May 21, 2014

Elected Officials are Human, Too

Posted by kcompton

By John Bwarie, Founder, Stratiscope

Having served as staff for over a decade for three L.A. City Councilmen, as well as L.A. Mayor James Hahn, I’ve been on the receiving end of countless requests for support, meetings, and action from concerned citizens and interest groups. In 2010, my world was turned upside down when I started working with USGS scientists to inform policymakers on how science can be used as they make policy decisions. Since I’ve been on both sides of the conversation, a few key strategies have emerged as critical to understanding how to talk to policymakers.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, but policymakers are just like you and me: they have a history that has shaped who they are, and their decisions are often based on what they’ve experienced and who they spend time with. Whether a freshman congressman or a four-term mayor, elected officials make decisions as human beings who have had a unique set of experiences and relationships. Knowing this is half the battle in talking about what you think is important.

Here are seven often overlooked tips that can help in preparing to talk about science or uncertainty to policymakers at the local level. (They could also apply to state and federal officials, but there are nuances at those levels that would require additional posts!)

What follows is not about what to say or even how to say it, but these are often overlooked strategies to getting your point across to this very discreet yet important audience.

1. Know Your Audience

Before contacting an elected official and/or their office, make sure to do your homework. You should know before approaching them:
a. How long have they been in this office? Are they elected or appointed?
b. What’s their next job/position/election? How long will it be before they get there?
c. What’s their experience/opinion of the topic you want to talk about?
d. What are the issues they think are important, and what is their position on these topics?

Knowing who you are talking to, where they are coming from, and where they are going is key to making a meaningful connection. Elected officials are people, too.

2. Talk to the Staff

Don’t think that the policy maker makes all the decisions. Their key advisers are their staff. Building a personal connection with staff can create a lasting relationship that brings your issue to the top of their list. Make sure to connect to what matters to them first; from what are they under pressure or siege? How can you solve their problems? Show them the “win” for them and how you can make it happen. Then, they will be in a position to support your work when asked.

3. Provide More Than You Ask for

You should always go in offering information, resources, assistance to meet their needs and goals. Provide tangible value to them that they can use to advance their own position through your expertise. Once you prove valuable to them, they will likely be more receptive to your request.

4. Think Local

Connect your issue to their jurisdiction, city, and/or district. All politics are local – it’s true. So make sure to relate a global, national, or even regional issue to the special area of the local official. And, if possible, relate it to other local issues they’re grappling with or that matter to them (see #1).

5. Be Patient; Be Bold

Sometimes, it can take months or years to see the results of a request. Be patient, consistent, and unrelenting in providing value to the elected officials office so that your name (and your request) doesn’t get lost in their mountains of work. Patient doesn’t mean weak, though. Know when to be the one to speak or when to send in someone less expert but more effective (perhaps they have an existing relationship, have had previous success, or are more comfortable in this realm). Being bold means knowing that the path to success may not be the one you started on when you set out.

6. Influence the Influencers

Don’t just go to the elected officials. Reach out and educate those who have influence over your targeted policymaker, which could include staff, colleagues, friends, or relatives. Other key influencers that may be less personal include local community & business leaders, local organizations, and local activists. Building a coalition of support (grassroots or otherwise) is a strategic way to get your issues heard and hopefully addressed.

7. Know What You Want

Make sure, above all, that you know what you’re asking for. Make sure that the person your asking has the ability and wherewithal to do it, or modify your ask to something they can do (from signing a letter to funding a project, support can be shown in many ways). Have a plan of what you actually need today, and what you could return to ask for in the future (if that option exists). Be clear, direct, and specific so the response can be the same.

John Bwarie is the Founder of Stratiscope and will be speaking at the AGU Science Policy Conference in June about communicating risk and natural disaster preparedness.