Inspired by the old adage to “vote early and often,” it is frequency in communication along with timing that work best in advocacy with legislators. When it comes to advocating for critical transit projects and policies, you can never underestimate the amount of education and information that is necessary. In this era of instant news, term limits and tweets, attention as well as memory can be short. Over the life of a large project, many different legislators may be elected to represent a jurisdiction whether at the local, state or federal level. Thus, regular and ongoing communication of transit’s message is important.
On a practical level, it is important to pay attention to the legislative process which is driven by the legislative calendar. Is there a hearing or pending action that needs advocacy or engagement? Are there allies or stakeholders that can be engaged to deliver the message or request so it’s many voices?
Beyond these considerations, however, one of the best times to communicate your message and transit’s overall agenda is outside of the formal legislative framework. Oftentimes, meeting with an elected official at a community meeting or in their district office will be more effective than stalking the halls. There is less competition for attention and, sometimes, a relatively more relaxed environment for communicating.
Another key time point is when announcing a major milestone or achievement. Transit has so many good stories to tell. Whether it’s the opening of a new line or making sure that the system you have is as good as new by reinvesting in state of good repair projects, it is important to remind legislators of the economic benefit of transit investment. Invite them to join you in celebrating your success and let them know how they helped you get there!
With these points in mind, here is a quick refresher on how to work the legislative process:
- Get to know your legislators and their staff. Establishing a relationship will pay off when the time comes to deliver your message. Know what issues are most important to them and what their concerns are.
- Do your homework. Know thoroughly what your problem is and how you propose to resolve it. Be the best resource on the subject or issue.
- Build a coalition. Find out early who supports your issue and meet with others who share your common goal in an effort to establish a unified position.
- Know the opposition. Understand why others may object and work to mitigate issues as much as possible. Opponents may at least be persuaded to take a neutral position.
- Be prepared to negotiate. In some cases it is better to compromise than end up with nothing.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. You can call, email, write or meet in person; be concise and accurate. Don’t leave anyone wondering where you stand on an issue that you care about.
During these tough economic times, when funds aren’t flowing quite so readily as they may have in the past, it is critical to stay positive in our legislative efforts and remember that the legislative process is the path to many things — good policies, news ideas and a better future.
Vice President Public Sector Motor Coach Industries Inc.
Now that the 112th Congress has been seated, one of the most often asked questions is, “When is the best time to get transit’s message to legislators?” The simple answer is now. Not soon, now.
As we all know, the midterm elections brought with them sweeping change to the legislative branch. For example, of the six congressional delegates that I regularly called upon prior to November, only two remain; and one of those recently announced his impending retirement! Add to that the fact that those who survived their elections or those senators standing for election in 2012 are making significant adjustments to their legislative and messaging priorities.
Many of the newcomers to Congress did not come up through the traditional path to federal elected office. Not only is this role new to them, the whole process is new. Education and orientation should be fundamental to your message. When conveying the public transportation message, it is important to note that the environment inside the beltway, now, more than ever, is more political than technical. Your message must make a correlation to votes. It is worth noting that more than half of Congress was not even around when SAFTEA-LU was passed. If you have a facility that you can take your member through, by all means, extend an invitation.