How to Influence Legislators

by Frank H. Mackaman and Stephanie Vance

February 27, 1985. A typical Wednesday in the life of then-Congressman Bob Michel. Arriving at his Capitol Hill office shortly after 7am, he began his day by meeting with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. For the next 16 hours, Michel moved from meeting to meeting in 30 and 60-minute blocs—a dozen sessions with, for example, the director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, the Republican Conference, a delegation from Illinois credit unions, an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and three receptions for various groups. The night ended with a dinner at the residence of the British ambassador.

Today, the congressional schedule is equally frenetic, even more so with frequent trips back home or during a re-election campaign. Put yourself in the place of a member of Congress, the state legislature or the city council. How do you decide who to listen to amidst all the voices clamoring for your attention?

Welcome to the first in a series of articles about policy or legislative advocacy. We believe that individuals can make their voices heard, and that elected officials welcome those voices. But it helps to know the right tone of voice.

Let’s begin with the obvious. A successful advocate understands what influences elected officials to listen and to act. If you know what they react to, then you’re off to a good start. Five sets of factors exert the most influence on public officials.

Personal Relationships. Elected officials are people, too. They seek advice from their friends and family. You listen to the people you trust—they do, too. Find someone they trust to support your message, and you have a leg up on the competition. Count an official’s staff in this group. Ignore them at your peril.

The Message. Contrary to popular wisdom, what you say to elected officials is actually important. And how you say it. To be most effective, your messages must be relevant, personal, thoughtful and specific.
The Media. Media coverage of events will often influence what elected officials talk about in hearings and introduce as legislation. We don’t mean what the Washington Post reports. Elected officials tend to pay attention to the media closest to the people they represent. Effective advocacy gets its message into these publications.

Personal Interests and Passions. All elected officials have policy issues they love—things they campaigned on, for example. Successful advocates figure out what those interests are and frame their issues in those terms. Here’s a far-fetched example to make the point: Woe to the advocate who would ask Senator Everett Dirksen, fabled champion of the marigold, to propose any other plant as the national floral emblem!

The Most Important Factor. What’s the one thing you must have in order to influence an elected official? The one thing that no advocacy campaign can do without? It’s a constituency connection. Every elected official represents a very specific geographical area in which lives an important group of people: his or her constituents. Whether a city council member, state legislator or member of the U.S. Congress, the highest and most important obligation is to the people he or she represents. That’s why the most common phrase heard in any elected official’s office is “How does this impact my constituents?” It is the framework through which all decisions are made.

Policymakers and their staffs receive hundreds of pieces of mail, hundreds of phone calls and dozens of visitors every day, the vast majority of which seek to influence policy. But the communications that matter most to them are those from constituents. Through the constituency connection, you demonstrate your relevance to your elected officials—and set the stage for a truly powerful advocacy experience.

Notice that we have not listed “money” or “polls” as factors that influence elected officials. Our experience, and much research, suggests that neither rivals the constituency connection in shaping a politician’s actions.

In future articles, we will explain the four principles for effective legislative advocacy, the six key questions you’ll want to answer before you ask a policymaker for something, and five key elements of effective messages, among other topics.

In the meantime, if you have subjects you would like us to address, please contact Frank Mackaman at The Dirksen Congressional Center: fmackaman@dirksencenter.org

Frank H. Mackaman directs the work of The Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, Illinois. Stephanie Vance, advocacy guru at Advocacy Associates, is the author of four books on advocacy, including the recently released Citizens in Action: A Guide to Influencing Government.

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