Meeting with any policymaker—be it a local, state, or federal legislator; county commissioner; mayor; local boards of health or state health administrators - can be a valuable opportunity for you to educate them about your local health department's (LHD) outstanding work, and to establish yourself and your LHD as valuable resources on public health issues. As with the media, building relationships with both elected and non-elected policymakers is a key component to effectively communicating the role of local public health, and one that's often undervalued or overlooked amidst competing demands on your time.
Individuals and agencies that take the time to foster friendly relationships with policymakers will see the investment come back to them in the form of support for expansion or defense of funding streams; assistance in facilitating alliances and partnerships to strengthen your work; and public support of your efforts including serving as sources for positive media coverage regarding your role in improving the lives of the people in your town, city, or state.
That said, if you've never focused on building relationships with policymakers, where do you begin? Building relationships with policymakers can be done much more easily than you may imagine. The key to initiating and cultivating these relationships lies in a few basic steps that are described below.
Have messages and examples ready to share.
One of the first things you will need is a brief, easy to understand message regarding the role of local public health agencies and their contribution to the well-being of our communities. Elected officials are constantly meeting with constituents (someone who lives in and/or has a direct impact on the lives of the people in the community they serve). This means two things: 1) as a constituent they have a real interest in hearing what you have to say; and 2) given the competing demands on their time, to make a lasting impression you must be prepared to get your message across in a brief and compelling way. Luckily, that step has been taken care of for you. The attached fact sheets provide well-developed core messages about local public health to share with policymakers during your outreach and education efforts.
One of, and often the most, important issue to elected officials is how your work directly impacts the people who put them in office—the people who live and work in the communities they represent. Provide examples and let them know, clearly and specifically, how their constituents are being helped by your LHD (the fact sheets offer examples).
Know your policymaker.
Invest some time prior to the meeting to discover if there is an intersection between their interests and your LHD's activities. If so, you might thank the member for his or her policy interests and mention how their concerns correlate with what you're doing. A good place to start is his/her own Web site. If the policymaker does not have a Web site (most local elected officials and non-elected policymakers, such as members of your state board of health often do not), talk to colleagues and fellow community members to get a feel for what he or she cares about. For example, what specific issues does the board of health chair care about most? This will help you develop messages and select a story that links their priorities to your work.
Determine what you want the outcome of your meeting to be.
Often times constituents meet with their local policymakers with a specific request in mind. If you do not have a specific "ask" for the policymaker, let them know that the purpose of your visit is to cultivate a relationship in hopes of future collaboration and support around an important public health issue or program and ask them to consider you as a resource when they need additional expertise or feedback on public health-related issues.
Describe who you are and why you are there.
Describe your LHD and its purpose concisely. Summarize the purpose of your visit early in the conversation and succinctly. Make sure to describe the population your program serves both demographically and geographically.
Tell a relevant story.
The most compelling and memorable way to educate a policymaker on the true value of your work is to tell a brief story about an individual or program that demonstrates the unique impact of your LHD. Keep the story simple, positive, and on point. Provide a few details about the individual or who the program serves (neighborhood, age, etc.). Whenever possible, tie the story to the policymaker's interests. If the state health commissioner cares deeply about decreasing the spread of AIDS in under-served communities, for example, share a vivid example of how you contributes to that effort. For instance, tell a story about African American women who were empowered through your work to defend themselves and their communities against the spread of the disease. If you don't personally know of a specific story, doing brief research on the policymaker's interests will allow you to ask colleagues who work more directly on the issue to provide you with specifics. The above-mentioned fact sheets can also assist in stimulating your thinking about compelling examples from your community.
Leave materials behind.
Bring a limited amount of material to leave behind for the policymaker to refer to later. The material should include a short (1 or 2 page) description of your LHD and any local news clips about your work. You should also leave a copy of a fact sheet that includes your agency's contact information. When meeting with policymakers and their staff, less is more. Whether they are local, state or federal decision makers, they are constantly barraged with information; the ability to look at less than to get a solid feel for your work will significantly improve the chances that they will actually read the materials. The key is to give them an effective taste so they know where to go when they need to delve deeper into the issues.
Be patient and follow up.
A good relationship with a policymaker can take a considerable investment of your time—but it can be well worth it. Remember to always send a thank you letter following your meetings and keep in touch. Keep the policymaker's staff updated on your LHD's activities and impact within the community and on your mailing list. Sometimes policymakers and their staff seem less responsive than you would like them to be. Do not take this as a lack of interest in you or your work, but rather understand that you may have to make more than one call and send more than one E-mail to move your issues up on their radar screen. Often this is a result of their hectic schedules rather than a personal snub. Be respectively persistent and you will find it well worth investing your time.