Elected officials at all levels of government host "town hall meetings," venues through which they solicit concerns, opinions, and ideas from the people they represent. SBA encourages advocates to attend town hall meetings as they are open to the public and provide advocates a terrific opportunity to have their voices heard by their policymakers at home in their own communities.
Elected officials host town hall meetings in a variety of locations in the communities they represent, such as the auditorium of a school, a community center, a veteran's hospital, or other such publicly accessible places that can accommodate large groups of people. Policymakers take seriously the questions they receive and the issues that are raised by the people who make the efforts to attend one of their town hall meetings. In addition, often there are reporters present, which can provide another opportunity to bring attention to SBA's priorities and concerns. To ensure that the time you take and the effort you make to attend a town hall meeting is worthwhile, SBA has developed this list of tips:
- Sign-up for the alert list for your elected officials' newsletters and other notices. Most elected officials announce their public meetings and local "appearances" schedule via press releases or other media notices, newsletters, and email announcements. Additionally, many policymakers provide constituents (the people who live and vote in their jurisdictions) an opportunity to sign-up for electronic newsletters through their website.
- Keep up-to-date on SBA's concerns and priorities to ensure that you can maximize the benefit of your attendance at the meeting. Be sure to educate yourself about current public policy priorities. Download relevant issue briefs and other materials for reference – and to give to the policymaker and his/her staff at the meeting.
- Do your homework on the elected official. Make sure you know a little about the policymaker before you attend the meeting. If SBA is seeking support for a particular bill, be sure to check the list of supporters in advance so you know whether to request that the elected official cosponsor it or if you are thanking him for having lent support. You should review his/her vote record, read his/her bio, and spend a little time on his/her website so you are familiar with his/her positions, priorities, and orientation to issues regarding health care, birth defects, and disabilities.
- Be sure you know the meeting format, agenda, and/or topic area. If the particular meeting details are not included in the meeting announcement, visit the policymaker's website or call the office to try to learn more. Once you arrive at the meeting, check to see if there is an established procedure for asking a question or making a statement at the meeting. If there is no sign-in sheet, seek out a staff person and inquire as to the format and procedure – and be sure to comply.
- Prepare your question/comment in advance and bring materials to give to the elected official and his/her staff. Sometimes, public speaking can be intimidating so writing down the specific question you wish to ask or jotting down a few notes to help you with your remarks is advisable. Since you may only have a minute or two, it is best to focus your comments on one particular item and to "cut to the chase." Having materials with you that you can give to the policymaker and staff will provide you with peace of mind that everything will be covered, especially in case you do not have the time to make (or you forget) some of your key points.
- When you speak, be clear, concise, polite and professional and be sure to express appreciation, identify yourself, mention your affiliation with SBA, and explain your connection to Spina Bifida. It is best to weave together your "introduction" with your question/comment. For example:
"Good afternoon. Thank you for holding this important forum. I appreciate the opportunity to speak. My name is Susie Smith, and I live in Oak Brook. I have a daughter with Spina Bifida, which is the nation's most common, permanently disabling birth defect. I am here today as a concerned mother and a representative of the Spina Bifida Association of Illinois. I know the nation is in an economic crisis, but I am increasingly concerned that federal funding to help people with disabilities is shrinking at the same time the population of people in need is growing. What are you doing to address this challenge?"
- Be sure to ask for a response to your question, but do not badger the elected official to answer. Sometimes elected officials feel put on the spot or are not able to give you a specific answer at the time of the public meeting. In some cases they are being evasive, in other situations, it is legitimately because the elected official needs to do some research first or check in with staff. If s/he cannot give you a response, express thanks for the opportunity to ask the question/voice the concern and let him/her know you will follow up with the staff and that you look forward to receiving a response. You are most effective in your advocacy efforts if you are reasonable in your tone and request, even if the policymaker disagrees with you or evades your question.
- Be aware of the meeting dynamics and the macropolitical environment. In some cases town hall meetings can get out of control with audience attendees getting upset about a particular issue. Or, if you see that the elected official appears frustrated, annoyed, tired, or disengaged, it might be best to remain silent and not speak, as it might prove counter-productive. Instead, you can follow-up with a letter referencing that you were at the meeting, thanking the elected official for holding the event, and asking the question or making the comment that you had prepared for the forum.
- Inform SBA and/or your SBA Chapter leadership that you attended a town hall meeting and provide a summary of the experience, including information regarding how you were received (if you did ask a question, make a comment, or get to speak directly to the elected official or staff). By "reporting back," SBA staff can take actions to help reinforce the message you delivered, connect with other contacts in the elected officials' office and inform them of your participation, and assist you with following-up so that your efforts are maximized.
Town hall meetings might seem intimidating at first, but they are terrific ways to reach your elected officials at home in your community. You will be surprised at how often the meetings are not well-attended and you will find that you have great access and ample time with your policymaker. As the saying goes, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." Attending town hall meetings helps SBA deliver our message to elected officials and builds support for our priorities and concerns. Good luck and have fun!
- Be sure to follow-up. Politics and public policy are not different from anything else: "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." Within a week of attending a town hall or other public meeting, send a follow-up letter via email or fax to the elected official and/or the staff person. Upfront, be sure to identify yourself as you did in your oral comments and remind them that you were at the town hall meeting. Be sure to include the meeting date and location, since they often hold multiple such forums in a single day or week. This correspondence allows you to restate your question/concern and formally request a response. Also, if there was anything that the policymaker or staff requested of you at the meeting (e.g., particular statistics for the state, a copy of a report) be sure to provide that in your follow-up correspondence.