Communicating with Policy Makers: Raising Issues at Public Meetings
Legislators will make a variety of public appearances in their home district or state, particularly during congressional recesses. Many of them hold public forums or "Town Hall" meetings where they speak to and accept questions from the public. Town meetings provide a good opportunity for you to have direct personal contact with your policy makers and their aides. Even better, by asking a question and requiring a response on the spot, you can sometimes get your policy maker's position on the record in public.
Scientists can be particularly effective during these meetings. Scientists hold a respected place in our society and are recognized experts on many complex issues. By raising your issue at a "Town Hall" meeting and noting your expertise to the legislator (and thereby to the audience at large), you can demonstrate for the audience the need to act on your issue and the steps that the legislator can take to address the issue.
- Call the local office to find out when and where the policy maker will be appearing. Confirm this information as close to the event as possible. Legislators' schedules change frequently. Some legislators list public meeting on their websites. Others have "newsletters" which list public appearances. In addition, some will list "Town Hall" meetings in the local papers.
- Prepare in advance. Spend a few minutes prior to the meeting identifying the exact question you want to ask and any information that you want to raise. You may also want to prepare a "second choice" question, in case someone else in the audience asks a similar question first. For all questions, remember to be brief.
- Ask your question clearly and concisely. Think through your comments in advance, and do not give a speech. If possible briefly note your expertise in five words or less. The point here is to inform the legislator and the audience that you are knowledgeable on the issue, not to go into detail.
- Make a specific request, requiring a specific answer. Ask the legislator to give his or her position on your issue (e.g. the need to reduce heat-trapping emissions) or to state whether or not he or she will take a particular action.
- If possible, introduce yourself to the staffer accompanying the legislator. This is the first step in establishing a personal connection.
- Follow-up. When appropriate, follow-up. If you asked a question, send a thank-you note with any additional information that might be helpful. If you were unable to ask a question, send a note telling your policy maker you were at the meeting and then state your question.