I wrote this as legislative chair for MEMO. Please suggest changes/additions. Feel free to adapt to your own state organization if you'd like.
The Shy Person’s Guide to Lobbying
Doug Johnson, MEMO Legislative Chair, 2007
If you believe the stereotypes, MEMO members are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to legislative lobbying. Both as Minnesotans and as librarians we have a reputation for shyness, modesty, and introversion. Despite our brilliant intellects, charming personalities, high moral standards, and devastating good looks, we far too seldom participate in the legislative process.
One of the easiest and most effective ways to influence legislators is through active lobbying. Lobbying is communicating with legislators and the executive branch to encourage them to take action on specific legislation or regulations. Each and every MEMO member should be actively advocating for the bills that will benefit those people who use their libraries and technology resources. Even those of us who are shy.
Here is a short primer on how even Shrinking Violets and Shrinking Vincents can gain the confidence needed to be effective lobbyists:
1. Recognize that lobbying is your job and find opportunities to speak to your legislators face-to-face.
Obtaining funding and directing policy by being an active part of the legislative process is an important professional duty. No MEMO member should simply assume that MEMO “leaders” or our hired lobbyist can effectively be his/her voice to our legislators. This is work is too important to be left to other people. I mean this.
MEMO and MLA annually host Library Legislative Day. This event is held at the Capitol in St. Paul and has proven to be an expedient means of speaking to many legislators in a short time frame. Check the MLA and MEMO websites for registration information. Being surrounded by other MEMO and MLA members is, well, comforting.
For those working stiffs who find it difficult to get a day off and travel to St. Paul, watch for regional legislative events. Our state multitype library organizations often host these get togethers. Be there, be counted, be heard.
2. Learn something about the legislative process – or at least who your representatives are.
There is a genuine wealth of information at <www.leg.state.mn.us>. At this site, you can find out who your House member and Senator are and their contact information – phone, e-mail, and mailing address. You can also track the status of bills that are important to MEMO members on this site.
Truth be told, most of us are mystified by the legislative process, even after being politically engaged for many years. A very good overview of our state legislature and how laws become enacted can be found at <www.leg.state.mn.us/youth/legislature.asp> OK, so it written for kids, but at least I understand it! And if you have a question, please let a member of the MEMO legislative committee know it.
3. Understand the MLA/MEMO platform and know the talking points.
Each year MEMO and MLA join write a joint legislative platform that includes planks of interest to all types of libraries. The document itself is usually only a page or two long and can be found on the MEMO website’s Legislative section <www.memoweb.org/htmlfiles/linkslegislature.html>.
The second set of documents that are important to read are the “talking points” that go with each platform plank. These short statements give reasons for and research behind the issues addressed by each plank. At this time, a working draft of the talking points for MEMO specific planks can be found at: <dougj.pbwiki.com/memo>. Check these regularly for updates.
Having a basic understanding of the platform and the reasons behind the planks in it is vital for effective lobbying efforts. While you do not need to be an expert, you do need to be familiar with the issues. If a legislator or staffer asks a question that you can’t answer, it’s just fine to say, “I don’t know that, but I will find out and get back to you.”
4. Be effective when visiting with your legislator.
One guide suggests that when talking to legislators to remember the ABC’s - Accuracy, Brevity, and Courtesy. Stick to the platform. Be clear about what you want the legislator to do. (Vote for HF 101, for example.) Always frame the request by demonstrating the benefit to those you serve, not the benefit to you. Listen as well as talk. Answer questions. Leave copies of the platform with your legislator. Oh, work with the legislators who represent your district.
5. Be a rational, pleasant human being.
If you are a school library media specialist or technology person, I can simply say, “Be yourself.” But just in case you are new to Minnesota or the profession, here are a few do’s and don’ts… Thank your legislator for past support when possible. Avoid party politics. As the Humane Society reminds us, “Animals have friends on both sides of the aisle.” Do tell personal anecdotes related to the issue for which you are lobbying. Don’t threaten retaliation, especially in the voting booth. It’s fine to disagree – but don’t be disagreeable. Make your case firmly.
Send a thank you after you visit. Your mom would be proud,
6. Write, call and e-mail – effectively.
Face to face conversations with your legislators are excellent ways to put your message across, but writing, calling and e-mailing on specific bills are also important. Here are a few “rules” for such correspondence:
• Be clear about what you want, listing the bill, and the action you want your legislator to take.
• Tell a story or give an example to make the issue relevant to your legislator and to his own part of the state.
• Ask for a direct response with his or her position on the issue or bill.
Personal letters are better than form letters or petitions. Use your official letterhead. Letters are usually more effective than e-mails. Calls on an issue can be helpful since legislators sometime simply count the number of calls pro and con on certain matters. Watch your e-mail for requests for calls for action from MEMO and MLA. Then do it!
7. Work on developing a relationship with your representatives.
The people I know who have the most success in influencing legislators are ones who have a long-standing relationships. Few things are achieved in a single legislative session. Cultivate a friendly, trust-worthy reputation that will serve you and your patrons well into the future. Become your representative’s reliable source of information on school library and technology issues.
So, eat your Powdermilk Biscuits or whatever it takes, but overcome your reticence and make your voice heard.
For more detailed information:
• Democracy Center <www.democracyctr.org>
• Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest <WWW.CLPI.ORG>
• Minnesota Library Association Advocacy Page <www.mnlibraryassociation.org/Legislative.htm)
• Minnesota Educational Media Organization Legislative Page <www.memoweb.org/htmlfiles/linkslegislature.html>