Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Advocacy Tips: The Key to a Productive Relationship is Reliability

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been experiencing some déjà vu lately. A potential government shut down, inability to compromise on Continuing Resolutions, poorly-timed congressional recesses-- I get this weird feeling, almost as if this has all happened before..

But seriously, Congress is at it again. Fiscal Year 2012 begins on October 1st (just three whole days from now), and after weeks of negotiations, rejections, and lots of bickering over disaster aid funding, Congress is finally coming close to a solution: a Continuing Resolution to fund the government through October 4th (just six whole days from now). Now they’ll be able to squeeze in a few more days of that good ol’ bipartisan rancor!

These back and forth, down-to-the-last-minute shenanigans (yes, I just said shenanigans) have become the catalyst for a national conversation about how reliable government actually is (not that people weren’t wondering that already). However, while there are understandably a ton of frustrated citizens out there, we can’t ignore the fact that on occasion Congress does pull through and get things done. How do legislators pull this off with so much on their plate? It all comes back to that same idea of reliability. Lawmakers rely heavily on their staff and colleagues for information and guidance on every single issue, and without this support it would be almost impossible for them to make educated decisions (go ahead and insert your own joke here, I know you want to).

Everyone needs a little help when it comes to getting things done, so if legislators are relying on their staff, who is the staff relying on? That would be you, advocates. Each staffer may have less issue areas they need to be knowledgeable about compared to the Member, but they are also expected to be complete and total experts. That means knowing all sides of the issue, having the most up-to-date facts, and most importantly, understanding how their issue areas affect the district they work for. This is where you become an invaluable source of information for them, because you can offer them two things they couldn’t get otherwise: your specific expertise and your local story. Staffers truly want to know all sides of their issue, and that includes your side, the side they might not have seen in their day-to-day research. Combine that with your first-hand experience of how that issue affects your district, and suddenly you have become a resource that staffer can rely on. Once you have built this trust, you can bet that when your Member requires information about that issue for some upcoming piece of legislation, that designated staffer is going to utilize anything relevant you provided them with.

Here are the three steps to becoming a trustworthy and effective resource for your Member of Congress:

1)      Identify your target. Whether you’re sending a letter, requesting a teleconference or setting up an in-person meeting, it’s important to make sure you are meeting with the right staffer. It is almost pointless to meet with a staff member that does not handle your specific issue. If I handle transportation and you’re coming in to talk about health care, everything you say to me is most likely going in one ear and out the other. I have enough to worry about. And those materials you left for me? Probably going in the trash.
2)      Provide quality information. Think about strategy when deciding what information you should and shouldn’t provide to a staffer. You don’t want to just give them general facts they already know, but you also don’t want to provide them with a novel including every last little detail you have at your disposal. Decide what is most germane to what you would like accomplished legislatively, and then draw from the facts and experience that is directly relevant to that.
3)      Keep the lines of communication open. If you want to build a relationship of trust and reliability with a staffer, don’t just speak with them once and consider your job done. Following up with new information shows them that you are always there as a resource. You shouldn’t constantly bombard them, just use your best judgment and reach out when necessary. 

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