Public Advocacy 102: Testimony dos and don’ts

As is sometimes the case, a person offering testimony recently on an issue before the County Council bcc’d me a copy. I was thrilled that this particular person had taken time to participate in the process and had written extensive and thoughtful testimony. However, much to my dismay, when I got to the very bottom of the email testimony, I saw they had neglected (intentionally or unintentionally) to include their name and address. To make matters worse, their email address was something to the effect of “surferman@someemail.com.”

Needless to say, the impact of that particular piece of email testimony was likely greatly diminished because those two absolutely essential elements were missing. Anonymous testimony is worthless. You must include your name and at least the town where you live. Wacky email addresses are not helpful in establishing credibility either. While it may seem obvious to some people to include a name and address in testimony, a surprising amount of it comes in without this key information.

Public Advocacy – Rule #2 (see last week for rule #1): If you want to be taken seriously, you MUST INCLUDE YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME AND YOUR ADDRESS. surferdude@someemail.com does not do it. John in Koloa is not good enough either, and Beach Business Inc of Poipu also does not work. Leave out your actual street address if you like, but at the minimum include the town where you reside.

The epicenter of the hierarchy of political influence is the district that elects that particular politician to office. Testimony from people who live in the district of the elected official are, generally speaking, more important than those that come from outside the district.

If, for whatever reason, you do not live in the district of the politician you are trying to convince, submit your testimony anyway and then contact your friends and associates who do live in the district and request they get involved.

Every elected official loves their job and is keenly aware that, in order to keep it, they must retain the support and thus the votes of people who live in their district. If the testifier lives in the district, it is critically important to make that known. To be clear, I am not a fan of “I live in the district and I vote” type comments. Suffice to let it be known you live in the district. The voting part is assumed and need not be presented as a veiled threat.

Rule #3: State up-front in your testimony what issue you are testifying on and what your position is. This should not be a guessing game where the decision maker has to figure it out. The first sentence should state, “I am testifying in support/opposition of agenda item #12345 for the following reasons.” Use facts but personalize the story, explaining how this issue will affect your life, your family or your community. Be concise — a one-page statement with attachments if needed is normally more than adequate.

Rule #4: If possible, offer specific suggestions as to how the bill/resolution/topic being discussed might be improved or amended to make it better, especially if you are testifying in opposition. Often the officials who will be voting on any particular issue may or may not be experts on or even familiar with the core elements of the issue. In general, decision makers greatly appreciate specific recommendations that they could simply adopt, rather than being told to “just fix it.”

Rule #5: If you have specific “subject-matter expertise,” an affinity and strong interest in the matter, offer to help or to meet individually with those decision makers who show an interest in listening and supporting your perspective.

Final inside baseball note: Understand the importance of knowing how to count. A majority on any committee, council or legislative body is normally (but not always) required to take any action. Begin behind-the-scenes counting immediately, and focus on “where the votes are,” which decision-makers are supportive, and which ones could possibly be supportive if approached properly, and/or if certain amendments were made to the proposal.

If you remember these key strategy points, you’ll be a more formidable advocate for your issue.

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Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control during the administration of Gov. Neal Abercrombie. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is the volunteer executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.

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