Public hearings provide tremendous opportunities for interested persons and organizations to influence outcomes on important governmental decisions. Although most often convened by legislative and regulatory entities, many executive and administrative officials utilize public hearings to measure public sentiment on hot-button issues and/or developments.
When these opportunities emerge, prepared testimony provides decision-makers a written record that governmental officials can review and reflect upon. For advocates, it can help to establish credibility, a record of engagement, and a tool to share with others you seek to engage.
As with any other public meeting, there are guidelines for participation that will be observed and enforced. It is therefore prudent to secure a clear understanding of what is being planned, and how officials will accept public participation.
Public Notices of Scheduled Hearings
Most governmental offices utilize multiple modes to publicly post hearings. Designated bulletin boards in public buildings, newspapers and the Internet are all a part of the obligation to inform and engage the public.
Regardless of format, public hearing notices typically include a contact person or office for questions and additional information. As soon as possible, contact the indicated party to learn additional details, and the process to offer testimony. Ask how many copies of your testimony should be prepared. Most officials prefer having their own copy and reading it during delivery.
Hearings that anticipate a large number of speakers will often require a sign-in for those desiring to speak; or limit the amount of time for oral comments, but not limit the length of written testimony. If the hearing notice results in larger interest or participation than originally anticipated, this same official could provide updates on location changes, or other relevant details. For larger hearings, more than one parking lot may be utilized.
Preparing and Delivering Effective Testimony
Whether oral or written, begin testimony by identifying yourself and the organization you represent. Then carefully and deliberately thank all of those who have convened the session and the opportunity to express views before a decision is reached. The more respectful you are of the process, the more respected you will be viewed by those you seek to influence.
Your next step should be to concisely summarize the issue and the options under consideration. It is critically important that this section of testimony convey an understanding of the issue(s) without becoming taxing or verbose. If late-breaking developments precede the hearing, briefly acknowledge those developments.
It is also likely that the chair for the hearing will offer opening remarks before the start of testimony. In the interest of time, oral testimony should avoid repeating anything offered by the chair.
A key component to effective testimony is to identify the concerns of your constituents. In this section, craft language that is intended to inform as well as persuade. Make a compelling connection between the hearing and your constituents.
Many times sharing a personal experience can be extremely effective. However, be certain that the affected party has approved mentioning his/her circumstances publicly, and will not be offended. Specifically, do not mention a person's name unless they have clearly and comfortably agreed for you to do so.
Citing recent research from credible sources can underscore the anecdotes shared. Multiple research sources that include the title of the publication and its date of issue are particularly effective.
An effective conclusion will summarize key points, speak to how the decision yet-to-come will impact lives, and where useful, quantify the scope of the issue.
If your delivery has been concise and compelling, you will be asked questions. But be mindful: Everything said in a public hearing is on the record; you will not be able to recant. So choose your words carefully.
If you are seldom engaged in public speaking, practice reading the testimony aloud. Invite others to listen to you and offer constructive criticism. Practice until the spoken words flow easily and confidently.