Communicating with Elected Officials

Communicating directly with elected officials is an important responsibility and opportunity for advocates.  Communications raise awareness of the needs of gifted and talented students and offer a chance to suggest specific solutions. Regular communications help local and statewide advocacy groups to develop relationships with elected officials and their staffs that can benefit gifted students over time. Credibility is built with decision makers through confidence that the concerns and proposed solutions shared are based on accurate, timely information.  Gifted education advocates are critical resources for elected officials.  Get to know who represents you!

Writing a Constituent Letter

Without question, letters are the most effective form of communication with elected officials, although they take longer for delivery and response than emails. Letters create a sense of seriousness, due in part to the time they take to write, that cannot be captured in emails, especially for that initial communication.  Check Congressional, state legislature, and local school board websites for individual mailing addresses.

Below are a few guidelines to keep in mind when writing a letter:

  • Use personal or business letterhead, if possible. Be sure your name and return address is on your communication.
  • Be brief. Keep letters concise, ideally no longer than one-page.
  • State your reason for writing. Your personal experience is usually the strongest reason. Explain how the issue affects your school district, your students, or your child.  Do you represent a group of parents or teachers? Be sure to include that as well.
  • Be specific in your request. Express clearly and briefly what action you would like the recipient to take, such as providing support of an issue, cosponsoring a particular bill, supporting a specific program funding level, or passage of a specific measure. Include bill numbers or other reference information whenever possible.
  • Be reasonable and constructive. If you oppose a measure, state clearly why the measure is a concern. If possible, offer an alternative. Include examples or data where possible, being careful not to make any unsupportable claims. Misinformation casts doubt on you and your views.
  • Ask the recipient to provide his/her position in a written reply.
  • Be sure to follow up with a thank you to if he/she responds the way you requested or indicates strong support for your issue. Everyone appreciates - and remembers - a complimentary letter.

Email Messages

Email contact has become standard business practice.  Elected officials include email addresses, or online email forms, on their official websites.

By all means, where you already have a relationship with an office, use email as you would with any other business relationship. Email is also effective for a one-time contact, such as when requesting a meeting or to state your views on an upcoming vote or other key decision.

Initial communications with an office about the needs of gifted students using email should follow the suggestions above for a constituent letter. 

Keep in mind that many state and federal elected officials receive a high volume of email that can take time for the office to wade through, affecting the timeliness of your message. For example, using email today regarding a key vote tomorrow in your state assembly budget committee may not be read in time.  In this case, a telephone call would be more effective. 

Be sure to include your full name and contact information in email correspondence so that the recipient is able to respond to you.

Making a Constituent Telephone Call

A telephone call can be very effective when time is short or when your opinion can be stated very concisely. Calls are not an effective way to educate decision makers, nor do they provide the opportunity to demonstrate your expertise on an issue. In most cases, receptionists handle the calls and their goal is to simply make a record of the call. However, in some legislatures and in Congressional offices, it may be possible to speak directly with a staff member working for your elected official to provide a bit more information.

When making a telephone call to elected officials, keep the following in mind:

  • State your views clearly and succinctly - time is precious for everyone.
  • Conclude your message with a request for action.
  • Be prepared to leave your name, address, and telephone number.

In-person Meetings with Legislators

Face-to-face meetings are effective in conveying a message and can be a way to establish a long-term relationship with your elected officials and their staffs.  Keep in mind that successful advocacy requires a sustained effort, not simply one letter, email, phone call, or meeting.

Although your locally elected officials are likely nearby, you may never have the opportunity to meet your elected representatives in your state capital or in Washington, DC.  However, your state and federal representatives also have local offices, sometimes staffed by part-time employees. Your local school board members also have offices where they meet with constituents. You can find the office locations and phone numbers on line through local, state, and Congressional websites or in a separate government section of your phonebook.

No matter which official you're trying to see, there are several steps to take, planning as far in advance as possible:

  • Making an Appointment: Call your elected official's office and ask to speak with the person who sets up appointments. Be prepared to provide information about yourself (and/or your group), the topic you'd like to discuss, and have a range of days (or times) when you can meet.
  • Prepare for the Meeting: Have your information ready in a concise form, just as you would when writing a letter, sending an email, or making a telephone call. Prepare the strongest two or three reasons why the official should support your views. Be sure to know possible arguments against your request so that you can respond to questions or concerns. If possible, develop a simple packet of information to leave behind so that the official or staff member can begin a file on your issue. Bring a business card if you have one.
  • At the Meeting: Be on time, of course. But don't be surprised if the official is running late. Making visits, especially with Members of Congress or state legislators during a legislative session, requires flexibility and patience. Once the meeting begins:
  • State the reason for your visit in one sentence. Then, take your cue from the official:  if he or she seems familiar with the issue, move right ahead with your request for support for a specific vote or other position. If not, use the time to inform him/her of the key elements of the issue, using local (or state) examples when possible so that the official understands the potential impact of your request on his/her constituents.
  • Elected officials want to know how they can be helpful. Be sure you request action. Be specific. For example: cosponsor a certain bill, vote for or against a bill, hold a hearing, or visit a school.
  • If you are asked a question you are not able to answer, acknowledge that you do not know, but that you will find out the answer and get back to him/her. Never make up an answer. Incorrect or misleading information will permanently damage your credibility.
  • At the end of the meeting be sure to thank the official for his/her time, reiterating that you will follow up with any information you may have promised.
  • If you are meeting on behalf of a state or local group, ask before the meeting if you can have your picture taken together so that you may use it in your newsletter or on your websites.
  • Follow up: If you promised to gather additional information, do so as soon as possible. Send a thank you letter to the official, capitalizing on the opportunity to restate your major points in the letter. If you used a photo in a newsletter or on a website, be sure to send a copy to the official’s office. Keep track of the names of any staff that you met so that you can follow up with them and keep them apprised of new developments on your issue.

Other Opportunities

Elected officials often schedule community meetings to hear from constituents about local concerns. Many advocates are also active in their communities in other ways, crossing paths with elected officials at dinners, receptions, or other events. Take every opportunity to speak with and develop a relationship with those who represent you. Although you may not be able to discuss gifted education issues at every event, you may have a moment to ask the official if you might meet with him/her in the near future to discuss your concerns.