Lobbying your local governments, whether it be at the town/city, state, or federal level, for digital freedom, and the adoption of Ubuntu, GNU/Linux, Free Software, and Free Formats, especially for schools, can be one of the single most effective and powerful things your LoCo team can do.
Petitions are an excellent first step for new groups. They are tools for public education. The preamble should set out clearly what the issue is and all the reasons for your concern. (Remember the “WHEREAS’s!) They also force you to know clearly what you want from the government. If you want to ban proprietary software on all government machines, say so. If you want free software for schools, say so. But don’t leave a petition hanging with just a general, “we are against proprietary software” statement.
Petitions can be circulated door to door, left with sympathetic local merchants, or you can set up a table in the local mall (although this usually has to be arranged fairly far ahead.) If you are trying to solicit support in a public venue like a mall, don’t be shy! Smile and ask people as they come by if they are interested in their digital freedom. If they avert their eyes and walk away, so be it. Leave them alone and KEEP SMILING! Set a goal. Know when you are done and make a big deal out of presenting the petition. Get a sympathetic politician to accept it from you and alert the media.
Politicians really do pay attention to their mail! Especially the volume of mail. As letters mount up on an issue, it will achieve greater importance. At the national level, one letter is considered to represent thousands of people’s opinions. The ratio declines as you move down the government hierarchy, but at the municipal level, fewer people write, so the letters still have clout.
Your letter does not have to be typed. Handwriting is fine. So is word processing. The key is that your letter is original and not recognizable as a pre-printed message. ALWAYS SIGN YOUR LETTERS. If sent by mail, include your address for their response.
Your letter does not have to be technical. You do not have to know everything about an issue to write and express your opinion. It does have to be clear. State explicitly what you want them to do. Include a specific question requesting her or his response. If the response misses the point or is inadequate, write again. Remember, at the federal level, a staff person in the bureaucracy writes the response. The actual politician may not even see your letter. Why persist? Because as the number of letters add up, the issue is given greater importance. Sometimes you are even able to educate the bureaucracy, or alert the politician to the fact that the staff has him or her signing inaccurate letters.
See: Sample letter
In addition to writing to government officials, you can also call them and let them know where you stand on the issues. Although it is unlikely that you will get to talk to the official directly, you will be able to communicate your displeasure (or pleasure) with their policy on a given issue. The staff person will take note of your concern and often convey it in some form to the official. If the official finds that her or his position is unpopular and untenable, your call may contribute to a change in policy.
Staffer: Congressman Anyguy's office, how may I help you?
Caller: Hi, my name is Joe Anybody from the representative's district. My mother actually helped get Anyguy his votes at the Golden Acres Retirement Home during his first election, and I've been a long time volunteer on his campaigns.
Please note: the staffer will often ask you for your address so that they can confirm that you are truly a constituent.
Staffer: Thanks for your support. How can I help you today?
Caller: Please tell the Congressman to support xyz. Trust me, despite what people on Capitol Hill might be saying, everybody here in Shady Dales is in support of it.
Staffer: I'll definitely pass on the message.
Caller: [Something in addition to push for support]
Staffer: Thanks for your concern and your call Ms. Randomwoman. I'll go mention this to my supervisor.
If you feel strongly, you can also set up a meeting with the elected official or their staff.
From your local city council to your highest officials, meeting with them is a lot easier than most people think. Remember, they work for you!
Whether you’re working to change a policy at City Hall or the federal cabinet, you’ll probably want to sit down and meet with a few of the people who’ll be making that decision. The approach is the same, regardless of how elevated the politician or bureaucrat is (and, yes, you do have to lobby bureaucrats). Be unfailingly polite, persistent, network, and leave no stone unturned.
Experienced fundraisers say you can reach anyone in the world with only two phone calls. Considering that a radio station in Montreal got through to the Queen of England, who can doubt this is true?! So remember, you may not know the Minister or Mayor now, but there is no reason you can’t get to know them. Don’t be intimidated. Once you have a thorough knowledge of your issue and have done your homework, there’s no reason you can’t go to meet key people and put forward your case in person.
Setting a Date
- Make your request in writing and follow up with a call to the Appointment Secretary/Scheduler.
- Suggest specific times and dates for your meeting.
- Let them know what issue and legislation (by bill number, if you have one) you wish to discuss.
