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Tips for Writing Opinion Pieces

How to Hold Policymakers Accountable

By Phoenix Zones Initiative

Date: October 28, 2020
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It may be intimidating to consider speaking with a policymaker but remember that elected and appointed officials are accountable to the public, including you and those you care about. Whether you’re speaking with a local official or a federal policymaker, several basic rules can help you communicate effectively.

  • Get to know the policymaker and their relevant staff. What do they care about, and what does their voting record suggest? Are they a member of a political party? Do they consider themselves to be progressive, liberal, moderate, or conservative? Do they serve on key committees or caucuses? Who among their staff is the lead on the issue you want to discuss? Try to find information about their staff via social media.
  • Focus on one issue at a time. With each communication—telephone, written, or a personal visit—stick to one issue. You can always reach out again about another issue.
  • Start with an email and a phone call. If possible, build a relationship with the policymaker before making an in-person visit. You can even organize people to write or call on the same topic. For example, a dozen or more letters advocating for the same action will get a legislator’s attention. When you call, ask to speak with the assistant responsible for the issue you want to discuss. Politely explain your concerns and ask for the public representative’s specific position on the issue. If you write an email or letter, write an original letter (form letters are more likely to be ignored), and make it look professional.
  • Ask for an in-person meeting. When you meet, be very respectful. Be early. Refer to the policymaker by their title—e.g. Senator X, Representative Y, or Council Member Z. Dress appropriately. Always thank them for making the time to meet with you.
  • Know your issue and bring supporting information. Leave them with a one-page information sheet with your key ”ask” and some context. Present your opinion and back it up with facts, including any relevant background information, statistics, and studies that support your point of view. If your information is in reference to a particular bill, always include the bill number. Know the opposing arguments and frequently asked questions and have answers ready to go. Be honest if you don’t know something and offer to find out the information, and send it to the policymaker.
  • Be personable, and use your own stories. Make the meeting about more than just facts and figures. Tell the people you’re meeting with how the issue affects you and those you care about. Show your passion for the issue and your enthusiasm for working on it.
  • Be clear about what actions you want the policymaker to take, and offer to help. Don’t use the visit as a chance to just complain. In addition to talking with the public representative about the problem, share what you see as their role in the solution. Their role can include many activities, including giving speeches, cosponsoring legislation, communicating with other parts of government and other legislators, voting yes or no on a bill, or writing letters to colleagues. If you can, put yourself forward as a resource to develop and help move forward on any of these activities.
  • Build a relationship. Keep in mind that policymakers will have lots of other people sending them emails and making calls, but one of your goals should be for the public representative and their staff to know you by your first name. If you can get them to call you with an ask or for resources, you have become an influential advocate.
  • Be timely when contacting policymakers about a topic. In addition to informing them about an issue, if you intend to ask them to take action, it’s important to know certain aspects of the legislative calendar. A policymaker and their staff are more likely to pay attention to certain issues if the time is right. Is it too late to introduce a new bill? Did the committee just pass the bill? Is the legislature about to adjourn? Is the bill still in committee? At the same time, it is better to reach someone early in the process than not at all or after they have made up their mind.
  • Always follow up after your meeting. Get back to them with the information you may have mentioned in the meeting, or on questions they had that you couldn’t answer. It reminds the policymaker how passionate you are about the issue. Ask for an update on where the issue stands.

Resources for More Information:

The Congress App can be useful. It has information on every member of Congress, including their contact information, their committee affiliations, and information about their district.

Govtrack.us

Votesmart.org

Senate.gov

House.gov

For information on pending and past legislation, refer to Congress.gov.

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