Advocating effectively: why it's important to meet with public policy officials. (Board Primer).
Most elected officials aren't experts in your field, but they make important decisions on issues affecting your profession and business.
Developing relationships with your legislators will help them become more familiar with issues affecting your profession and make you better informed. It's also a great way to introduce yourself and it offers lawmakers opportunities to become better acquainted with constituents' concerns.
Preparing to meet with elected officials
Make an appointment. Legislative schedules are busy, so try to schedule a meeting two weeks in advance. Contact the member's appointment secretary or scheduler in the district office or in Washington, D.C.
Be brief and to the point. Explain the purpose of the meeting, the estimated amount of time you will need, and the names and affiliations of the other attendees, if applicable. If you're a constituent or your business is located in the member's district or state, be sure to mention this. Likewise, make it known if you already have a personal relationship with the legislator.
Be flexible. If you cannot get an appointment with the legislator, ask to meet with the staff person who handles the issue you wish to discuss. Congressional staff members are influential and often are the ones who brief their bosses on the issues and make recommendations on how they should vote.
Learn about the legislator. This includes knowing everything from background information on the lawmaker and committee assignments to where he or she stands politically on various issues.
Know the pros and cons of the issue. Learn the facts and how best to present them.
Prepare a simple one-page issue brief on the topic for the legislator or staff that clearly states your position and the reason(s) why the legislator should support it. You might also want to include some background information about yourself, your association, and your industry.
Designate a spokesperson to be in charge of the overall presentation if you are meeting as part of a group. If possible, the spokesperson should be a constituent.
Be punctual and patient. Plan to arrive at least 10 minutes prior to the meeting. Keep in mind that you may have to wait once you get to the office. Legislative schedules are hectic and subject to change. Situations and events arise with little notice and are often beyond the control of individual members and staff.
Keep your message simple and brief. A lawmaker's time is valuable so use it wisely. Generally, you'll have 15 minutes to make your case. Individuals who are prepared, express their request concisely, and make it easy for the legislator or staff member to understand their position will almost always be welcome back in the future. Present your best case in a positive, honest fashion. Whenever possible, demonstrate the connection between what you are requesting and the interests of the lawmaker's constituency. Emphasize how the issue or legislation impacts or benefits the member's state or district. The most effective logic often involves jobs, cost, and how many people will be affected by the proposal.
Avoid using technical jargon. If the issue is highly technical, be sure to present it in terms that are readily understandable to the legislator or staff member.
Be prepared to answer questions. If you don't know the answer to a question or don't have the accurate information, just say so. Offer to look into the matter and get back to the person after the meeting.
Ask the lawmaker for his or her position on the issue. If you're seeking a commitment, ask for it because if you don't ask for anything, then you won't get anything. At the same time, if the legislator is unwilling to commit to your issue, don't press him or her. Simply present the best arguments in favor of your position and ask for the member's consideration.
Thank the legislator for his or her time and offer to serve as a technical resource in the future.
After the meeting
Write a thank you letter to the lawmaker and/or staff person. Include any follow-up materials that were requested during the meeting.
Let your association know about your visit. Advise the association about how your meeting went, what topics of information you discussed, and whether the member of Congress supported your position.
Continue your relationship with the member of Congress and his or her staff. Write letters on issues that concern you, send relevant newspaper or magazine articles, and serve as an information and technical resource.
Remember, engaging your legislator in a policy discussion is not only your right but it is your civic responsibility. So get active and enjoy our democracy.
Brian T. Pallasch, CAE, is director of government relations, American Society of Civil Engineers, Washington, D.C.