How to most effectively communicate with elected representatives?
June 10, 2014 10:29 AM   Subscribe

In the wake of recent events (left out as this isn't a partisan question, but yes, you all know what I'm referring to), I'd like to contact my elected representatives to urge them to enact and support specific changes to current US laws & policies. I've casually contacted representatives before, usually through canned twitter or emails through various petitions & other party-line websites, but I've never engaged more because I was never sure just how effective it would be - particularly when I am contacting an official who has the opposite viewpoint from mine. So my question is: what is the most effective way to use my time in contacting local and state officials to communicate my views on certain issues?

This question breaks down a bit further:
* what is the most effective method? Is there one, anymore, or is it a bit of a crapshoot who will respond to pressure on social media more than a private letter/email/phone call & vice versa?
* if a letter or email is best, how does one write such a letter? Is it worthwhile to spend the time writing a long letter conveying a deeply held view & knowledge of the subject, or will my letter just be tallied by a media coordinator who will just put me down as a tick in a box for or against, and so a short letter is a better use of my time?
* is it worth it to write to representatives who aren't my representatives? I.e. to write to people who hold particular sway, are on a particular committee, or who have a specific viewpoint that I find admirable/otherwise, even if I cannot vote for or against them?
* Anything else I haven't thought of? I'm passionate about certain issues but am not politically engaged (beyond always voting, of course), so I welcome any information I may not have thought to ask for on this subject.

posted by AthenaPolias to Law & Government (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Make an appointment to see them or one of their staffers in person. Your congresspeople will have offices in your state as well as those in DC, and your representative's office will be even closer. You can call their office at any time and ask about how to go about setting up a meeting.

Aside from that: a phone call, and then an email or paper letter to follow up.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:33 AM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

The most effective is in person. With your local councilperson or assemblyperson, go to a public council meeting and speak your piece during an open comment section or speak to them or their proxy in their office after making an appointment.

With Congressional representatives, they will often have town meetings, sometimes on narrow topics, but othertimes the forum is freer and more open to any type of issue the constituent cares about. Bring your concern up there.
posted by inturnaround at 10:35 AM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

There is a hierarchy of effectiveness. As noted above, in person is most effective. Next most effective is a hand written letter. Next is a typed and snail mailed letter. A phone call will probably go to a staffer and is best used when part of a coordinated call-in campaign. An email or whatever is ok but only when the representative receives a massive quantity of emails on the same topic.

If you really want to be effective, find groups that share your position on this issue and organize lobbying days, letter writing parties, town hall meetings, petition drives, etc.
posted by natteringnabob at 10:43 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes to in person meetings - just call the office, ask to speak to the scheduler and that person can set up a meeting with the elected official or his or her legislative director for you.

If you want to start in a less formal way, most elected officials have constituent service reps whose job is to speak to constituents about their concerns, so you can also give them a call. Participating in town halls/forums is also a great idea and a good way to find like-minded neighbors.

I'm actually not sure what topic you're referring to in your question, but if it's something relatively big/hot, there's an interest group/lobby group out there waiting for you to join. Those groups often hold trainings to prepare people to meet with elected officials about a specific issue or can help you with talking points/model letters and proposed legislation if you're not 100% sure where to start. Of course, that assumes you agree with the group's take on the issue. If you want to be involved in lobbying on the issue in a long-term way, getting involved in one of those groups is something to consider.
posted by snaw at 10:45 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

From my time working at a national nonprofit that lobbied for various policies in DC, one request I heard from local politicians was to share personal stories from their constituents about why they supported something. That way they could bring it up in a legislative session ("My constituent Mary is 65 and cares for her granddaughter, and sees every day the need for early childhood education") to justify why they were supporting it.

So when you meet with your legislator, come armed with anecdotes about why a specific issue is important to you *and affects you personally* rather than large philosophical beliefs. This may not help sway them if they disagree with you, but if they're inclined to support your beliefs, they may reference your story to justify their positions to the press and other legislators.

And also, yeah, groups are really great so I'd look around for local groups supporting the kind of work you want to do -- having a bunch of people together tends to exponentially grow your impact, although then you have to deal with all of the politics/quirks/processes of working with groups of activists.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 10:46 AM on June 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

1) Visit
2) Write, an actual letter
3) Call
4) Email, actually written by you
5) Petition / automated email
posted by DarlingBri at 11:08 AM on June 10, 2014

Go to their local office. Make an appointment to speak to the official.
Speak your peace. Then go back to the office a few times to follow up.
posted by Flood at 11:15 AM on June 10, 2014

Best answer: Hi! I do this for a living. I think you've probably actually got enough of a chorus on the effectiveness of in-person meetings, but just in case, here's my favorite report on the matter. The TL;DR: most effective is in-person meetings, then an individualized letter, then an individualized email, then an individualized phone call. Anything else is really peanuts by comparison.

Assuming, for whatever reason, you can't make an appointment in your district office (which really is the best method), your best plan of action is to send a letter, THEN follow it up with a scheduled phone call to speak to the person who handles that issue (ie, I sent you this letter, and I just wanted to be clear that it is very important to me). Most congressional staff are overworked, but generally they'll have a policy of making time to talk to constituents, even if it's just for a few minutes.

