Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Usefule New Year Resolution: Get Acquainted with Your Legislators

If you are interested in accomplishing policy changes at the local or state level, a very good way to start is to get acquainted with the people who represent you in your local and state governments and with key staff members who do a lot of the legwork.

I mean, really get acquainted; don’t just meet them once and let it go at that.

Between legislative sessions, contact state legislators and ask for an appointment to talk about issues that interest you. Request a half-hour meeting, and stick to that limit, unless the Legislator wants to go longer. As part of the meeting, briefly explain Community Psychology and describe specific ways you might be helpful to the Legislator and her/his staff. Ask what issues are important to the Legislator and his/her position on those issues. It is OK to talk about points of agreement and disagreement, or just to hear why it is important to the Legislator. Highlight common interests. Offer to help research issues/solutions.

Ask for permission to maintain contact between and during legislative sessions; get email addresses and phone numbers. Follow-up with a thank you note.

Then follow up and provide any issue information you promised to provide. If you can’t find any relevant information, or if you don’t know the answer to the Legislator’s question, admit it and promise to keep searching. Never try to bluff, as you will lose all credibility.

If you are advocating for a specific issue or cause, be clear about that and make certain that all of your advocacy messages provide factual information and/or suggest possible solutions. Keep your messages brief and to the point. State your request and include a brief supporting comment; ask for a reply. The long “model messages” that many advocacy groups suggest you send out don’t really get read; they get counted but not read.

Legislators hear a lot of purely emotional appeals; be sure yours contain factual information and objective reasons why they might consider a particular solution. Legislators also receive a lot of angry communications, and are turned off. One of my favorite state senators reminded our Homeless Coalition that legislators are human beings and that The Golden Rule works best: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Legislators can handle civil disagreement, so keep it civil at all times.

Find opportunities to get further acquainted. Ask for meetings. Invite the Legislator to coffee. I always state whether I want to advocate, or just get better acquainted and help brainstorm possible solutions. Call or send emails with factual information. If you are teaching Community Psychology or are part of a community coalition, invite the Legislator to talk with your group about policy development and political process.

Most of the above also applies when getting acquainted with local government officials and key department heads. Get acquainted. Learn about issues that are of interest to the official and politically important. Give helpful information. Advocate in a straightforward solution-oriented manner. You might consider volunteering to serve on a local commission or advisory board. You might offer to post a yard sign or make a campaign contribution; often helpful, but not required.

The political process is fascinating, and a key part of policy change. Try it; you might like it! But more important: in the long run, you will be more effective as a policy advocate. Invest the time needed to become really acquainted with your elected officials.

Al Ratcliffe
Tacoma, WA


  1. This is a great suggestion and an important thing to focus on in 2012 especially. While there's so much media attention focused on the presidential race, we have so much more potential to create change on local and state levels. Thanks for the post!

  2. Al -
    Great advice. A public administration class I took last semester really opened me up to the idea of offering our/my "help" to public officials, especially local ones. In a conference of Mayors talk I had the privilege of listening to, one of the Mayors said he can't count how many people/agencies as for X, Y or Z each day. But he can count on one hand how many people come to him and say "I want to help."

    Do you have any specific advice for approaching elected officials in general/not about a specific issue? I almost think this could be harder than coming into the meeting with an agenda.

  3. Hi Sharon,

    What has worked for me most of the time is to call up and ask for an appointment to get acquainted because you are interested in finding out how you might help your community. Invariably, you will have to explain the difference between clinical psychology and community psychology.

    At one level, the key is to choose not to be shy. You know as much as the official, but you know different stuff. Working together adds value.


  4. Thanks for this advice Al. I've set up meetings before with legislators, but it was always through an organization. I guess I never really thought about doing it on my own. I have always had an interest in policy, and I guess doing this would give me more experiential knowledge about how things work.. I think it will also help me break away from my shyness when talking with officials about why attending to particular issues within the community is important for all of us.