Fitch: Power of the Personal Story Is Not New to Congress

Posted April 23, 2013 at 2:53pm

Many commentators marveled at the power that the relatives of the victims of the Newtown, Conn., shooting tragedy were able to exert. The parents met with a number of senators, and their emotional pleas were credited with helping overcome the gun control filibuster.

The idea that members of Congress genuinely listen to constituents and seek to understand how a piece of legislation actually affects people’s lives is usually met with skepticism by a suspicious public. In fact, a personal narrative is quite valuable information for lawmakers. Research from the Congressional Management Foundation affirms this. In a survey of congressional staff, 48 percent said a personal story was helpful or very helpful to include in a message to Congress. In another survey of House chiefs of staff conducted last fall, when asked how frequently personal stories are used in meetings with their member of Congress, 88 percent said somewhat or very frequently.

Of course, legislators are interested in other data as well: 77 percent of the congressional staff in our survey noted “the impact of the bill or issue on the district or state” would be helpful. But a number sometimes doesn’t have the same power as a photograph or a real person.

A few years ago, when I was interviewing a member of Congress and asked him to share a powerful personal advocacy example. He recalled: “I went to a luncheon that was hosted by cancer centers in my state. Instead of having those guys in white coats do their lobbying, they brought in patients — kids and their parents. They all got up and told their story. When it was done there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

Citizens who understand the power of narrative are starting to use social media to communicate their stories. A few years ago, a group advocating for online gambling was conducting a fly-in to Capitol Hill. One of the supporters couldn’t attend, so he created a short video of himself and posted it to YouTube. He talked about how he grew up playing poker with his grandmother, how it was a part of his church’s fundraising activities and how online gambling was one of the ways he kept his mind active.

Today it’s increasingly common to see advocates walking into congressional offices with tablets displaying photos and videos of the people affected by the laws Congress considers.

Congressional caseworkers are on the front lines and often hear about the very real impact that policy has on the lives of the constituents they serve. A poorly constructed regulation can result in caseload spikes as constituents turn to their legislators for assistance.

There’s no doubt that the courage displayed by the Newtown families has had a palpable impact on members of Congress and staff since the tragic shooting. But it isn’t just the tragedies that get the attention of Congress. Members and staff are constantly reviewing constituent correspondence, town hall meeting comments and casework to gain a personal understanding of the impact of government policy on citizens.

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.