Discussion Thread

ASCE Government and Public Liaison Advice

  • 1.  ASCE Government and Public Liaison Advice

    Posted 10-21-2019 08:39 AM
    I just recently took on the role of the government and public liaison for ASCENC eastern branch. A position for which I am very excited to be volunteering for, since by day I am an undergraduate civil engineering student studying at NC State University and by night I am a legislative intern representing one of the longest serving Democrats in the North Carolina House of Representatives. However, this liaison position is quite new to me. I could use some advice to get started.

    If you have served in the government and public liaison position within your region or have worked as one through your engineering firm, what advice do you have for those just starting out. What tools do you use to make this form of activism effective? Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

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    Stephen Odom S.M.ASCE
    Durham NC
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  • 2.  RE: ASCE Government and Public Liaison Advice

    Posted 10-23-2019 11:51 AM

    Hi there! I am an architectural engineer by degree and worked in building structures all my career. I volunteered to do the PR for the Central Pennsylvania section release (so I stood in our capital building and released the grades). I've also talked to the local politicians about this.

    As a building structures engineer, I have very little background in many of the civil fields (for example water), to give you some context. In my state, of course the lowest grades were in areas outside of my immediate expertise. Here are some tips I can share with that background in mind:

    The first step is to gain knowledge of your state's report card, and be able to talk to major issues. Here is what I would suggest to do that:

    1. Contact your state's report card champion, and get a copy of your state's report card. Get on a phone call with him or her to get a summary of their take on important takeaways, as well as introducing yourself and letting them know about what you are doing.

    2. ASCE national staff put together a list of "Report Card Key Messages" and "Tough questions" for my state, I assume it is the same where you live. Get both of those documents (the champion mentioned in #1 should be able to share it).

    3. Use your phone to record a voice memo or similar of you reading, out-loud, each of those documents.  For the "tough questions" document, I even went so far to record two versions: one with the "answers" to the questions, and one without). Before we did the PR release, I listened to and practiced repeating the concepts many times. Then, every time I am on my way to an advocacy event, I listen again to those recordings. There is something about listening and saying it out loud that causes you to remember it in a way that reading does not. This may be overkill for you, but it was an amazingly useful and easy tool for me.

    4. If there are areas that are important in your state that you know very little about (for me this was water)........each of the categories has a champion also. Contact that person and get a 15 minute phone call with them, where you ask them to explain the main points that you should be aware of and share with politicians. How do you know if they are important? If they are in the top two or three highest or lowest grades, or if they have been in the news lately, those are the ones I'd focus on.

    5. If you either feel like you need more help, or in the case of any public speaking appearances where there will be media outlets present: ASCE national has a PR department. My contact was Alexa Lopez.  She has been amazing, helping me practice multiple times, often on a weekend or evening, to get ready, especially for public speaking events. Contact her or another staffer (see the ASCE website for contact info) for more help. This may also be overkill for you, but I thought I would mention it. ASCE has much support for advocacy, there is no reason to go in alone.

    The second step is to then go and talk to politicians. Here is what I would recommend there:
    1. Do your research. If you are talking one-on-one, this is pretty easy (google them, check out what infrastructure things they have supported, if any). If you are talking in a group setting, find out who will be there (or is likely to be there), and look them up. It is also important to be somewhat knowledgeable about any bills that have been passed or are in session related to infrastructure. In most cases, you don't need to know a ton about each, just things like Act xx is related to transportation funding, etc.

    2. Between the state report card champions and ASCE national, there is knowledge as to which politicians typically support infrastructure or not. You don't need to waste time figuring that out. Apply the 80/20 rule here, ask your state's champions and ASCE who you should focus time on, and go from there.

    3. You need to take the major parts of what you learned about your state's report card, and think about "why should politicians care". Boil it down to 2-3 points max you want to make in most conversations. There are tons of competing funding priorities, and it's important not to go into a discussion - especially in one-on-ones - with blinders on.

