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Building Relationships With Your Policymakers

Developing The Relationship
Developing a good relationship with your local and federal policymakers and their staff is one of the most important and effective tools in advocating for workforce education and influencing the legislative process. As a workforce education professional, you need to develop an ongoing relationship with policymakers at all levels to ensure that you are involved in decision making from the start.

Our issues will be important to the legislator at both the state and federal level if, and only if, we paint that picture. To do this, we must understand the issues and be willing to convey the message and the impact to our representatives. There is nothing that beats a personal relationship - either State or Federal - with a Representative or Senator. The time to form the relationship is not when the issues are heated and ready for a vote, but the time to get to know the legislator and staff are when they are not busy. Therefore, the best time to form these relationships is during the late Fall when most legislative bodies are out of session.

All policymakers want and need to hear from the constituents who are impacted by their decisions; and public officials must consider a vast number of issues, understand the political level and the resources available.  These issues could be divided among many staff members that are responsible for following all activity and constituent support for each of their assigned issues. Thus, it is also important to never overlook the staff. In many cases, especially at the national level, the staff person can be the key to your views being heard and acted on. A staff member may be responsible for 20 or more broad issues and is seldom an expert in all of them. This is especially true with federal legislators. Staff members rely on a multitude of resources to keep them knowledgeable, including groups like NCWE and experts like you.

Finally, offer to serve as a resource to policymakers and their staff. You are in an excellent position to provide them with information about your programs and how these programs affect your community. Once you have developed a working relationship with the official and his or her staff, they will look to you more often and ask for your input as these issues come forward. By establishing yourself as a reliable source of information, you are improving your access to the policymaker.

Here are some general guidelines to help you develop a good relationship with your federal, state and local officials. Keep in mind that as your issues come before federal, state or local governments, it is much easier to ask a friend for something than it is to ask a stranger!

Know Your Policymaker
Learn as much as possible about your federal, state and local officials and where they stand on issues. How have they voted in the past? What is their political philosophy? Officials who support your position can help you develop your strategy; those who "don't know” need lots of your attention; and those who are opposed can sometimes be persuaded to change their minds. Never assume you know what your official thinks – find out. Usually, there is a copy of their biography and information about their positions on their Web sites.

Identify Yourself
It is critical that when you make contact with a legislator that they know you reside in their district. Identify yourself as a constituent by providing your address, location of your college, and if contacting federal legislators, your congressional district. Also, identify yourself as a workforce education professional and that your expertise lies in workforce education, job skills training, basic skills education, etc. In addition, identify yourself as a member of NCWE and any other professional organizations germane to your advocacy work. This will further enhance your credibility and effectiveness by linking you to a broader advocacy effort.

Enhancing the Relationship
Even if a policymaker does not agree to support you in a specific instance they may on a future issue. You want to build a long-term relationship so that your legislator and their staff turn to you as an expert in workforce education. And will probably need the official's support on other issues in the future. Thus, it is important to continue developing ties with your policymakers and their staff. In addition to contacting them about specific legislation or issues, consider:

  • Sharing news articles or research studies on the positive impact of legislation on your students and your community (your legislator's constituents) is an effective way to ensure that workforce education is a priority for your legislator.
  • When your college has a successful program as a result of policy or legislation that your legislator has supported, invite them to campus to witness the impact their support has had on your college and their constituents.
  • Remember to thank them for a positive vote on your issue or on actions taken that are important to the community. Again, public officials appreciate, but seldom receive, thank you letters for actions taken. Be among those who show appreciation for their support and you will be remembered!
  • Every year during the appropriations process, make sure that your legislator includes "workforce education and job training programs” in their priorities letter. NCWE will keep you abreast as to when this process occurs.
  • Congratulate them on honors received or elections won.

Whenever you meet with a public official it is important to follow-up and thank them for their time. Public officials appreciate, but seldom receive, thank you letters for actions taken. Be among those who show appreciation for their support and you will be remembered! Also ask if they need additional information. As important as your one-time visit is, you need to continue to follow the legislation throughout the legislative and implementation processes and as things change or new issues arise, be prepared to contact your policymakers several times. If you meet with a staffer, show them the same courtesy and thank them. Be sure to get their email address and send them a quick note and just like with your legislator, offer to serve as a resource and/or provide them with additional information.

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