By Katie Scally, Mitty ‘09
Vice President University of Portland, Student Government
(Intern to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and City of San Jose City Council)
No matter what level of government, for public officials money is time and time is money. There are only so many hours in the week and legislators have a lot of demands to balance: time in the office returning phone calls, emails, and studying legislation, meetings with staff, stakeholders, and colleagues, and events in the neighborhood, district, and ribbon-cutting ceremonies galore. If you are able to secure a meeting that fits in the public official’s schedule you have scored an incredible opportunity and privilege.
There are many things to keep in mind when you’re meeting with a public official or his/her staff. Below are some points to review beforehand:
The first and biggest challenge is to secure a meeting with a legislator. Next the it is up to you to strategize a game plan for your meeting. No matter the issue, you want to make sure you are educated on all the facts of the topics as well as the legislator themselves.
Here are some questions to research to ensure you maximize the purpose of your meeting. Research the legislator’s website to find out:
Issues he/she is passionate about
It will be helpful to know what kinds of issues the legislator is interested in to get a sense of who the legislator is, what they care about and most importantly why. These may be clues
Issues he/she has a history with or is currently working on.
You may be able to relate the issue you’re working on to another issue the legislator has experience with or it may turn out that they’ve worked on this issue before.
Committees he/she has been assigned.
It may be the case that the legislator you are meeting with holds a Chairmanship or ranking position on a committee that includes the issue with which you are interested. The legislator may also be an expert in the area you are concerned or may know little about what you are discussing. This is important to know.
Information about the constituency he/she represents.
Before you lobby to a legislator to take on an issue or piece of legislation you have to know more about who the legislator represents and how your proposal may benefit to the legislator. This will also require you research the constituency of the legislator. Try browsing any newsletters or do a search in the press release archive for issues he/she has made a statement about.
Important Web Resources to utilize:
http://www.thomas.loc.gov (this is important if you’re keeping track of U.S. Congressional legislation in the bill-to-law process, looking for co-sponsors, and text of legislation)
Dress Code: Government offices and buildings are places of professionalism. As such, you want to make sure you adhere to that and play the role. Right or wrong, you will be judged on presentation. This includes not only all the good points you can bring to a meeting and your public speaking abilities, but also how you dress. No matter if you’re heading to the U.S. Capitol or City Hall, keep this in mind:
Staffers understand that you’re still a student, so nobody expects you to be in high heels and matching skirt and blazer or pantsuit, but they do expect you know how to “clean up.” This means keeping your hair neat and brushed and avoiding stiletto heels, low-cut tops and short skirts. An ideal outfit would be flats, a skirt that hits just above your knees or pants, and a top with a cardigan.
Same goes for guys, no one expects you to show up in a suit, but you too have to show an effort. This means keeping your hair neat and brushed and avoiding jeans and a t-shirt. An ideal outfit would be dress shoes, plants, a button down shirt and tie.
The way you present yourself and carry yourself with legislators and their staff is extremely important. If you are going to their office or office building, it is important you demonstrate a level of seriousness and respect that is not always required in the classroom. When you are interacting with a legislator these are some helpful tips that may go a long way:
Speak slowly and clearly.
Be patient and do not rush your thoughts. Stay cool, calm and collected so you come across as capable and confident.
B. Speak with confidence
Make sure you are not mumbling whatsoever and speak so that legislators across the room or table can hear you just as well as if they are sitting next to you. Remember that a lot of legislators are older so they may not have the best hearing to begin with. Speaking with strength also shows you have confidence.
Use a respectful tone. If you go into a meeting looking to beat a legislator or his/her staff on an issue or in a debate, you will lose. You cannot go into a meeting you have graciously been granted and be condescending in your questions in the way you speak or ask questions. Whether you agree with the legislator’s stance on an issue, you must always be respectful because they are a public servant, giving their time to be a voice for the people. You can still get your points across without being rude and a little respect goes a long way. At the very least, the legislator may be open to meeting with you again in the future if they feel they can have a civilized conversation with you.
Meeting with a legislator is not an experience every student or citizen gets the chance to have. This is an extremely unique opportunity and you should make the most of it. As long as you recognize you are no longer an average student or citizen and give the respect that the legislator and his/her office deserve, you will find your meeting to be productive and worthwhile. Ask your questions, be honest about the issues you care about, but maintain a level of civility, and your passion will come through. Who knows, you may even be invited back.