Advice for Engaging a Legislature: Eight Testimony Tips for Public Health Leaders

October 30, 2023 | Lorrin Kim

State, territory, and freely associated state health officials are leading experts in public health practice and are often asked to speak on behalf of their legislatures on various topics. The process of navigating a state or island area legislature is complex. In this video, Lorrin Kim, chief policy officer and legislative coordinator at the Hawaii Department of Health, shares his expertise on where to focus efforts to begin familiarizing oneself with the legislative process and building relationships with legislators.


Advice for Engaging a Legislature: Eight Testimony Tips for Public Health Leaders

Tip #1: Trust Your Legislative Team

Most directors of health find themselves overwhelmed with just running the health department. So, part of my job is to convince them to, number one, trust your legislative team. If you have a team that's been in more than three to five sessions, they probably have a very good understanding of the fundamentals. So, trust your team. Two, understand the kind of state health official you'd like to be in terms of public policy. I prefer to bring out a state health official when it's something very important. Something that's not housekeeping or routine, but when we're trying to make a really big public policy or public health statement.

Tip #2: Understand What You Are Trying to Accomplish

As a public health leader, you should also understand what you're trying to accomplish with your testimony. It's more than just providing information to the legislature with some testimony; you're actually speaking to the media. First and foremost, you're always addressing the bill and its merits. If you've been doing this long enough, your committee chair or the committee you’re working with should have an idea of what you're trying to accomplish and why, the merits of the bill, the opportunities to improve it, and where your agency stands. That occurs well before the meeting because you're meeting with them behind closed doors. That said, my preference for that kind of testimony is to keep it short, give me the maximum amount of flexibility, and repeat some very high talking points.

Tip #3: Use Testimony to Drive Action

There are issues that are a little less of a slam dunk, and we'll need to use testimony as a way to activate media. So, I might suggest a provocative statement or a soundbite that the media may pick up. We may use testimony to present a litany of facts—research from experts and studies from the CDC or academic institutions that often get picked up in the media. It's especially great when those data are hyper-localized. For instance, this is Hawaii compared to the continent or the island of Hawaii compared to the island of Kauai. We do that somewhat deliberately to make sure that media can flip through online testimony and create sound bites or replicate our message. That way, we get to activate community members, hopefully to rally to our side and less so to big tobacco, let's say.

Tip #4: No Surprises

Make sure your committee members, especially the Chair, are not surprised by anything you're going to say. You want committee hearings to be as controlled an environment as possible. And again, there's nothing wrong with saying, I don't have that information, or I'll need to get back to you. It's a great way to turn the dynamic in case things are working in a not-so-great way. We negotiate on behalf of the public. So, we always want to put our best policy forward. We're not haggling for a car and waiting for the salesman to go lower. If we say we want a 75% rate, that's exactly what we want. We may go lower, we may go higher. But this is where we are right now. And again, that's very important for credibility. We are the state government, and we are negotiating on behalf of the public good for the public. So, there are no games; just say what you want and put your best deal that you think will have the greatest chance of success forward. And that has always been good advice. Not always in the short run, but always in the long run because many of these things are so complex or fraught with different interests that these things take time.

Tip #5: Learn the Legislative Process

Understand the legislative process as detailed a level as you have time; at a minimum, understand the calendar and what the deadlines mean. You're working on the legislature’s timeline; they're not working on your timeline. And that's why a lot of new folks who are new to this process don't understand why you're repeating the same things over and over two different people, and they seem to be asking the same questions. It'll increase your odds of success if you understand what the legislators are going through and their relationship with each other. Understand that a public hearing's purpose is for the public to talk to the legislature rather than the other way around. Understand that a floor session is for legislators to talk to each other, not for public input. And then understand the dynamics of leadership. Understand the roles of various legislators in leadership—the majority leader versus the policy leader versus the floor leader, et cetera. Some of those get into advanced concepts. Dialing it back a little to someone who doesn't have a lot of experience. One of the silver linings of COVID-19 was online testimony and YouTube archives. But even without that, our legislature broadcasts on the public access cable network. So, if you're a new public health leader and don't have any experience with state legislatures, just keep it on in the background and learn the flow of committee hearings and what the terminology means. It’s like having C-span on while you're cooking dinner. Just understand what the gaveling in and out does, what the Latin terms mean, and absorb it while doing other work just to get a sense of the rhythm of the legislature.

Tip #6: Get to Know Your Chair

Fortunately, the pandemic has forced the Hawaii State Legislature to be online and to have YouTube archives. So, go back, watch the Chair, and look at how they manage the committee hearing. Try to figure out when they are out of patience with a testifier. Listen very carefully to the questions they ask. What kind of information are they really getting at and asking from you as the state agency? Again, we're very fortunate that whatever testimony we submit, state agencies are the very first ones listed. I think that demonstrates some deference to the executive branch as the subject matter experts, and we're grateful for that relationship. Ultimately, policymaking is with the legislature, but the opportunity to inform them is both seen as an opportunity and a responsibility.

Tip #7: Talk About What You Understand

Of course, you come doing your homework, never talk about anything you don't understand. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, I'm sorry, Chair, I don't have that information. I will get that for you as soon as I can.

Tip #8: Understand Your Budget

What you can accomplish depends on your budget. Understand that the budget is the most important public policy document, and everything else is just degrees of importance relative to the budget. Understanding how the legislators listen to you and what they need to do to be your champion within the legislature, their caucus, and their chamber is extremely important. Some of those are more advanced concepts, but again, I refer you to number one, which is to rely on your legislative coordinator.