Testimony with Impact

I know that social workers loathe militaristic analogies, but I really think that there are some parallels between legislative hearings and traditional military battles. Both are rather formulaic, with literal or figurative lines drawn in the sand. Both feature opposing sides vying for supremacy. Both have these opposing sides aim for the same, finite resource. And, while one can succeed at either with a combination of luck and brute force, it is advance planning and smart strategy that can pull off a seemingly effortless victory.

I have spent a lot of time in legislative hearings–mainly in Kansas, but also in Missouri and in Washington, DC (where I also spent a lot of time waiting in line to get into hearings, since I can’t afford the placeholders who save a space in line for the high-spending corporate lobbyists!). I have testified at dozens and dozens of hearings, and I have listened to hours and hours of others’ testimonies. I have seen really phenomenal testimony–one of the best is Sister Therese Bangert, a lobbyist for the Kansas Catholic Conference, whose testimony is also short and always respected–and some really ineffective testimony. And while any good nonprofit lobbyist will tell you that you are doomed to fail if you only focus on hearings (because the bulk of your work has to be relationship-building, while testimony is primarily about imparting information and putting on a show), you can’t ignore these avenues either. The social work advocate who learns how to use legislative hearings as an opportunity to develop client leadership, make an impressive statement for the media, present a cohesive coalition message, refute your opponents’ best arguments, and create an aura of invincibility that will make it harder for officials to oppose you will be more successful in the other facets of advocacy as well.

This post includes several pieces of material that I think might be helpful to organizations and advocates preparing for legislative testimony. While I was certainly not uniformly victorious in legislative hearings, I have a good reputation for preparing and presenting solid testimony, and I am particularly proud of how often we were able to present a surprisingly strong showing that both solidified our positions and undermined those of our opponents. But, first, some lessons learned:

  • You should never be surprised by who’s testifying–line up the people you want to testify on your side (and make sure that their testimonies won’t overlap–see below), and find out in advance who will testify in opposition (committee secretaries will often tell you this in advance, if you’re cultivating good relationships)
  • Use your time wisely. Find out how much time you’ll have, and practice to make sure that you can fit your key points into that time. Likewise, talk with your allies in advance to make sure that each of you will offer unique points; overlap just wastes minutes.
  • Don’t read your testimony. There will likely be many things that you want to put in your written testimony that you won’t emphasize in your oral remarks; it’s okay to have different comments for these different purposes.
  • Try to anticipate your opponents’ points, and diffuse them as much as possible. This doesn’t require mind-reading; look at what they’re saying in the media, ask lawmakers what points they’re making to them, and then figure out how you’ll counter them.
  • Highlight stories. Remember that you’re speaking to the media, often, at least as much as to the committee, and both audiences will be impressed by a combination of facts, value-based arguments, and personal accounts.
  • Remember that the who of testimony matters at least as much as the what. Think about who you want to carry your message forward–clients, certain leaders, a Board member with relationships on the committee–and then prepare those people to give the testimony that needs to be given.
  • If you have allies among the committee members, think of questions that you want to be sure you and/or your opponents are asked, and see if they would be willing to ask them. Elected officials want to appear informed, and we can help them do that while ensuring that all of our points are made.
  • Lobby before and after the hearing–in advance, ask key members what points they really need to hear in order to support your position (and try to include them in your testimony); afterwards, follow up to see what questions they still have.

    If you have testified in a legislative hearing, how was that experience? What would you do differently? If you’re planning an advocacy campaign for the next legislative session, how do you anticipate preparing for legislative testimony? What help do you need to get ready? What is the best and worst hearing you’ve ever been part of? The best and worst testimony you’ve ever heard? Do you have any examples of testimony that you’d like to share?

    Materials related to HB2615, an attempt in 2006 to repeal Kansas’ instate tuition law:
    Testimony List–everyone I planned to have testify, and what points they planned to cover
    Questions for the Committee–questions I had developed to share with some sympathetic committee members to aid them in asking questions of our opponents
    My remarks for the committee–more or less, an outline of what I intended to say (we were opposing this bill, so I went after my opponents, who were proponents)
    My Testimony–what I actually turned in to the committee

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