    4. Ask the politicians questions, and minimize your own talking as follows:

    a. For group political networking: In groups, I will insert myself into a discussion by saying "Excuse me, {name of politican}, I'm an engineer and I just wanted to thank you for your support of bill xxx." Obviously, try to pick an infrastructure bill.  If that politician doesn't start talking, I might follow up with "How do you feel about the current state of infrastructure in the state?" and go from there.

    b. For one-on-ones: Don't go into it thinking you are going to give a presentation. To be honest, for a 30 minute meeting with a politician, anything more than 2-3 main points is going to get lost anyways (so prepare accordingly as to what your points will be). For the one-on-one's I've done, I first try to establish some sort of rapport via 2-3 minutes of small talk. Typically I would have researched something in common to discuss before I show up (I am definitely not a "natural" small-talker). Then,  I thank them for anything they've done recently to support infrastructure in my state. Next, I'll tell them that I'm happy to talk about the report card, but I'd like to hear any questions they have first and go from there. At some point during the discussion, I will ask what they've heard from local voters about infrastructure issues (because many will tell you that they won't support more funding to anything if the voters don't want it.) I often ask how they feel about the current state of infrastructure in the state (this question has been invaluable in getting a read on "what they aren't saying" during the discussion). I ask them what myself and ASCE can do to help them better support infrastructure issues. I always close the discussion by letting them know I'm happy to be a resource on infrastructure issues, and that I appreciated their time.

    5. Be appreciative: Politicians are barraged with angry voters daily and approval rates for many are low. Acting professional, courteous, and - above all - showing appreciation for the work they are doing - paints a picture of it being a win-win situation for them to work with you and ASCE on infrastructure. I don't care what your political leanings are, you MUST find a way to appropriately express appreciation and gratitude for their efforts throughout the discussion.

    6. Set aside political affiliations during this discussion: You've set yourself up for a failed conversation if you are going into the conversation thinking "this is a democrat....or a republican.....or another party, and I don't agree with their particular views or voting record." They may not remember exactly what you said when you leave, but they will remember that you made them feel appreciated (or not). If you are coming into the discussion with negative thoughts about them, that is going to show, no matter how much you *think* you are hiding it. For one example: As a female engineer, I've certainly spoken to politicians that I strongly disagree with on women's rights (and even voted for the other person in an election). What I do is just stay 100% focused on the subject at hand (infrastructure), and treat everyone as if we are all on the same side on infrastructure issues. I assume good intent, even if I don't agree with a particular stance. I would also advise that if you truely think you cannot do this in a particular situation, to find another ASCE volunteer to meet with that particular politician or attend a particular event where that politican will be.

    ​​This has turned into a marathon post, but I hope you find it useful. Our state released it's report card in 2018, which is the first time I've ever volunteered to help with it. I learned (and am still learning) a ton in the process about advocacy.​ I learned all this for the first time last year, so hopefully you'll find this useful.

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    Stephanie Slocum P.E., M.ASCE
    Founder
    Engineers Rising LLC
    www.engineersrising.com
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  • 3.  RE: ASCE Government and Public Liaison Advice

    Posted 10-26-2019 04:24 PM
    Stephanie, thank you immensely for your feedback on what it takes to address infrastructure needs in an advocacy role. Our state's report card is being released this year and I will definitely be employing these suggestions in the process.

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    Stephen Odom S.M.ASCE
    Durham NC
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  • 4.  RE: ASCE Government and Public Liaison Advice

    Posted 10-24-2019 03:59 PM
    Hi Stephen! Congratulations on your new role.  It's sounds like you are in a unique position to really make a difference.
    Stephanie had some wonderful advice about getting up to speed and how to prepare and present the issues.  In addition, I would prepare a short "commercial" about the ASCE organization that you can use as an introduction to those that may be unfamiliar.  Something like
    "For background knowledge, ASCE represents more than 150,000 members of the civil engineering profession in 177 countries. Founded in 1852, ASCE is the nation's oldest engineering society. ASCE stands at the forefront of a profession that plans, designs, constructs, and operates society's economic and social engine – the built environment – while protecting and restoring the natural environment. In Wisconsin, we have over 1,851 members."

    I would also record your activities on social media to raise awareness of your activism and issues.  I would also suggest keeping track (mentally or other) what techniques resulted in positive outcomes.  Sharing these stories through your section/branch newsletter/meetings may inspire others to activism.  I would also recommend applying to attend the ASCE Legislative Fly Inn. In addition to meeting with your legislators, you'll find training on what to say and how best to communicate with legislators and their staffers.  ASCE also had an app for the infrastructure report card that you might find useful.

    Good luck to you Stephen!


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    Jennifer Schaff P.E., M.ASCE
    County Materials Corporation
    Appleton WI
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  • 5.  RE: ASCE Government and Public Liaison Advice

    Posted 10-26-2019 04:24 PM
    Thank you, Jennifer, also for your great ideas.

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    Stephen Odom S.M.ASCE
    Durham NC
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