As we roll into the thick of the 2021 legislative session, it is clear that the original, short-term novelty of governing and lobbying in a virtual environment has worn off for many. While the Senate has shifted to a hybrid model of both in-person and virtual work, the House continues to operate remotely, as do most people who are otherwise usually physically present at the Capitol this time of year.
Legislating remotely accomplishes its goal of keeping people home and safe from exposure to COVID-19. But as the length of time spent virtually tuning into committees grows, so too does frustration. Constituents and advocates are finding it difficult to participate in virtual hearings and committees as legislative staff experience delays in bill drafting and legislators spend extra precious time sourcing accurate, comprehensive information – all while facing increased pressure and needs from everyone.
Paired with no formal back-to-the-Capitol date in sight, these challenges have made it easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure. Below are my top takeaways from this virtual session so far, with observations on how to best work and communicate with the people you need to make a positive impact on this session.
1. Everything takes longer. One of the challenges of any legislative session is the timeline in which work needs to happen. Session is only about five months long and there is a lot of work that needs to get done in that time. With hallway conversations and quick post-meeting debriefs being a thing of the past, communicating, negotiating and responding to complex topics takes much longer than it used to. Persisting through this challenge can be mind-numbing, but stick to respectful follow ups and be comfortable with timelines beyond your control.
2. Some things change, while others stay the same. It used to be incredibly taboo to call or text a legislator or staff person unless there was a five-alarm fire in their district. While it is still important to be respectful in the use of those precious cell phone numbers, use them. Legislators, like the rest of us, are doing their level best to respond and keep up with the information coming their way. They may actually appreciate a gentle text nudge if something has slipped their mind.
3. Email is key. While their inboxes are certainly full, email still seems to be most effective way to reach legislators and staff. When you write your email, make sure it is scannable, to-the-point and that your ask is featured either in the subject line or the first sentence – this helps incentivize a faster reply. That said, it will likely be a while before you get a response. Be patient.
4. Create compelling materials. There are literally volumes of information coming at legislators and staff every day. Written testimony and materials are being encouraged during this virtual time to help manage this. Remember that legislators and staff are real people, too, and that they gravitate toward what’s interesting and new. Think carefully about your testimony, whether delivered in person or in writing. What unique perspective are you bringing to the table? Showcase that. Can you effectively deliver your message through an original, creative presentation? Do that.
5. Remember we are all human. Keep sight of the huge pressure legislators have in putting together a $50 billion state budget from the isolation of their living room, away from their colleagues and staff while feeling like they have limited information and pressure from all kinds of places. Understanding where they are at mentally and managing expectations from there is incredibly important, not only for calculating your next tactic, but also for extending the grace and empathy that many need during this particularly difficult time.