Oh, ho, ho – It’s (Not) Magic: a few principles to observe when lobbying our legislative leaders

It’s January, a new Congress has convened in Washington ahead of a new Trump Administration, and a new legislature is in place in Massachusetts. There is a swirl of activities – meetings with legislators, strategy sessions with allies, and the sharing of gossip and ideas across the spectrum – before the true crush of legislative work and budgeting begins.

As we prepare to advocate for new resources and policies with the advent of a new legislature and a new legislative session, there are certain norms to adhere to as we work through the process to build support for our favored initiatives. During these first, frenzied weeks, I spent a few hours working with a group of graduate students from Harvard’s Kennedy School on a public policy project. Essentially, I briefed the team of students on a MACDC policy issue – our desire to restore higher funding for the Small Business Technical Assistance (SBTA) program – and shared some background information about the program and the Massachusetts legislative process. Overnight, they developed an advocacy pitch and sought feedback before delivering the presentation the following day to a few retired legislators.

I joined the team as an observer, and, while both presentations went well they achieved mixed results. In one instance, they secured support for their “ask,” while the other representative was noncommittal about her support. In the subsequent debrief, the students learned important lessons about advocacy, community engagement and the legislative process. As an observer, I gained renewed insight to the process as well. There is nothing magical about lobbying our legislative leaders, and I believe there are a few basic principles to follow that may help to demystify the process:

* Be direct with your appeal and always be honest in your approach – avoid exaggerating ideas or a misstatement of actions as facts intended to resolve the issue in your favor;

* Most legislators are moved by local concerns, so it helps if you can “frame” the problem or challenge in those terms, and show support from that representative’s community;

* Be courteous and respectful throughout the process - not fawning, yet not too familiar; don’t assume you will have the same level of support because you have gained it in the past. And be wary of unintentionally showing disrespect and jeopardizing a long-term relationship with legislator(s) by making an untenable request.

* Be mindful of any good advice or suggestions that may be offered along the way as means to advance your initiative and always be open to continue the dialogue.

Our political process often seems confusing – shrouded in ceremonial rituals, daunting language and obscure procedures. Sometimes this is true, but just as often there are straightforward ways and means to convey your policy interests (in formal meetings like Lobby Day, or informally outside of the local market, or neighborhood community center) and share your story to a kind ear, to receive a favorable result. “Never believe, it’s not so.”