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EdAdvocacy 201: 13 tips for luck with the legislature

In EdAdvocacy 101, EdNC shared with you the basics of the legislature and the legislative process. Here are my 13 tips for luck with the legislature.

1) Be specific as to what you want from a county commissioner or other local official, legislator, or an official in the executive branch. If it’s money, say exactly how much and what it’s for. If it’s a law or regulation, try to say or write in plain English how you think the law should read. When I worked as a legislative staffer in the Fiscal Research Division of the N.C. General Assembly, I had a legislator come to me with a letter from a constituent because he couldn’t figure out what bill the constituent was talking about or who the sponsor was. The legislator wanted to help, but the constituent hadn’t been specific.

2) Work at the committee level, and always talk to the committee chairperson. If you wait until a decision is made on the floor by the full House or Senate or by the head of the department, you’ve waited too long, you have less chance of affecting policy, and you’ve narrowed your options. And, the power of committee chairs is a very important lesson. I worked on a health care bill one time and worked hard to get a good sponsor. The day the bill was introduced, the bill was not referred to the Health Committee but to the Banking Committee. I immediately ran to the sponsor and asked him what the problem was. He said, “There’s no problem at all. I’m the Chairman of the Banking Committee, and we’re assured of getting a favorable report there and getting it to the floor.” He was right, the bill passed in five minutes.

3) Try to take the decision makers to see a problem. Visiting a foster home or talking to foster children will stick in legislators’ minds a lot longer than a piece of paper. One of the things I’m most proud of in my career is helping get legislation passed that gave children with disabilities a right to an education in North Carolina. I think it passed because we took legislators to visit programs serving children with different kinds of disabilities and to see that those children were capable of learning and being productive citizens.

4) The fourth key to success is write it down. Put your position and what you want in writing. The process of writing it down will refine your thinking and help the policymaker. But keep what you write for the policymaker brief – to one page if you can.

5) Fifth, do your homework on your facts, your opponents’ facts, and the people who have the power to make policy. Produce your fact sheet that supports your position, and check behind yourself. As 19th century humorist Artemis Ward put it, “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble. It’s the things we do know that just ain’t so.”

6) Sixth, use your numbers of people – your clients, your members, and your volunteers. Nothing impresses a policymaker like large numbers, and numbers may be your main strength. You may not have much money, but large numbers of people are resources. The most effective groups have as many of their members or clients or volunteers call as possible.

7) Seventh, form an alliance or coalition with other groups with the same concerns. There is strength in numbers, but greater strength in greater numbers. I think that coalitions tend to work better on single, short-term issues than on broad, long-term packages of issues.

8) Eighth, don’t ever threaten elected officials. It makes them do the opposite of what you want.

9) Ninth, go visit the decisionmakers in person. The “system” in North Carolina is remarkably open. Ask the legislators or policymakers point-blank but diplomatically – if they support your position. It is much harder for a policymaker to say “no” to a person than to a sheet of paper. Don’t be intimidated; they are people just like you. The lobbyists that I think are really effective will usually keep a tally sheet after visiting with legislators, and it’ll have five possibilities to record:

For your position

Leaning for

Undecided

Leaning against, and

Against.

Then, once the vote occurs they’ll check how the legislator actually voted so they can learn from their mistakes. As one of my favorite lobbyists told me once, “Experience is something I always think I have until I get more of it.”

10) Tenth, meet with your opposition and see if you can reach a compromise. Having both sides present a compromise or consensus position is a very powerful tool for getting something passed. In effect, it solves legislators’ problem of not wanting to make somebody unhappy. Even if you can’t reach a compromise, talking to the other side will at least prepare you for what their arguments will be.

11) Eleventh, look out for the words, “We need to study this a little more.” You’re about to get sent to the graveyard of a subcommittee or a study commission. This is an even worse option now that legislative sessions last so long and study commissions don’t even meet.

12) Twelfth, and this is really important, be prepared for the 3 questions public officials ask most frequently:

What will it cost?

Has it been tried in other states; especially in other Southern states?

and

How do you know it will work?

13) Thirteenth, for really good luck, when you get help or get what you want, thank the official. Praise them publicly. Give them an award. Let your members know who helped them, and ask them to thank the official also. Public officials usually only hear from people who are dissatisfied or unhappy. And, to keep them on your side, you have to let them know that their action is helping someone. Tell them what happened as a result of that bill being passed.

As a citizen advocate, four things will influence your success:

  1. Pick your messenger carefully;
  2. Be strategic in your timing;
  3. Think carefully about the packaging or framing of issue – language is really important; and
  4. What you decide to recommend.

Being thoughtful about these things will make it more likely that you will get your desired outcome.

Ran Coble

Ran Coble was the executive director of the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research from 1981-2014.