Influencing elected officials boils down to common sense

Posted: Friday, June 27, 2003

The topic was influencing elected officials, and Midge Clouse's first question to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce audience was to the effect: How many of you think that means throwing money to politicians?

It was a facetious and rhetorical question, but with 22-plus years as a local government specialist with the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development, Clouse has plenty of experience working with elected officials at all levels of government. Using a little role playing and a lot of laughter, she roped the audience into discussing the best ways get what they wanted from those they put in office.

The answer should surprise no one: Treat elected officials the way you want to be treated.

In other words, cornering elected officials while they shop for groceries, giving them late-night phone calls, disturbing them on a peaceful Sunday afternoon or threatening them if they don't do what you demand certainly will influence them but most likely not in the way that will give you the results you're seeking.

And a big no-no: Don't vent to the spouse of an elected official. It's worse than bad manners.

Instead, if you want to influence elected officials at any level of government, it's wise to make an appointment to see them. It also is appropriate to ask an elected official if she or he is the one you need to talk to or if you need to be pointed in a different direction.

Among the many other common-sense tips provided by Clouse, chamber members and elected officials were:

Keep communication short and factual. Provide written information whenever possible, and don't forget to include your name, address and a telephone number so the official can call you back. E-mail may be convenient, but many elected officials find it's also a great way for them to be taken out of context. Provide another way for them to reach you.

Be informed about your issue and offer some solutions. Be prepared to answer tough questions. Deal in facts, not emotion.

Be specific about what action you want the elected official to take, but be open to other suggestions.

Understand elected officials can't please everyone and this may mean you. Your cause will get more attention the more people it affects. Elected officials need to look at the big picture, not just a small piece.

Show broad public support for your position and have supporters communicate personally. Large quantities of form letters are not effective.

While it's important to educate as many elected officials as possible, it's also helpful if you let them know which of their colleagues you've contacted or plan to contact. That may lead to a quicker, more coordinated response.

If you are representing a group position, invite elected officials to your meetings.

Consider your timing and the following questions: Is the elected official up for re-election? What else is on the agenda of the elected body? What else is going on that would impact the elected body? Is it an appropriate time and place to talk to the elected official?

Don't let your civic involvement stop at the voting booth. The more informed citizens are, the better able they are to influence elected officials. Yes, sometimes it seems elected officials talk a different language, but citizens who want to make a difference in their communities have some obligation to learn about government processes and procedures. Listen when elected officials explain the limitations they must work within, and follow the established processes.

Don't just communicate with elected officials when you want something or they've done something you don't like. Let them know when you think they are on the right track and how much you appreciate their work.

Don't underestimate the power of being polite and respectful. The hard sell doesn't work with you and it won't work with them.

The bottom line is elected officials are in office because they want to be. They want to do a good job for their constituents. Citizens can help them do a better job by doing more than voting and whining.

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