A Guide to Policy Making
Policy Advocacy 101: Engaging with U.S. Government Policy Makers
Influencing public policy can be a daunting undertaking. With so many fora and decision makers, just figuring out where to start can be difficult. This document aims to help technical experts identify opportunities and engage in policy making.
Opportunities to engage and where to look:
Deciding when and on what issues to engage is one of the hardest parts of policy making. You want to maximize your impact, but your time and resources are limited. There are no hard answers here, but some things to consider include:
- Your comfort level with the subject matter – how confident are you in making policy suggestions for the subject matter?
- The extent to which your viewpoints are already represented – there is strength in numbers, but standing out from the crowd can also be valuable.
- The strength of your advocacy relative to other, similar voices – if others have already made similar points, how much will your contribution impact the overall effort?
- The time and effort spent on engagement – how burdensome is the process? How much time should you invest? What level of investment is likely to deliver the best result?
- The potential to impact the outcome of a policy making process – how likely is the policy maker to consider your points? How much influence is your contribution likely to have?
One of the most direct methods of participating in policy discussions is through the public comment phases of various agency proceedings. For example, when agencies request information, propose legislative solutions, or create new regulations, they often ask for public input as part of their obligations under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The Federal Register is the official channel for publishing these opportunities for comment, as well as for publishing the official notices of changes made to existing law. Most agencies use Regulations.gov as the online portal through which comments are accepted; it is also a good place to look for opportunities to comment. There are also many federal advisory committees, which sometimes offer opportunities for input or even participation in a committee. Newsletters and listservs, as well as tech and political press are also good sources of information for current events and ongoing procedures. Finally, legislative proposals can be found at Congress.gov, but engaging with legislators is more often done via letters, emails, calls, and meetings.
Comments- Form and Substance
So you’re about to write a comment? Here are a few guidelines to improve your chances of having a person read and remember your comment:
- Address the questions posed. If the prompt is too specific, it is okay to write comments addressing the topic more generally, but…
- Stay on topic. Comments that do not address the relevant topic or stray too far are more likely to be disregarded.
- Be thorough, but concise. Comments should cover enough ground to inform and persuade the audience, but not be so long that your points get lost.
- Introduce yourself. Open your comments with a brief description of yourself or the group for whom you are advocating, including any relevant training or experience with the issue, and a statement describing your interest in the issue.
- Do your homework. Review relevant source material, especially any listed in the comment prompt. Try to get a sense for any opposing viewpoints.
- Respectfully acknowledge opposing viewpoints. A measured, substantive counter-argument will at least expose a diversity of viewpoints, even if the agency ultimately adopts the opposing view.
- Follow formatting conventions. Some agencies have special rules, but in general your comment should be in 12 pt. Font, at least 1.5 spacing, 1” margins, with black characters on a white background and should include both an executive summary and a table of contents if your comment is more than 10 pages. Use headings, bullets, or other structural breaks if your comment is more than 2 pages. Include citations if you refer to other sources.
- Assuming knowledge. Even a brief explanation is better than none, especially for technical issues. Spell out acronyms the first time. Explain any jargon you introduce.
- Hyperbole and other forms of exaggeration. If the sky is actually falling, try to say so in a way that seems reasonable.
- Informal language. Comments need not be written in the King’s English, but too many colloquialisms, contractions, or ambiguous pronouns can tarnish the substance of your comment.
- Unfamiliar language. Don’t try to write outside of your experience and knowledge. Many words and phrases, especially legal terms, are “terms of art” and come pre-loaded with meanings you may not intend.
- Placing blame or discrediting the agency. Even if you disagree with the policy, proposal, course of action, or the agency’s treatment of the issue, pointing fingers and disrespecting the institution will not help persuade the agency.
Testimony – Substance and Preparation
So you’ve been invited to testify in a hearing, contribute to a panel, or participate in a discussion? Keep the following in mind to make the most of your oral advocacy.
- Tell a story. Decision makers are trying to fit your information into a broader narrative. Tell them how we got to this point, what the problem is and how your information will help solve it.
- Keep it high level. Most hearings are geared toward the bigger policy picture. You may be an expert, but your audience might not. Hearings are often more about sending clear and simple messages than delving into the nuance and details of an issue. Start by prioritizing your top points.
- Stick to your points. Practice answering the question you want to answer. Ad libbing and improvisation may not achieve your desired outcome.
- Know your audience. Look them up, research their positions. Appeal to their motives. Leverage your political clout as a constituent. Use specific examples, especially if they are geographically or politically relevant.
Other avenues, blogs, op eds, letters
So you want to write something for a more general audience? Here are a few guidelines for other forms of policy advocacy:
- Placement is important, but not more than publication. Getting your piece in the Times or the Post is fantastic, but getting published anywhere is better than not getting published.
- Focus on policy. You may need to explain how things work, technically, but your policy points should be central.
- Consider your audience. This depends on the venue, but for general audiences, try to keep your writing aimed at someone with the reading skills and knowledge of a middle schooler. Many readers begin to lose interest after a few paragraphs, so get to your main points early on.
- Support your assertions, appropriately. Footnotes and endnotes are probably overkill and may distract or discourage your readers. Online publications can be supported with embedded hyperlinks. For print publications, give your readers enough information to at least find the source you rely on for support.
- Consider the format limitations. Links and animations are less helpful in printed media. Certain color patterns don’t translate well into black and white. Be aware of how page breaks might affect the printing of an online publication.
Explaining technology to laypersons
So you need to explain something to a non-expert audience? Consider the following:
- Terminology can be confusing. Use only the technical terminology necessary to explain the issue, and be sure to explain what everything means. For those things that simply take too much time to explain, try to summarize and point the reader to more explanatory material. (See note about supporting citations, above.)
- Things are like other things. Comparisons by analogy, simile, and metaphor can leverage a reader’s existing knowledge to help understand your topic. Comparisons need not be perfect, but try to keep them simple and relatable. Complexity risks confusion.
- 1000 words. Visualizations can be extremely helpful for lay readers and can be a space-efficient way to convey information. Be wary of visualizations that are too information-dense or that convey information unrelated to your points.
- Eye Glazing. Many people quickly lose interest if they are not familiar with terms or concepts. This can be tough to avoid when translating technical aspects for non-experts, but minimizing the number of new terms and concepts necessary to explain something helps. Where possible, use a more commonly known term or concept as an analog.
- Tedium. As with new terms and concepts, general audiences may not have the time or interest in reading more than a page or two. Although there may be trade-offs between readability and thoroughness, policymakers are less likely to derive insights from nuanced technical explanations, especially in text, beyond a certain level of detail.
- Rhetoric. Certain words and phrases gain their own political weight over time, and using them can impute a political overtone even where none is intended. This can be tough to avoid unless you have longer-term engagement with an issue, but a review from an organization with more experience on the policy side of the issue can help identify weighted words or phrases.