The Agony Of The Ask
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
By Chad English
The elections yesterday mark the end of the campaign ads and the beginning of this term’s policymaking cycle. Newly (re)elected policymakers (and their staff) are setting their agendas for the next year and beyond. Whether you are building new relationships, or strengthening old ones, now is an ideal time to present yourself as a resource who can help them navigate the science on the issues that matter to them. How do you prepare for such a meeting to ensure that it’s productive? Guides for setting up a meeting with legislators abound, and we’ve shared advice for finding your way to the right policymaker. But there’s less discussion of how to navigate a crucial piece of any meeting with a policymaker: the ask.
The ask is an inevitable part of any policy meeting, and an opportunity to establish your role in the conversation.
Policymakers are in the business of making decisions that affect people. Their job involves integrating a wide range of perspectives as they develop and weigh the value of different options. They expect (and want) to hear from people on all sides of an issue, so that they can make an informed decision. Because most of the people who come through their door have a stake in the outcome of their decisions, they expect every meeting to include a request for them to take a particular action—an ask. The ask can be “vote for this bill”, or “tweak this regulation”, or “help me (a constituent) navigate this bureaucracy.” It can also be as simple as “hear me out.” The ask is an organizing concept for policymakers’ meetings. Letting them know why you’re there and what you want from them demonstrates an understanding and respect for how their world works. If you don’t make your ask clear, you will find them growing restive at best, or impatient at worst. Most won’t hesitate to push you for your ask.
In meetings with congressional staff last month, Francis Chan of Oregon State University got a classic version of this when several minutes into a meeting a staffer asked, “So what can we do for you?” If you talk with policymakers long enough you will get this question or its close cousin, “What should we do?” These are questions that can be disconcerting as a scientist, especially if you see yourself as informing rather than advocating. That was Jim Barry’s experience when he began talking with a legislator. Barry, a benthic ecologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, said, “I just wanted to try to help them by providing them with some information,” but at some point he realized the legislator he was talking to was, “waiting for me to ask them for something. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Asks outside of advocacy… . You should be clear about your role before you begin talking to policymakers, or you risk missing opportunities or saying something you’ll later regret. Scientists around the world continue to grapple with whether and how “advocacy” is appropriate. (Tamsin Edward’s blog post last year is still a great window into this debate—follow the links to the Twitter conversations, too.) But having an ask doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take a strongly prescriptive stance. An ask is a way to establish what you’re there for. In fact a well crafted ask tells a policymaker what role you’re hoping to play in the conversation and how to use the information you’re presenting. If you’re there to advocate a particular policy, your ask is clear. But what if you are there for other reasons? Here are some insights from scientists who’ve navigated these waters before: If you want to ensure science is available to support the policymaking process… .
Scott Doney, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, notes that in some situations he is “simply trying to raise awareness of an issue, so there is no specific [policy] ask.” He addresses the expectation of an ask by “discussing the importance of maintaining or increasing the level of funding support for the relevant federal science agencies” so that the science needed for decision-making is being generated. “Or I ask that the decision maker save a place at the table for the best available scientific consensus while acknowledging that there are many factors in almost any decision.”
If you want to learn more about the policymaker and the policy landscape….
Sometimes you may not know enough about the policy landscape heading into the meeting, and your goal is to learn about where your science is most applicable. In this case, your ask is for guidance and insight to help you navigate the policy landscape. Joanie Kleypas, a coral ecologist at National Center for Atmospheric Research, has found it’s useful to turn the question of ‘What can we do for you?’ around. “I like to ask ‘What can I give you to help you understand this issue? How can I be a resource to you?’” This is a good entry into a deeper understanding of the policy you are best positioned to inform. There are a number of ways to dig into this question. What decisions do they have on their plate? Are there other people, or agencies you should talk to? Is there a relevant bill being drafted or considered? A rule that an agency is working on? A report or a task force on the horizon that you could connect with?
If you want to inform the policymaker about key science…. In many cases, you want the policymaker to understand scientific insights and information that will help her frame or make a decision. In this case, choosing your words will help you make a distinction between information and opinion.
Jim Barry sometimes makes his ask “a bit of your time to make sure you’re aware of some important points” related to the issue at hand. He notes that often scientists are the first to see connections that others haven’t, such as the connection between the price of beef and the health of fish stocks. But he sticks to presenting information and doesn’t push particular policy choices. “I never say ‘vote for this’, or ‘vote against that’.”
And if you want extended face-time? Barry will regularly ask for more time: He’ll say, “Let me take you out on the water, or into the lab” and invite the policymaker to see first-hand what we know and what it means. However you pose your ask, be clear why you’re there and what you want. You’ll have a more efficient and effective meeting, and your audience will appreciate you for it. And if you’ve found success when you’ve approached policymakers, we want to hear about it. Are there different angles on the ask that you’ve found useful?
Dr. Chad English was COMPASS's Director of Science Policy Outreach from 2007-2015.
Image info: Photo by COMPASS staff.