Government bodies from your local zoning board up to the U.S. Congress hold public hearings on a variety of issues, and anyone can participate. This is a chance to meet your legislators in person, look them in the eye and make your voice heard.
Why do they hold public hearings?
The purpose of public hearings is to give the public the opportunity to participate in government. They also allow decision makers to hear and consider information they may not have previously known. In many situations, a government body is required by law to hold a public hearing where they take public comments on an issue. The public hearing might concern a specific piece of legislation, or an issue of community concern, or it might be an open forum where anyone can bring up any topic that is relevant to the committee.
Meetings of government bodies often include a public portion that may or may not be required by law. Some meetings have two public portions: one in the beginning where the public may speak on any topic that is going to be voted on at that meeting, and one at the end where the people can speak about anything related to the business of the committee.
Can I attend and testify?
If the event is called a "public hearing," it is usually open to the public and anyone can testify. While attorneys and professional lobbyists do attend these hearings, members of the public are also allowed to attend and testify. Attending hearings and speaking directly to decision makers is a type of grassroots lobbying, where the legislators hear directly from their constituency.
If the meeting is just called a "hearing," it's possible that only invited speakers will be allowed to testify. Call in advance to find out if the public will be allowed to testify.
Why should I testify?
Writing letters and making phone calls are great for making your views known to your legislators, but public hearings present some unique opportunities. When you testify at a public hearing, it's a chance to have a back and forth conversation with your legislators. If they have questions about your position, they can ask and you can answer. It's also an opportunity for them to see you and get to know you. These in-person opportunities are also good for getting a point across that doesn't come through on paper or over the phone. I once attended a town hall meeting with my US senators where a 9/11 survivor in a wheelchair came to ask for help. The impact of seeing the woman in person, wrapped in bandages, was a powerful one that captured the attention of the entire room.
How do I prepare?
Do some research to find information that supports your side, and find holes in the other side's arguments. If you've heard of the issue from a group, they can probably provide you with talking points. Facts and figures are good, but don't underestimate the power of emotion, personal stories or a snappy one-liner to make your argument. You can bring written notes, your smartphone or tablet with you, so you can have an outline of what you want to say, or even write out your entire testimony if you like.
This is also your chance to present photographs or evidence that support your testimony. Did you find an arrow in your back yard? Bring it with you when you testify on why hunting should not be allowed in the park behind your house.
You can also prepare copies of articles, photographs or your testimony to give to the committee members.
What do I do at a public hearing?
Plan to arrive early. At a Congressional hearing, people might start lining up outside the meeting room an hour in advance, but for most proceedings, arriving 15 minutes early is plenty. If a large crowd shows up and you are late, you might not get a seat but more importantly, you may not get the chance to testify. I've attended meetings where there were just too many people and late-comers could not testify. Sometimes, a hearing might be continued on a later date and you will get a chance to testify then.
Once you are inside the hearing room, find out if there is a sign-in sheet or forms that have to filled out if you want to speak. You might also have the option of indicating your position on a form without testifying, and your presence is still part of a show of force for your side. However, it's better to sign up to speak. You might hear the other side say something that is incorrect or make an argument that you want to respond to. If you sign up to speak and your name is called, you will then have the option of testifying if you want, and you can always say, "I support the bill. No need to testify." if that situation doesn't come up.
When it's your turn to speak, speak clearly, be polite, and make sure you adhere to any time limits. Two or three minutes are common time limits, although they will sometimes give you extra time to repond to questions from the committee.
Will media be there?
Media will show up to public hearings if something newsworthy or controversial is on the agenda. This is another reason to arrive early. Reporters often stay for the beginning of a hearing, then leave to start writing their articles so they can meet their deadlines. If you testify early, there's a greater chance of being quoted in the newspaper.
Do the hearings really matter?
Yes, there are sometimes legislators who are on the fence about an issue, or who don't feel strongly about it, and those are the people you are hoping to reach, to persuade them to vote your way. Also, if there is sufficient opposition to one part of the proposal, the committee might amend it to address those concerns.
It is frustrating when it sometimes seems the legislators already have their minds made up; especially if they are against you. In those instances, it's still important to attend the hearing and make your voice heard. If the media is there, you may still get your message out to the public, even if the committee members didn't care what was said at the hearing.