Cracking The Capitol Hill Nut
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
Washington D.C. often gets a reputation for being opaque, with lots of rules and unspoken customs for how things are done. It’s true that D.C. has its own culture, and Capitol Hill especially can feel like its own world. My experience is that there are many dedicated staff on Capitol Hill who want to understand the best science available and how it can help them develop the best policies—but they have limited time and a number of diverse issues on their plate. Reaching out and making your science available in an accessible way is essential to making your voice and your science heard.
Staffers are the eyes and ears of policymakers; they gather and summarize information relevant to decisions their boss engages with. If you find yourself in Washington D.C. for a conference or meeting, consider setting up some side meetings with staffers on Capitol Hill. They want to hear about the science and it’s best coming from you because you are the most knowledgeable about your work! COMPASS spends a lot of time thinking about how to facilitate interactions on Capitol Hill, so I’ve compiled some thoughts about how to make your meetings with staff productive.
Understand the Context • Reach out—a boundary organization like COMPASS can help you figure out who to meet with and give you some background information—for example what committees a policymaker serves on, or the status of a particular bill or topic. • If you’re at an academic institution, contact your government relations department, they can often provide helpful insights and maybe help you set up a meeting. • Once your meeting is scheduled, do your own background research on the member. You can use Congress.gov to find out what bills the member has been involved with, and checking the press releases on a member’s website gives you good insight into what’s on their mind.
Prepare for the Meeting(s) • Spend some time thinking about what you have to say about your science and how it relates to the concerns of the policymaker. Do a Message Box. • Staffers deal with hundreds of diverse bills every week and probably don’t have a background in science. Their portfolios can easily range from security to health care to environmental issues, so it’s important to hone your messages and present them in accessible language. • Practice talking about your main message and points with someone who doesn’t work in science. Scientists we work with often say that practicing out loud is the most useful way to prepare. • If possible, put together a printed handout with your most basic points, key visuals, and your contact information. • Remember, you don’t necessarily have to have a position on a bill or policy—in fact, at COMPASS, we don’t take positions on legislation—just making credible scientific information available in the policy making process is valuable as long as the information is relevant, timely and concise.
Day of the Meetings • Hill meetings can be unpredictable and are occasionally interrupted, so be flexible! Sometimes we advise scientists to “plan on a 5 minute meeting, hope for 30 minutes and dream of 60 minutes.” That’s why it’s important to lead with your main points. • Wear a suit. Capitol Hill culture is quite formal and conservative and it can be distracting to your message if you’re not dressed appropriately. • Bring business cards. The first thing that happens when you sit down is an exchange of business cards. • Make sure you’re having a conversation, not lecturing—if you find you’ve been talking for a few minutes, pause to gauge reaction and see if they have any questions. The meeting will be much more productive this way. • Be open and friendly. You might have all the background information about what committees the member serves on, or how they voted on a bill, etc., but you never know what might pique a staffer’s personal interest! Be open to a bit of small talk.
Follow-up • Follow up with any information that may have been requested by the staffer, and to say thank you. This ensures you’ll be easy to find if they want to reach out to you. Successful interaction at the science-policy boundary is a process. It requires “push and pull”—scientists and policy makers need to be able to have a conversation. That’s where good things happen—if you can be relatable, open, relevant and prepared with your message, you’ll be on your way to having your science become a resource for policymakers. For those of you who have been through these meetings before, what else would you recommend as preparation? What surprised you about Capitol Hill, and what do you still want to know? This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org, April 2017.
Image info: Photo by COMPASS staff.