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Some Tips on Working with Legislators

I'm heading out to Denver tomorrow for the big Education Commission of the States conference, including a raft of smart policymakers, scholars, and educational leaders. It got me thinking about the frustration I've so often heard from educational and civic leaders who are having trouble connecting with policymakers, and from legislators and legislative staff who get tired of being approached in inept or unproductive ways. More than once, I've had legislative staff tell me they feel like Tom Cruise pleading with Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire, when he beseeches, "Help me help you."

Anyway, it just so happens that my colleague Whitney Downs and I spent some time talking to public officials, legislative staff, and civic leaders about just this issue in the course of our recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce study "Partnership Is a Two-Way Street." Drawing on what we heard in Nashville, Austin, and Boston, we were able to offer some pretty concrete pointers for those seeking to work with legislators.

Reformers in the three cities, and veteran legislative staff, offered three particular tips:

Don't wait until budget season to meet with legislators or staff. Visit early, and often. Former Massachusetts Senate staffer Michele Shelton told us, "At the start of a new session, many people set up appointments to do meet and greets. This is a better approach than waiting for the budget to come out. Setting up quick fifteen minute meet and greets with new legislators, staffers, or chairs gets you on the radar screen in a way that's not asking anything." Shelton also stressed the importance of developing and maintaining relationships with legislative staff, noting, "Coming in and sitting down with a legislator or staff is more effective than hearings to communicate [the business community's] message. If you can develop relationships with a staff person, then that's the more effective way to advocate."

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. It's crucial to know what you're going in to talk about. Nothing wastes more time, or peeves busy staff more, than folks who meander, get caught up in distractions, or just take forever to get to the point. Von Byer, a veteran staff member for the Texas Senate Education Committee, put it this way: "Everything is a matter of priorities. You have limited amounts of time; you have to convince [legislative staff] that whatever your particular issue is, it's so important that they have to make it a priority." Barry Mayer, president of the semiconductor manufacturer TEL US Holdings and active in Austin reform efforts, said, "We knew it was going to be tough, but the Chamber told the school districts to come up with two or three top priority items," Mayer said. "We know we only have so many shots at the batter's box when we go to the legislator, but if we have two or three top issues it's manageable when we go to the senator's office."

Come in with solutions - not just wish lists. Legislative staffers say it's vital for business to show up with potential solutions when discussing concerns with policymakers. Michele Shelton said of her experience working to craft legislation in the Massachusetts Senate: "When you're working on big reform bills, you want to work with people that are reasonable," she said. "Don't come in with a list of demands. Come in with broad issues, and an idea of how we can work on these together. Organizations that come in with wish lists aren't too favorable. You need to come with solutions and flexibility." Byer has explained that a "solutions-oriented" approach helps business get legislators on board. "You have to have a solution to your problem," Byer said. "If you can convince a legislator that your issue is worth going after and how to solve the problem, it makes it easier."

Operating in this way won't necessarily help carry the day, but it'll get you a fair hearing...and earn you a warmer reception when you go back next time.

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