Successful Lobbying Visits with Clients

Elected officials say it all the time. Reporters start and end every interview with it. And social work advocates sound like broken records repeating it over and over again. When it comes to public policy deliberation, what people really want are personal stories. You know, the pull-at-the-heartstrings, compelling, yet meticulously documented and concisely told story of how real people are impacted by the social problem, and how a certain policy approach would dramatically impact their lives for the better. As you begin an advocacy campaign, it makes sense to collect these stories from those with whom you work. Have a list of people who are willing to give interviews (more on preparing your clients to talk with media later) and maintain an archive of stories, categorized by policy area. Weave them into your publications, your legislative testimony, and nearly every conversation you have with your targets.

As you probably know, though, there is no substitute, for equipping your clients to tell these stories themselves. There are several challenges, though, associated with facilitating direct encounters between the people you serve and the people who (theoretically) serve them in elected office. I have been part of legislative visits with clients where people became so emotional that the meeting had to be interrupted, where people felt completely unheard, where there were arguments among clients in front of the legislator, and where those who were not included in the meeting became very upset. And I have been part of legislative meetings with clients where the elected official cried (in a good way), where politicians gave firm commitments on issues (when I had never been able to pin them down), and where the whole thing flowed so smoothly that I barely said a word. Even when it goes badly, it can be great; once, a state legislator slammed the door on one of our immigrant students, screaming, “get out of my office and go to college in your own country!” The student stayed calm, smiled, and said to the closed door, “Thank you, ma’am. But I am in my country.” And thank goodness, there was a reporter there to witness the whole thing.

So, what can you learn from what has gone wrong, and how can you make these visits empowering for your clients, enlightening for elected officials, and energizing for your advocacy campaigns? Some thoughts (of course, you knew this was coming!):

  • There needs to be a transparent process that determines who will be present at a particular meeting, especially if the idea is that this is a sort of ‘delegation’ meeting representing a larger community. You can’t, obviously, include everyone–in most cases you won’t want more than ~4 people at the most–but you also don’t want to arbitrarily decide who to include, because someone will question your roster.
  • Deal with all logistical issues early. Yes, I have been in a car accident, with clients, on the way to a meeting with a U.S. Senator. Himself. (at least I didn’t have the accident with him, right?) Plan to arrive at least 30 minutes early. Make sure you know if photo ID is required to get in the building, or if you have to leave your cell phone in the car. Have all of your materials ready. Make sure that everyone has transportation (or come together–just drive safely!). Have cell phone numbers for everyone who has one. Call the office the morning of your appointment to confirm. Make sure you know how much time you’ll have for the meeting. Have an interpreter if you need one. Make sure that there will be enough chairs for everyone you’re bringing. Etc, etc, etc…
  • You need an agenda. Of course, if you don’t know how the elected official (or his/her representative–prepare your folks for the likelihood that you might not actually meet with the legislator) will respond, you can’t predict exactly how the meeting will unfold, but you need to roleplay possible scenarios, and each person needs a specific role, carving up the overall message that your group wants to convey. This, of course, can help you in choosing the team, too, since you need people whose stories/skills/experiences complement each other.
  • Think through what could possibly go wrong, and prepare for how you’ll handle it–you might even need a sort of ‘code word’, if someone feels that he/she really needs rescuing, or really needs to exit; especially if people are telling their own stories, practice helps them to be able to get through them, but it’s still a very emotional exercise.
  • Have a timekeeper/facilitator. Someone (maybe you) needs to have little to do besides keep everyone else on time, diplomatically change the subject, transition to a new speaker, or just cut someone off, and close the meeting. This is a really tough task, actually, and should be given to someone with great communication skills and some authority in the group. And make sure that everyone understands this person’s role before you get started.
  • Know who is empowered to speak for whom, and on what. At some point in the meeting, you may be offered a compromise of sorts, or asked what your bottom line is. You need to know how you’ll respond to this so that you don’t have one person offering something that others find unacceptable.
  • This also requires clarity on your role as the advocate. The elected official may prefer to speak directly to you, because, for all that they claim to want to hear from ‘the people’, it’s still uncomfortable for some to be confronted with real hardship. Your role needs to be clear, in advance, to the policymaker, and also to the team coming with you.
  • Process the meeting afterwards with your folks. On more than one occasion, I have left a meeting feeling pretty disheartened–we got the runaround again, or I felt that a certain person didn’t get much chance to talk, or whatever. And then I’ve found the rest of my group feels very differently, often much more positively, about the encounter (at times, leaving me to wonder if it was the same meeting). Sometimes, this requires some gentle consciousness-raising, so that people aren’t placated by policymakers’ empty rhetoric, but oftentimes, it’s the case that they have a more realistic and healthy view of the process, and that they can see the benefits of the process more than we can, as advocates focused on the finish line.

    Okay, then, in closing, a story that really broke all of the above ‘rules’ and was still pretty phenomenal. Early on in my advocacy work, Sister Therese Bangert of the Kansas Catholic Conference asked me to facilitate a meeting with Senator Roberts’ office and some advocates and clients around the issue of reauthorization of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). By all accounts, this should have been a nightmare–we all arrived separately, had never met each other, had only a printed agenda in front of us, and had no time to prepare. Instead, it was fairly awesome. Sister Therese had given us all clear roles to play, and we had our facts ready. The TANF recipient who was there gave a brief and very eloquent introduction about just how hard it is to make it in the labor market without advanced education (one of our specific policy requests was to restore higher education as an allowable work activity in the reauthorization). A woman who worked in a childcare that primarily served low-income families talked about a few specific cases as well as some of the facts related to wages for families leaving TANF, the need for increased childcare subsidies, and the impact on child well-being. And I mainly asked our questions about Senator Roberts’ position and the timeline for reauthorization. Reauthorization ended up being put off entirely for that year, but I still feel really good about that meeting. We were a pretty impressive group, far stronger as a collection than we were individually, and, while we didn’t have a relationship base going into the meeting, we formed fairly lasting relationships during those 20 minutes of teamwork.

    If you have set up legislative visits with your clients, what have these experiences been like? What would you do differently? What other help do you, or they, need? What have the outcomes been?

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