Competition has never been fiercer for the time and attention of members of Congress and their staffs. Washington "insiders" like trade associations, unions, non-profit advocacy organizations and law firms compete with citizens all over the country to get their view points and perspectives before members of Congress and congressional staff. Many Americans think they have little chance to impact Washington, given the professional army of lobbyists and lawyers who swarm Capitol Hill on a daily basis. But they would be wrong.
A new research project recently released by the Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) at George Washington University called The Congressional Communications Report provides several important clues into how to ensure your advocacy message (whatever it maybe) gets heard or seen by your elected representatives:
- The overwhelming determinant for gaining access to members of Congress and their staff is to provide credible, reliable information. It ranked #1 by nearly half of congressional staff. The operative words here are "credible" and "reliable" and it means each of us making our case before Congress must own those two words.
- Providing credible and reliable information crossed party lines. Being an "expert" appeals to both congressional Democrats and Republicans. Though you might want to nuance your message to the member and staff of a particular party (often Democrats and Republicans hear words differently which leads to misunderstandings), being an expert commands the respect of all.
- Using the internet is a great tool for sharing and communication your research and perspective. In the study, half of congressional staff uses "internet searches" as valuable sources of information. And here is where citizens might have an advantage over Washington "insiders." Many of these DC based organizations make it difficult, if not impossible, for a congressional staffer to find the research they are looking for.
Over the past few months, I have visited non-profit association websites, many of which make it extremely difficult, almost impossible, for a Hill staffer to find, let alone, copy or print the association's legislative priorities. One association required seven steps to find out how many people in their association were affected by a certain legislative policy (no staff surfs a website and clicks "seven" times to get the answer). Another website required a membership ID and log-in password to get the information. Reboot! You can see why a staffer would just move on and, in fact, might be a little offended by the secrecy and think less of that association.
Here's my four rules, whether you are a Washington insider or a citizen advocate to get your information into the hands of congressional staff who surf the worldwide web looking for credible, reliable information:
- Invoke a "one click" rule -- If you have a website, ask a nontechnical person to go to it to search for your legislative issues or priorities (what you want to communicate to the Congress). Ask the person to count the number of "clicks" it takes to actually see them. If they report that it took one click you are on the right path, but if not, your information is inaccessible and no staffer will look for it.
- Create an additional website for just legislative/regulatory issues -- The cost of creating and maintaining a website for legislative issues or priorities is virtually zero. Think about Hill staff using a search engine and typing in the key words for your issue(s). Use your entrepreneurial mind to move your site up the non-paid rankings.
- Keep materials graphic-free so staffers don't lose precious seconds -- With greater usage of Smartphones, rethink the need to make your legislative issues "pretty." Presentation is important. But how many of us don't even have the time to wait the few seconds for information to download; Hill staffs have even less time. They want the facts and data. The Congressional Communications Report revealed that 85% of Hill staff use Blackberries (my Blackberry takes a rather long time to download graphics). Always cater to your audience by keeping information concise and in a readable format for a Blackberry.
- Don't forget direct contact information on every issue -- Hill staff may want to follow up. Be sure you strategically include the contact information, especially an email link. Don't expect Hill staff to search for the contacts among the content. They won't. And without it, you or your organization loses an opportunity to advance your agenda.
The bottom line: Make it incredibly easy for the Hill to know what you want. They will value you as an expert if you position yourself as one. That will dramatically increase your opportunity for legislative/regulatory success. And if you are still thinking, "I (or we) are re-designing our website so we won't get to this for awhile," you are missing a tremendous opportunity to influence the Congress.