- Make sure they know that you are a constituent.
It is an excellent idea to reduce your key points to a one-page document you can leave with the decision-maker. It’s always easier to write a long document than a short concise one, but the effort to boil down your case is well worth it. Busy people (and the more powerful they are, the busier they are) will never read more than a page.
Think through ahead of time what it is you want the decision-maker to do. If the person you’re seeing is in Cabinet, for example, but not the Minister who actually makes the decision, think through exactly what you want. What is the most strategic thing this person can do to advance your case? Is it to speak quietly to someone, to issue a public statement or to introduce you to someone else so you can explain the issue to them? Your one page note should end with a very specific request.
Plan out your meeting. People can get nervous in a meeting, and time is limited. Be sure that you lay out the meeting beforehand, including who will start the conversation. Agree on talking points. It's tough to make a strong case for your position when you are disagreeing in the meeting! If a point is causing tension in the group, leave it out.
You should also prepare for the personal side of the visit. If nothing else, you will have advanced your cause if the politician is left with a favourable impression - if you’ve started the process of building a relationship. So, do a little research about the person you’ll be meeting. When was she elected to government? Where did he go to university? Ideally, you’ll find you know someone in common, or that you’ve gone to the same school, or that she was in school with your dad.
Be especially sure to research any previous good deeds for digital freedom. The best way to start any meeting is to thank the politician for something they accomplished in the past. Even if it was a long time ago, they’ll feel great to know someone still remembers. And you’ll have them remembering that these issues are (or were) important to them. Don’t ignore the small talk. It may be the best part of your meeting.
If you are going as part of a group, think through how many of you should go. As a general rule, it is a poor idea to have more than three or four people go in to meet with politicians. It is increasingly intimidating for them, and unwieldy as the meeting size grows. Be strategic. If possible do not go to a meeting in a group larger than two or three. Bring people who represent different groups that have an interest in the legislation like school board members, or teachers, parents, geeks, etc. Be sure to tell the scheduling person you are dealing with the size of your delegation and the names of the people coming with you. Plan ahead who will cover which points.
Dressing for the meeting is unfortunately something that should be mentioned. Although there is no question that your value as an individual has nothing to do with how you look, you’ll be more likely to reach a decision-maker if you are dressed in a way to which they are accustomed.
Business suits go over better than jeans and sandals. If you haven’t had time to research this person’s background, you can still look for clues around their office. Diplomas, photos, plaques. Find some way to have a more personal chat at some point in the meeting. Most people love talking about themselves. It puts them at ease. A nervous and impatient person is not easy to influence. And, of course, you may find something that creates some common denominators in your lives.
Be prompt and patient. Elected officials run on very tight schedules. Be sure to show up on time for your appointment, and be patient -- it is not uncommon for legislators to be late or to have your meeting interrupted by other business. Keep it short and focused! You will have 20 minutes or less with a staff person, and as little as 10 minutes if you meet with your elected official. Make the most of that brief time by sticking to your topic.
Bring up any personal, professional or political connections to the elected official that you may have. Start the meeting by introducing yourselves and thanking the legislator for any votes he or she has made in support of your issues, and for taking the time to meet with you. Many people have a one dimensional image of us geeks. Somehow they don’t think we have real lives, children, jobs, other interests. Breaking down the stereotypes is a significant part of your task.
Once you’ve had a bit of small talk, move quickly into the main agenda. Be courteous. Show an awareness that this person is probably very busy. Ask at the outset how much time the person has until their next appointment, bearing in mind that meetings often start late and keep backing up. Do not take up more time than has been allotted.
Present your case clearly and calmly. Give the decision maker your one-page note so they can follow along. Provide any more detailed papers you would like to leave as well. If your issue has a visual element, bring photos. Be sure to ask if the person has any questions. If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t bluff! Make a note and promise to get the information. And, then, remember to get it and send it to the decision- maker quickly, the next day if possible. Remember to ask clearly for what you want. And thank them, first, verbally, and then after with a thank you letter which reminds them graciously of any follow-up they offered to do.
Right after the meeting, compare notes with everyone in your group to understand what the elected official committed to do and what follow up information you committed to send.
Each person who took part in the meeting should promptly send a personal thank you letter to the Congress member.
Follow up in a timely fashion with any requested materials and information.