The U.S. Congress is on “spring recess” this week through Monday, April 24, and this gives citizens and local governments a great opportunity to engage with their representatives in the House and Senate on issues related to sustainability.
"Advocacy is really just about building relationships and educating people about your cause," said Anne Jackson, director of sustainability at the American Public Works Association. "It's trying to influence the legislative process or legislation itself by educating a lawmaker or policymaker, and letting them know what works in a practical world and what doesn't. If they don't hear that message, then they don't know," she said last week at an APWA chapter conference in Des Moines, Iowa.
Jackson stressed that advocating for a cause is a constitutional right and the responsibility of every citizen, even though "how you go about exercising that right is open to interpretation."
She said those concerned about the rules of engagement or possible conflicts of interest at work can still find constructive ways to advocate on their own time or by working with a trade organization like APWA.
"That's what we're here for," she said. "You can come together as a group, find common ground and advocate as a chapter, which doesn't call out you as individuals speaking on behalf of your department. Instead, you're speaking on behalf of (your chapter)."
Most trade organizations have a "government affairs" or "legislative" committee or staff that can assist members with reaching out to the right policymakers at the right time on the most pressing issues facing their profession.
Jackson said she's often asked who to contact when trying to engage with federal representatives.
"In a congressional office (within your district), you really want to get to know the chief of staff, the district director..., and the constituent services director," Jackson said. "Email, call or stop by the office, drop off a business card and introduce yourself, and then follow up," she said.
Key positions at a delegate's Washington D.C. office include the legislative director and the scheduler. "That's where you start if you want to set up a meeting," Jackson said, "and their emails and phone numbers are all public information," which you'll find at House.gov or Senate.gov.
Sometimes meeting with congressional staff is just as effective as meeting with the delegates themselves, Jackson said. Legislative assistants are issue-area experts, so getting to know them is important if you want to discuss a particular issue like transportation or the environment. If they get to know you well enough, they will sometimes contact you for advice on certain bills that come up.
Jackson recommended that individuals or local chapters of organizations pick a few of their most important topics on which to focus, preferably those with specific legislation pending. "Don't try to take on everything at once," she said.
And, she added, there's no reason to go it alone if you can reach out to other chapters of your organization and/or like-minded groups and colleagues.
"There are a lot of resources and a lot of people dealing with the same issues that you are, where you can get advice and information about successes they have had in advocacy," she said. And, don't forget to use the media. Invite reporters to your chapter events, send them press releases with your perspective on issues you care about, or just invite them for coffee and get to know them, she suggested.
"The next time something exciting is happening that's positive, invite them to show up. And then when something that's not so positive comes along, you already have that relationship and they're more likely to hear you out," Jackson said.
She said advocacy groups should research and develop fact sheets in advance to help them be prepared when they have opportunities to engage with elected officials.
For example, APWA regional chapters might gather information on how many roads and bridges are in their regions; how many citizens they are providing with clean drinking water; how many gallons of stormwater they manage in a typical storm, and what that means to the community, etc.
"Pull together those types of facts so you can share them with the media and with members of Congress and their staffs," Jackson said.
She also advised groups to create a chapter contact list, to facilitate the distribution of information or alerts when members are called upon to act. And, she encouraged chapters to reach out to their local communities through social media, newsletters and events.
Congressional recesses are great opportunities to set up meetings with representatives and senators who are back in their home districts. Jackson suggested that groups assign small committees of five or six people to each congressional delegate, and have them try to set up a meeting. Email the scheduler and follow up with a phone call. Even if you can't get a meeting this time, at least you're on their radar and they know you're engaged.
"If you really want to push something, don't ever send just one email and think that's it," Jackson said. "All these different activities are about building a relationship. If you don't hear anything back, call them again, because they need to hear from you. Their livelihood depends on hearing from you," she said.
"You've got to be politely persistent. Repeat, repeat, repeat."
If you still can't get a meeting, work with your organization's public affairs representative to intervene on your behalf, Jackson said. They can often help.
However, Jackson added, don't wait until critically important legislation is being considered before you initiate contact.
"If they've never heard from you before, the chances of you having an impact on that legislation are lessened, for sure," she said. "But every day is an opportunity to get to know them and tell them what you do, and then when legislation is introduced and it looks like it's going somewhere... that's when all that work will pay off."