Legislative Advocacy: What It Takes to Make Change

January 21, 2021

AMSA recently hosted a virtual Town Hall where we learned from insiders about how to influence policymaking at every step of the legislative process.  Read the summary and watch the video below! 

Combine passion, planning, and persistence

Effective advocacy combines passion, planning and persistence. That was the main takeaway offered by Justin Hatmaker, chief operating officer at Rise, during a recent AMSA webinar. Rise, a national nonprofit that advocates for sexual assault survivors, has been successful with its model, which supports local volunteers who work with their state legislators to pass a Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights.
“Each time we pass a bill, I’m reminded that passion and dedication are really the most important resources that we have as advocates for these rights,” he said. “We know we’ll get the bills done. It’s really just a matter of time, and it really just takes the right people to do it, both from our side as staff and volunteers and the legislatures.”

Understand the process in your state and find sponsors

Although dedication is most important, planning plays a critical role. Every state legislature has its own way of doing things. “Fundamentally, the way a bill becomes a law is the same in state legislatures, but every state has different definitions, different terminology. They have different processes, different calendars, different written rules, different unwritten rules,” said Hatmaker. “Everything is really different and unique to each state, so we have to be prepared to make tweaks and adjustments to our approach in every state that we’re working in.”
Planning also matters when it comes to finding sponsors. Legislators have limited time and competing priorities, so prep work helps Rise volunteers connect with people in the legislature who will help shepherd the bill into law. “When we meet with potential sponsors in a state, we want to know everything about them. We want to know what they care about. We want to know other bills that they’ve sponsored,” said Hatmaker.
The method has paid off. Twenty-five states have already passed a Survivors’ Bill of Rights, thanks to Rise and its volunteers, most of whom have no experience with advocacy before they get involved.
“That preparation and attention to detail and really constantly reviewing and researching every state’s rules, players, calendars, and all the things that are unique to each state – that’s what’s given us a chance in so many states,” said Hatmaker.

Passing legislation takes time

He also emphasized that passing legislation takes time, even when the issue is nonpartisan and noncontroversial. “Understanding or supporting a cause doesn’t always necessarily translate into interest in the work it takes to sponsor a bill and usher a bill through that process,” said Hatmaker. “So even if you can find people to listen, you’ve got to convince them to do the work, and that can be tricky as an outsider.”
Under the best-case conditions, the bill will pass in a single legislative cycle, but in some states the volunteers work on bills for years before they’re passed. “These are volunteers that work in states with legislatures that only meet for a couple of months every other year.  These are volunteers that are repeatedly told ‘no’ and ignored by committee chairs that won’t even read their emails,” said Hatmaker. “But they bounce back and persevere because of their dedication.”

Tips from a Senate Insider

The legislative process can seem opaque and intimidating at first, but it’s less difficult than you think to make a difference. Legislators welcome ideas from advocates and stakeholders, said Brian Kaplun, health legislative correspondent for Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). For example, a constituent brought to their attention a loophole used by health insurers to deny essential medical procedures.
That said, legislators and their staffers meet with hundreds of advocates every legislative cycle, all of whom are competing for time and resources. Kaplun offered some broad suggestions for making your meetings stand out and giving your issue the best chance to become a priority.

Bring the passion and study up

First, he said, the best meetings are the ones where it’s clear that the advocates care about an issue, are passionate about it, have done their homework, have a good pitch prepared, and have a powerful personal story that connects to the issue.
Second, they understand who they’re talking to when they meet. Oftentimes, the first point of contact is a staff member, who has reasonable grasp of the issues and wants to be as helpful as possible. Some advocates assume the staff member is unfamiliar with the issue or doesn’t care about it, which leads to unproductive meetings. Kaplun’s advice is to go to the meeting “assuming positive intent and making it as easy as possible for us to dive into the issues, go into my substantive questions on your perspective without spending the whole time talking about the very high-level background ….”

Be sure to follow up

Third, the best meetings are followed by further communication. “I might have a really good meeting with a group, but then there’s no follow up or the follow up is just a quick thank you email,” he said. “I would say building long-term relationships, really connecting with me after the fact, and really doing some follow-up is always good. I think there’s definitely a limit that’s a little annoying but I would say in general it’s very helpful to follow up, to ask me questions about how I view what we talked about, whether I had a chance to present it to the senator.”

Resources for AMSA Members

AMSA offers resources to members interested in becoming advocates, including:

  • The AMSA Legislative Advocacy Worksheet, which helps you gather basic information about your representatives and set up a meeting with a staff member or elected official. For physicians-in-training who haven’t interacted much with elected officials or who are starting with zero advocacy experience, this worksheet will help get you started.
  • The State Health Indicator Worksheet, a one-pager for each state, listing facts and data, such as the state’s overall health ranking, residents’ life expectancy, infant mortality rates, and so on. Advocates can use this sheet to organized conversations with elected officials and support calls for evidence-based policies.

For more resources, visit AMSA’s Activism Toolbox.

Watch the recorded video for the speakers’ entire unedited conversation.