Building Relationships With Policymakers
All policymakers want and need to hear from the constituents who are impacted by their decisions. Public officials must consider a vast number of issues. Depending on the political level and resources available, these issues could be divided among many staff members that are responsible for following all activity and constituent support for each of their assigned issues. A staff member may be responsible for 20 or more broad issues and is seldom an expert in all of them. This is especially true with federal legislators. Staff members rely on a multitude of resources to keep them knowledgeable, including groups like ACTE and experts like you.
You must be proactive and offer to serve as a resource to policymakers and their staff. You are in an excellent position to provide them with information about your programs and how these programs affect your community. Once you have developed a working relationship with the official and his or her staff, they will look to you more often and ask for your input as these issues come forward. By establishing yourself as a reliable source of information, you are improving your access to the policymaker. Below are some general guidelines to help you develop a good relationship with your federal, state and local officials. Keep in mind that as your issues come before federal, state or local governments, it is much easier to ask a friend for something than it is to ask a stranger!
Successful teachers and administrators are typically good communicators of information. This is an important skill in dealing with students as well as influencing policymakers. There are many options available for communicating with policymakers: letters, faxes, telephone calls, personal visits and e-mail. Logic dictates that if you are trying to influence something that is going to happen immediately, faxed letters and phone calls are the best option. E-mail is an option as well, especially when communicating with staff members who you have worked with previously. If you need to provide detailed information and have a longer period of time in which to work, a personal visit is more likely to get the official’s attention. Whether you write, call or visit your policymakers, some basic guidelines are applicable to all methods of contact. They are:
- Know your officials.
Learn as much as possible about your federal, state and local officials and where they stand on issues. How have they voted in the past? What is their political philosophy? Officials who support your position can help you develop your strategy; those who “don’t know” need lots of your attention; and those who are opposed can sometimes be persuaded to change their minds. Never assume you know what your offiical thinks – find out. Usually, there is a copy of their biography and information about their positions on their Web sites. To find contact information for your Member of Congress, please visit ACTE’s Legislative Action Center. If you are trying to contact your state officials, please visit your State ACTE Association.
- Identify yourself.
Identify yourself as a constituent by providing your address, location of your school, and if contacting federal legislators, your congressional district. Identify yourself as a career and technical professional and give your area of expertise. In addition, identify yourself as a member of ACTE and your state or local group or organization. This will further enhance your credibility and effectiveness by linking you to a broader advocacy effort.
- Be prepared.
Know your issue. Know the legislation or program you support and the impact it will have on your school, organization or local community, and, if appropriate, on the nation. Know and use statistics and facts whenever possible. In this age of accountability, numbers matter! Keep abreast of issues through ACTE information resources and contact us if you have any questions. Contact your state association for state-level advocacy assistance.
- Be specific.
Be specific and state the action you want the policymaker to take, such as: vote in a certain manner, introduce legislation, or co-sponsor a bill or make a floor statement. If the policymaker expresses support for your position, hold him or her to that commitment. Whenever possible, refer to a specific piece of legislation by its number.
- Be concise.
Be concise in your written or verbal communications. Public officials and their staff have limited time to devote to any one issue. A one- or two-page fact sheet can summarize your points and is more likely to be read and filed for future reference than a 10-page document. In face-to-face meetings, highlight key issues and leave behind a fact sheet as a reminder of essential points you want the official to have on hand.
- Be constructive.
Be pleasant, polite and use a “soft-sell” approach even if a policymaker does not agree to support you in a specific instance. If there are problems with a particular program or bill, admit it and identify alternative solutions. Do not threaten or make negative comments. You are looking for a continuing relationship and will probably need the official’s support on other issues in the future. In the meantime, feel confident that you have shared your information in a positive manner.
- Follow up.
Follow legislation and other issues affecting CTE throughout the legislative and implementing processes and be prepared to contact your policymakers several times on one issue (ACTE can help you stay informed! Please visit our policy page). Keep the pressure on him or her through your continued contact.
- Continue the connection.
It is important to continue developing ties with your policymakers and their staff. In addition to contacting them about specific legislation or issues, also:
- Congratulate them on honors received or elections won, thank them for a positive vote on your issue or on actions taken that are important to the community, and share positive information about your program and your students.
- Public officials appreciate, but seldom receive, thank you letters for actions taken. Be among those who show appreciation for their support and you will be remembered!
- Sharing news articles or research studies on your program with your officials are ideal ways to publicize your program and highlight the impact it has made on the legislator’s constituents. This is an easy way to promote your program and continue developing rapport with the legislators. You are also giving them information they can use to justify their support of your program.
- Update ACTE.
Be sure to share information regarding contacts with your policymakers with the ACTE Public Policy staff. It is especially important for Association staff to hear about your federal legislators’ support or opposition to positions, willingness to co-sponsor legislation, or other issues. Contact us at: 1410 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, 800-826-9972, or e-mail us at email@example.com.