Virtual public hearings are now the norm for agencies gathering community input at every level of government, from federal down to local. These, together with online comment periods, are places to share input on rules and standards that can have a huge impact on issues you care about—from drinking water protections to air pollution controls. Typically, a comment period runs for 30 to 90 days, depending on the government body overseeing the process, before a new rule can go into effect or an existing one can be modified.
Here’s everything you need to make your voice count while decision makers are listening.
Educate yourself on the rule in question.
Make sure you read and digest the rule first, so you’ll understand what’s at stake. There are occasions when you’ll come out in support of change, and others when you’ll want to resist change to a rule that’s keeping people safe.
Come up with your angle.
To make a big impression on the decision makers, think through your stance. Hone in on how this issue is affecting not just you personally but also others in your community. Let’s say you want to weigh in on an opportunity to help cut tailpipe emissions and you live near a highway where the fumes wafting into your neighborhood have caused high asthma rates. Or neighbors are paying way too much for bottled water because they can’t drink safely from their taps. These are all impactful details to emphasize.
With any rule you want to comment on, it’s important to establish credibility as someone with firsthand knowledge of the given issue; it’s even better if you can represent the concerns of allies so that you’re speaking on the behalf of many.
Craft your comment.
If you’re preparing for an online hearing, plan on speaking for as little time as you’d like but keep to within the established time limits. Often, that’ll be just a few minutes per commenter; after that, you’ll likely be cut off. Remember that one minute covers about 150 words, so plan your comments accordingly. And once you’ve written your thoughts down, practice them so you are familiar with what you want to say. Want to really drive your point home? Consider making a poster or finding a prop to help emphasize your point as you speak.
For a written comment, you’ll want to keep your submission similarly brief—half a page to a page is best, though in some cases you may be able to write up to 1,250 words.
Prepare for participation in a public hearing.
- You’ll generally need to register in advance to testify at the given hearing. Since the speaking slots sometimes fill up quickly, it’s best to sign up for one as early as possible. (But don’t give up: Most hearings include time at the end for attendees who didn’t get a specific slot to share comments. Some agencies will also maintain wait lists for members of the public who want to speak.)
- Once you have registered to speak, you will receive an e-mail with information on how to connect, including a web link and a call-in number for joining by phone. Keep an eye on your inbox shortly before the appointed date.
- Keep a digital copy of your testimony handy, to share with officials.
- Plan to show up 20 minutes in advance so you can make sure you have access to the virtual room and to acclimate yourself. It is also possible that there will be additional instructions shared verbally for speakers planning to testify, or that the meeting will be running ahead of schedule.
- Be prepared for a wait. Depending on the number of speakers, there may be a delay. (Bottom line: Stay flexible!)
- You will speak to a panel of officials who are there to listen and take notes. The panel members may ask you clarifying questions about your comments but will not respond to your statements directly.
- After you have finished providing your testimony, you are free to leave or stay on to hear others comments, if you wish.
Keep up your activism after your comment submission or testimony.
Here are three ways to stay engaged:
- Join NRDC’s community to receive e-mails or text alerts about opportunities to comment on environmental policies.
- Use your social media accounts to encourage friends and family to testify or comment—the more people the agency hears from, the bigger impact it will make.
- Pay attention to any forward movement on the issue at hand. If the agency supports your point of view, thank them and recognize their dedication to protecting our environment publicly.
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