state legislators and members of the U.S. Congress. May it also serve as a reminder that all our relations, particularly with those we see as adversaries, will benefit from our respect and empathetic listening.

Barbara Hildt is a member of Amesbury (Mass.) Meeting who was elected five times to serve from 1983–1993 as Massachusetts state representative for First Essex District.


Posted in: February 2018, Viewpoint

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