Throughout the year, public hearings are held on a variety of issues before the legislature or administration, particularly when new initiatives or changes to existing programs are in process. When a bill is being considered by a legislative committee during the session, meetings are open to members of the interested public and time is typically available for testimony. If stakeholder testimony is not sought, you should contact the chair of the Legislative committee requesting an opportunity to testify. Testimony by a concerned citizen will often have great impact on the end result of a bill.
We have the right to participate in our government. If too many people are afraid to participate, it allows just a few people to make the decisions. Often, showing up for an event, whether or not you speak, can send a strong message to policymakers that a significant number of their constituents care enough to monitor an issue. Participating by being there is an important and powerful step.
Before A Hearing/Committee Meeting:
Verify the date, time and place of the hearing. To do this, call the agency or office holding the hearing. For proposed legislation, contact the sponsor of the bill or the clerk of the appropriate committee. You can check the Legislative Schedule online at:
For weekly committee agendas:
- Do your homework. Make sure you understand the bill or issue. Know the status of the bill and its potential impact on you and your community. Be familiar with the opposing view(s) and speak to those issues as well, if appropriate.
- It is also useful to learn something about those whose support you are attempting to elicit, to understand their interests and perspectives. If you are speaking before a committee, consult the Legislative website to identify its members. The website also has information legislators’ districts and party affiliations. If you have access a to hard copy of the “blue book” directory, you can obtain biographical information about legislators as well.
- If you plan to testify, write your statement in direct, easy to understand language. Have enough typed copies for the committee members and others who may be interested. Double-space the text and if possible, keep it to only one side of the paper.
- Rehearse (but don’t memorize) your testimony. Try to think of questions you might be asked and practice answering them.
- If you are working with a group, plan your strategy in advance. Who will testify first? Who will address which parts of the issue? Plan a follow-up strategy (for example: phone calls, e-mails, or personal visits to legislators’ offices).
- If you are unable to attend the hearing, mail a copy of your statement to the hearing agency or committee and ask that it be included in the record. If it is available, request a copy of the testimony presented at the meeting.
At The Hearing:
- For Public Hearings, arrive early (about 30 minutes) and sign in so the committee will know you plan to testify. Sign-in even if you do not wish to present testimony. It is a way of recording how many people are in favor and against the issue. Determine whether there is a separate sign-up sheet for testimony, or whether a staff member is coordinating the sequence of testimony, to be sure you are on the slate. If you traveled some distance to appear, you might indicate this and ask to testify earlier in the session, particularly if the hearing is held in the evening.
- For Legislative Committees, you should arrange and verify the date and time of your testimony with the staff person assigned to that committee. Then check back on the day you are to speak; last minutes changes often occur.
- If you require accommodations, such as an interpreter or materials in an alternative format, you will want to coordinate this well in advance. If you know others who have used similar accommodations in the past in the same setting, it is useful to get their advice.
- Be prepared to wait. There might be other bills before yours and it is difficult to judge how long other speakers will take.
- Consider in advance how you present yourself. Tone and appearance, whether we like it or not, influence perceptions of our testimony.
- Pay attention to testimony presented by others and the committee members’ reaction to those comments. This can give you clues on how to present your testimony. It also may raise other issues you wish to address. If you do not have anything to add to what has previously been said, simply note that you agree with the earlier speaker(s) and move on to the rest of your presentation.
- When it is your turn to testify, begin by greeting the chair and committee members. (“Good afternoon Senator Smith and members of the committee…”) Introduce yourself and, if appropriate, your organization or group.
- Begin with a clear and concise statement of your position and what you want. “I am opposed to (in favor of) this bill and urge you to vote against (for) it.”
- Be brief. Plan on speaking 3 – 5 minutes (or less). In many cases, especially for Public Hearings, you may be told in advance how long you will have.
- Speak clearly and directly. Remain courteous and do not argue with committee members or members of the audience. Simply state the reasons for you position.
- Mention why changes are necessary. Ask questions that the proposed legislation leaves unanswered. Mention others who support your position.
- Powerful testimony is a combination of personal stories and accurate, current data. Speak from your heart, as well as your head. Put a personal face on the impact of changes you oppose or support.
- After your testimony, ask if there are any questions. Answer only those you know you can answer correctly. If other members of your group are with you and can provide answers, point them out to the committee. If you don’t know an answer, don’t be afraid to say so. Write the question down and tell committee members you will get back to them with a response. Send the response in writing to the chair.
- Thank the chair and the committee for the opportunity to tell them your concerns.
After the Hearing:
Keep a copy of your statement along with questions that you were asked and your responses.
- If you promised to provide additional material, be sure to do so as soon as possible.
- Follow-up on the bill’s progress. Contact legislators personally, or write a follow-up letter.
- If working as part of a group or coalition, reconvene after the hearing to plan next steps, critique the event, and share your successes.
Adapted by VCDR from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families
VCDR receives support from a grant from the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, dues from its member organizations, and individual contributions.