Washington, D.C. — While some constituents might view Capitol Hill with skepticism, research shows that citizen voices really do matter to policymakers. They want to hear from their constituents and understand the issues impacting folks back home. This reality is the foundation on which GoRail’s advocacy model is built. Through education, recruitment and mobilization, we work to convey the local freight rail story, through citizen voices, to the lawmakers making important rail policy decisions.
To help hone your understanding of the most effective advocacy strategies, here’s a breakdown of what works on Capitol Hill. These findings are based on research from the Congressional Management Foundation, an organization that we support and that works directly with citizen groups to educate them on how Congress works.
1. Direct constituent interactions have more influence on lawmakers’ decisions than other advocacy strategies.
Contrary to popular belief, legislators’ first priority is still the voices of their own constituents. By embracing the power of in-person constituent conversation, GoRail endeavors to raise the voices of rail advocates to their representatives, whether through direct contacts—letters, calls and emails—or in-person events like district meetings and rail facility tours. Our “Get on Board” advocacy toolkit provides advocates with contact information for our state directors as well as supplemental resources, including backgrounders and graphics, that they can use when contacting policymakers.
2. Congress places a high value on groups and citizens who have built relationships with the legislator and staff.
The more opportunities our advocates have to directly connect with legislators, the more effective our advocacy is. That is why GoRail participates in Railroad Day on Capitol Hill every year. Railroad Day gives local rail advocates a chance to continue to build and foster relationships with their federal legislators. When federal legislators make rail policy decisions, we want the voices of their citizens to ring loudly. Real people, who are speaking on behalf of the railroads that support their economies, local jobs, less congestion and roadway use, and cleaner skies.
3. Citizen advocates are influential and contribute to better public policy when they provide personalized and local information to Congress.
Not only do legislators want to hear from the people they serve, legislators also want to hear about the issues in their own front yard. A citizen advocate is best prepared to provide that personalized information when they have facts, knowledge and the policy issues at their fingertips. If they can show just how connected freight rail is to their local quality of life—from regional jobs to their daily commute to the historical origins of their community. The GoRail Advocacy Toolkit and Issues page are full of helpful information to make even the least-practiced advocate know what to focus on in order to sound like a rail pro.
4. Citizens have significant potential to enhance their advocacy skills and influence Congress.
Every citizen has their own impactful story that has the power to motivate and influence policymakers. Local voices and stories resonate the most strongly with legislators because of their proximity to the issue. Beyond the background information we provide in the GoRail toolkit, we hope that rail advocates will be confident in their own ability to speak up about their personal stories of how freight rail is improving quality of life in their communities. Effective advocacy does not always involve the perfect research study or statistic. Often, the research study is what gives clarity to an already well-told story.
Social Media Advocacy: Quick Tips
Social media—Twitter, Facebook and other platforms—is another modern tool for engaging with policymakers. If you’re in the social space and want to weigh in on an issue, keep these tips in mind:
- Identify yourself as a constituent. Add your location (city and state) to your profile. Follow your legislators.
- On Facebook? Badge it! Facebook features constituent badges that show up when you post about or comment on the posts of your government representatives. To get your “badge,” follow a few simple steps: 1) search “Town Hall” in Facebook, 2) Select “Town Hall: Look up your government representatives,” 3) Enter your home address, 4) Select the “On” option in the Constituent Badge drop down menu. Voila!
- Personalize your message. Identify the issue. Explain why it matters to your community.
- Be constructive. Avoid negativity in policymaker interactions. Give thanks where thanks is due.
- Part of a group or coalition? Say So. Multiple messages from constituents affiliated with a specific group or cause are more likely to influence legislators.
These are the advocacy principles that we strive to keep in mind with all that we do. We hope to continue developing tools to help our rail advocates and their freight rail stories resonate with policymakers.