In our popular imagination of U.S. politics, few represent the underbelly of Washington better than the lobbyist. Confined to the steakhouses or cigar-filled back rooms of Capitol Hill, lobbyists wield their power, money, and influence to undermine the American people in favor of special interests. Right?
But lobbying also serves an essential, less-nefarious function: providing policymakers with the information they don’t have the time or expertise to gather on their own. For policy-engaged academics, learning some simple “lobbying” practices can help get your research in front of the right eyes.
Lobbying and advocacy have two distinct legal definitions which are important to know. Here, I am combining the two to mean targeted engagement with policymakers on issues or legislation. If you have questions about whether you’re engaging in formal lobbying and if it’s permissible in your situation, talk to your employer’s legal counsel.
With that said, every time a constituent calls or emails their representatives, or an academic Tweets the policy implications of their new research, they are engaging in a form of lobbying. It is how we, as envisioned in the First Amendment, “petition the government.” Unfortunately, most people without deep connections—or deep pockets—can only do surface-level engagement to minimal effect.
For the past several years, I’ve helped economists and social scientists translate academic evidence for policy conversations on inequality. I’ve learned that raw evidence alone, when packaged incorrectly, has limited impact in policy debates. Send Congressional staffers your latest research and it will likely languish in inbox purgatory. Policymakers don’t want more articles and reports to add to their ever-growing reading lists. What they want is your help doing their job.
Knowing what that job looks like day-to-day and anticipating policymakers’ needs at a given time is one key to successful advocacy. Consider a senior congressional staffer for the House Education Committee who has just been notified of a hearing the following week on academic freedom. They may have their own personal feelings or long-term policy goals on this topic, but, more likely, it’s one of many issues they cover and know a little about. In this moment, they have an immediate—and relatable—task in front of them: ensuring their bosses look good on the day of the hearing.
In prepping for these hearings, a senior staffer needs to find witnesses, write opening statements, draft questions that the Congressmembers can ask, and produce a briefing memo for their party. In most cases, they are cramming years of knowledge on a topic into a few days of work. This is where you can help.
Instead of sending a staffer your full research article, provide the most intriguing points—in bullet point form—signaling how they may be useful for opening speeches based on your knowledge of the current policy context. Offer up some sample questions that your research raises for witnesses—you’ll know based on the issue whether they’re looking for a few softballs or something harder hitting. Staffers get many emails like this when a hearing or markup is announced, so your messages will be expected.
The more you can help them do their job—and look good to their bosses—the more likely they are to remember your name, read your emails, and use your information. They may even think of you next time they need an expert witness.
Of course, you most likely won’t hear anything from them—at least right away. This is a relationship game, and forming those relationships, or even figuring out who to contact, can take time. The SPSSI Central Office is here to assist. If you see an upcoming opportunity to be helpful, let us know, and we’d be happy to try and make those connections. Policymakers may not know thousands of academics by name, but the more they recognize SPSSI in their inboxes, the more they will come to trust the evidence and analysis our members can provide.