Your letter (and phone call, really) should be short and concise. Explain who you are and if you've got any particular role in the community that is relevant (for example, writing about education policy and you are a local teacher), say what the issue is, name the bill if there is one, including the bill number, and say what your position is. Provide an example of state/local impact if you have it, whether it's a personal story or data on the $umptydollars lost because of H.R. whatever. Be polite, even if you disagree. Your opinion will probably be logged in the database by interns, so it's important to be very clear about what the policy is and what you want, so that it is logged clearly. A lot of offices do a regular (weekly, twice weekly, whatever) report to the member on the constituent feedback they are receiving, and may pull out some example letters on the hottest issues for the member to read.

You will probably receive some kind of email or letter back. It may be vague - your member may not have a public position on the issue - but you should get SOMETHING.

(Also, I think it's totally fine to send an email. Mail takes forever to get to the Hill because it's irradiated, and the software they use these days allows staff to search emails for keywords, and find all the letters related to an issue. As long as it's not a form letter, it should have the same impact these days.)

Then, once you've made your written contact, and gotten on the phone with the legislative aide who handles the issue for a brief conversation, keep in touch if it's something you're really involved with. Maybe join the citizen groups active on the issue. Go to a town hall meeting and speak about it. If something new happens, get back in touch with that staff person and let them know. You should always be polite, not annoying, but squeaky wheels get the grease. You may not change someone's fundamental position, especially if it's a baked in partisan position, but it's never bad to have a positive relationship with your congressman/senator's office.

And no, it's not really worth it to pursue members who don't represent your state/district. You are basically never going to get a meeting as a nonconstituent*, if you call you will be transferred to your member's office, and if you send a letter to someone who doesn't represent you, it will (if you are lucky) get forwarded on to your delegation and not read by your intended recipient. The first piece of information you will be asked for is your address. If you're not a constituent, you don't count.

*The exception here is if you are meeting as part of an organized group - sometimes then you may meet with someone who is not your member, but that's a little different. And so, I heartily second the suggestion to get involved with advocacy groups on your issues! I make a living teaching the advocates in my organization how to be more effective. There are lots of people like me out there who are passionate about your issue and are ready to help.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 11:48 AM on June 10, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: That's an excellent answer from bowties.

The only thing that I wanted to mention is that sometimes it can be worthwhile to check with the legislative office about which modes are more effective. For example, Gov. Brown's office in Ca. cares a lot more about tweets than about emails, in part because Brown is sometimes manning his own twitter feed. Likewise, there are some legislators that I know who respond more quickly on Facebook or Twitter — again, the ones who run their own accounts tend to be best. It's shifted the way that we target some of our action alerts, and can be worth following up on (if you get involved with an advocacy group that has a legislative staffer, they should know this stuff).
posted by klangklangston at 12:27 PM on June 10, 2014

In addition to your US representative, don't neglect your state rep. They can be much easier to reach and you're more likely to talk to a legislative staffer rather than an intern. Plus they tend to know the US reps/senators for your district and their district staffers and might have suggestions about who to talk to there.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:43 PM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oooh, klangklangston has a great point - I know Cory Booker does his own Twitter and sometimes refers casework to his staff that way. Social media definitely depends on your specific reps. Newer electeds are much more likely to know and care what happens on social media, and Twitter in particular because of its visibility.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 1:38 PM on June 10, 2014

Really, honestly, not the palatable answer?

The best way is to help them get elected (raise $, volunteer regularly, organize your friends to volunteer, throw house parties), and then use that influence (you'll know members of their new staff, if not the elected him or herself) to get meetings and their ear.

Another great way is to develop close relationships with influential organizations and individuals (who are generally influential because they can help you get elected) and get access to representatives that way.

We are a representative, electoral democracy. Our primary means of influence is by electing people who share our opinions, issues, and values. Once they are elected, their charge is to use their judgement, expertise, and research of their staff to make good decisions and represent the values and opinions of the people who elected them. The election is the most direct and influential way to engage with electeds (not just voting, but working more deeply to elect people who will represent you well.). Once they are in office, you better believe they remember who helped them get there, and will help next time.
posted by amaire at 2:32 PM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't send paper letters. From what I have been told if you send it to their office in DC they won't get the letter for at least a couple of weeks.

In person is always best.
posted by Broken Ankle at 3:04 PM on June 10, 2014

I've been told by a couple ocean policy wonks that after the anthrax scare, none of our mail goes directly to federal politicians. It's goes to be scanned first which can delay delivery. Sometimes the letters don't survive the scanning process. They recommended faxing a hand written letter if it was urgent.
posted by cephalopodcast at 7:14 PM on June 10, 2014

Letter mail addressed to federal government types is usually delayed by about two weeks because it is all redirected to a Sterigenics irradiation facility in New Jersey. Sterigenics is primarily in the business of medical sterilization equipment on large scale, nuking mail is a side business.

You should still send mail for all of the previously mentioned reasons. Handwritten paper letters remain a primary form of constituent communication and are a handled relatively fast once through the security process. Many large government offices also utilize OCR systems to aid in quickly reading their mail. The White House surprisingly reads the 65 000 letters a week it gets with an astonishingly small number of folks. Like a dozen people. Here's a video. Individual congress folks are left to their own devices for handling mail - most just have staffers reading it.
posted by zenon at 10:16 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Former congressional staffer here, adding a +1 to everything bowties said above. I also wanted to add that another potential way to meet with your representative in person is if they do some sort of office hours / open house / coffee with your congressperson sort of thing while they're spending time in their home district where you can get a few minutes to chat (on first come, first serve basis) in a setting that's a less formal and the member may be a little less harried. August, when there's a long recess, is often when a lot of these are held, so you might have an opportunity soon - check your rep's website for upcoming events.
posted by naoko at 3:33 PM on June 11, 2014

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