Mystified by the U.S. Government?: you're not alone. International organizations often find it difficult to get the U.S. Congress or federal agencies to even listen to their priorities, much less act on them.
In truth, officials in the U.S. government will listen to what you have to say, but only if you deliver your message in a way that makes sense to them. Here are seven techniques you can use to get them to sit up and take notice!
Technique Number 1: Be Specific About the Constituency Connection
U.S. elected officials and their staff represent the interests of the constituents they represent. Period. Every member of the U.S. House represents about 750,000 people, while every member of the U.S. Senate represents everyone in the state. In order to make an impression, you MUST be able to demonstrate how your issues connect to their constituents "back home."
What does this mean? For International NGOs, it means that if you have a great policy idea or program, you should work to build support among U.S. citizens and get them to reach out to their elected officials. This might include partnering with U.S. groups already working on related issues, or creating grassroots networks in key communities. For businesses, it is essential to understand how policies might impact jobs, development or trade issues in U.S. congressional districts and states -- that's what U.S. elected officials want to know.
Technique Number 2: Be Specific About What You Want
"Educating" U.S. elected officials on international issues rarely succeeds. The best way to ensure that the office pays attention to your issue is to ask for something specific. Sometimes, that might be funding for a specific program or support for (or opposition to) a policy idea. In other situations, that might mean asking them to submit a statement to the Congressional Record (find it at www.congress.gov) or meet with concerned constituents in their district. Rather then sending reams of paper and statistics on the challenges or opportunities overseas, ask them to make a decision of any sort, and you'll have much more success.
Technique Number 3: Offer To Be a Resource
Elected officials and their staffs usually are not experts in the issue areas they cover and often turn to trusted outside experts for advice. This is especially true for international issues, where the politics are complicated and the consequences of an inappropriate action can be dramatic. If you are an expert in your field, let your congressional office know that you can answer any questions they may have.
Number 4: Tell a Compelling Story
Compelling stories make for powerful messages, perhaps even more so than "shock and awe" statistics. While you don't want to ignore the data, be sure to pay equal attention to the anecdotal stories that make your point. Your job is to MAKE IT REAL for the elected official or staff person. You can achieve that goal by telling a personal story.
Think about it: there's some reason why you've decided to be an advocate on your issues. You've seen the challenges first hand -- you've met the people affected -- you've seen the impacts of certain U.S. policies. You bring a sense of reality and urgency to your requests by demonstrating their concrete effect on real human beings who you interact with every day.
Number 5: Understand Your Audience
Committees rule in Washington, DC, especially when it comes to foreign policy decisions. In order to be successful, you must have an understanding of how the committee structure works. International organizations should, at a minimum, have contacts in the House and Senate Foreign Relations, Appropriations and Tax-related Committees (House Ways and Means and Senate Finance). Check the House and Senate websites at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov to gain an understanding of these structures. Then think about how you can gain a foothold in the districts of Committee members or, at a minimum Committee chairs and ranking members.
This approach can be particularly useful when dealing with U.S. federal agencies. Think for a minute about where federal agencies get their funding from – that's right, it comes from the U.S. Congress. Do you think agencies are more or less likely to pay attention to the concerns of those officials that approve their budget? If you guessed more, you'd be right. That's why it's essential to have connections on the Appropriations subcommittees related to your programs – those officials can get the attention of related federal agencies very quickly.
Number 6: Get Others Involved in the Asking
There's a reason why groups seek celebrity involvement in their issues – it works! Leonardo DiCaprio does not, to my knowledge, have a degree in environmental engineering. Yet he is seen frequently on Capitol Hill testifying on global warming. U.S. elected officials are star struck just like everyone else. For some reason they are more likely to hear a message when it comes from someone who exudes glamour.
Fortunately, the "others" that you ask to get involved don't always have to be celebrities. They might include business leaders, foreign dignitaries or the international media. Gaining an understanding of the interests and passions of the elected officials you are trying to influence can help you pinpoint the right people to approach. For example, if the chair of the Committee has introduced legislation on saving polar bears, you might want to see if you can get the planet's foremost expert on Polar Bear preservation involved in your cause – even if totally unrelated to your policy concern!
That's right. Sometimes you have to help an elected official on an issue they care about before they will help you on your issue. So be creative in your outreach. Over time, the response will surprise you.
Number 7: Don't Give Up!
You should not expect an immediate response to your comments or concerns. In many cases, the issue may be one about which the member has not yet formed an opinion. Do, however, ask when you should call back to see if the member has taken a position. Perhaps the most important thing to remember in dealing with U.S. elected officials is that persistence pays. In many cases, you may have to ask two, three, or even a dozen times before the elected official is able to respond to your request. So keep plugging away – and happy advocating!