Editor’s Note: It is difficult to imagine a future where this nation can live with wildfire without also imagining a fundamental shift in wildfire policy and governance. Tackling the conversations about wildfire policy and governance, however, can be daunting. Over the course of six months earlier this year, 70 wildfire practitioners from 17 states across the nation joined the FAC Net Policy Learning Group to learn more about how to engage with agencies, elected officials, staff, and more in order to be more effective in their own communities. Learning group participants met monthly to deepen their individual skills, hear from those working in the policy sphere, and learn more about effective strategies to engage with policymakers and staff.
NOTE: While resources are shared below from a variety of sources, FAC Net is not endorsing those organizations but instead, sharing resources which may be helpful to you in your own skills building.
While it can feel uncomfortable to talk about policy, the road to a different fire future runs straight through it! As practitioners, we are often asked to share our knowledge and expertise with those who are seeking to make better decisions, shape legislation, or craft strategies. Yet, if we haven’t participated in those processes before, it can be extremely difficult to know how best to communicate. Often, wildfire practitioners get asked to provide information at a hearing or roundtable and are given just a few minutes to speak. How do you summarize your expertise and your ideas in a compelling way in under three minutes? The Policy Learning Group was designed to help wildfire practitioners build skills and increase both their knowledge and comfort level in the policy arena.
As the Policy Learning Group could be viewed as potentially political, we recognized that we needed to take care to maintain a safe and welcoming environment focused on building skills. FAC Net staff crafted a robust set of operating acknowledgements and agreements to facilitate conversations that would allow policy-centered learning without contention and conflict. Central to these operating protocols were the shared acknowledgements that we would not be crafting a joint advocacy platform and that no participant would work to modify the opinions of others within the group. Participants agreed:
- To focus on shared learning surrounding the policy process.
- To value the nuance of multiple perspectives and to make space for ideas and opinions that are different from my own.
- To foster dialogue based on relationships and trust.
- To maintain confidentiality regarding items and opinions shared in this group.
- To share power with others.
- To let staff know if any discussion or conversation makes me uncomfortable or strays from these agreements.
Through these operating protocols (reviewed monthly at each meeting), the Policy Learning Group was able to have honest conversations about their struggles and successes and to build their skills in a way that prioritized learning. Below, we have consolidated some of the key lessons and resources from this group!
Understanding the Sideboards
For many organizations, engaging in any kind of policy work can feel problematic (or potentially a risk to the organization itself). This is particularly true for non-profit organizations which have to navigate important considerations tied to their non-profit status. Through the Policy Learning Group, participants had a chance to hear from a state Non-Profit Association Policy Director to learn more about how non-profit organizations can (and cannot) engage with elected officials. The National Council of Nonprofits provides an excellent page of resources for non-profit organizations seeking to better understand their sideboards.
In order to build more communication skills, particularly skills related to time-limited communication with elected officials, participants in the Policy Learning Group heard from current and former staff members of elected officials, lobbyists, and former elected officials themselves. Participants then had the opportunity to craft short statements and practice with each other! Instead of participant statements focusing on framing the problem (where we often spend too much of our limited time), participants learned to focus more on the solutions and why those solutions would make a difference in their community. Presenters shared several resources to help build skills related to legislative testimony:
- Testifying at Hearings (external link to: Golf Course Superintendents Association of America)
- How to Testify at a Public Legislative Hearing (external link to: Death with Dignity)
- Public Testimony 101 (external link to: Oregon Wild Ones)
Connecting with People
Relationships are at the heart of much of our work, whether we are working with residents or policy-makers! Policy Learning Group participants heard from former elected officials and staffers about how to build more effective relationships. Several of the pearls of wisdom from those conversations include the importance of being respectful, helpful, and persistent. Panelists advised participants to be responsive, present information that is helpful for the staff to know, and not to be afraid to make themselves available as a resource. Often, the relationship comes first (before communication about an issue). Other key takeaways:
- Ask how much time you will have beforehand. Many meetings are 30 minutes, which only gives you 15-20 minutes to deliver your message.
- Be clear on your message. Use stories to help convey your points and remain engaging. Clearly articulated, simple messages are memorable.
- When possible, end your meeting a little early; this will make your message more palatable and give everyone a little processing time.
- Persistence is key; expect to go to several meetings or make repeated contacts.
From a facilitator’s perspective, the Policy Learning Group was extremely rewarding. At numerous points during the process, participants had the opportunity to apply their newfound knowledge and skills. Participants took the lessons they learned about legislative testimony and used them in their communities over the course of the learning group. Others had meetings with their elected officials and were able to use approaches from the learning group to feel more comfortable. In a field where so much of our work is designed to solve long-term problems and results are often delayed, seeing new skills developed was amazing.
Participants were asked what advice they would give another practitioner just starting to engage with policy and many expressed the need to “just get started!” Other advice included:
- Bring policy-makers onto the team; start building the relationships now if you haven’t already.
- Don’t be shy, afraid, or think this work is for others. We are critical experts and our voices are needed.
- Invite, involve, and communicate. Policy-makers will opt out if they want or need to do so. But you can’t build a relationship if you don’t try.
There are barriers to engaging in policy everywhere: sideboards of our organizations, access to decision-makers, lack of familiarity with the process, and more. Yet, those of us who work in wildfire have big dreams for what the future can look like. Some days, it is those dreams alone which keep us moving forward. To realize those dreams and to create a nation which can live with wildland fire, we must embrace change at every scale regardless of whether we are talking about individual preparedness and mitigation, neighborhood fuel breaks, community codes and ordinances, statewide strategic plans, or national legislation.
Do you have any go-to resources related to policy or governance? Share your resources and experiences with us below.
To get access to learning and skills building opportunities such as the one described above, join FAC Net as an affiliate member and be alerted to learning and training opportunities.