How HR Can Contribute to Public Policy Work on Campus

Spring 2019
Katie Ross

Have you ever been caught off guard by your state legislature passing a new law that had a profound impact on your employees or on your university as an employer? Have you wondered what your state legislators were up to, and how you could support or oppose their initiatives?

As higher education HR professionals, we operate in a highly regulated environment and navigate an ever-increasing web of laws, rules and regulations. While there are many great resources for staying informed about pending federal public policy and compliance issues, it can be a challenge to find similar resources for staying informed about legislation at the state level.

Several years ago, the University of Illinois System HR office began to address this challenge by developing a state legislative review and monitoring function within our unit. We partnered with our governmental relations office to strengthen our message and gain advocacy experience. While this has been an effective partnership for a number of years, we as HR occasionally find ourselves challenged to raise awareness of how employment and benefits issues are part and parcel to the primary concerns of academics, research and budget.

So where should you start, and how can you develop a consistent process that will help others recognize your valuable contributions and expertise in the public policy arena?

Do Your Homework

First, you’ll need to know some basics to understand the legislative process in your state, including how a bill becomes a law, when the state legislature is in session, and a calendar of important bill passage dates and deadlines. Your state legislature’s website is a great place to start. Here, you can also find out who your local senators and representatives are, the committees on which they serve and which bills they sponsor or support. Find the committees that are most applicable to the work being done through human resources (examples include Labor, Personnel and Employment; Human Resources; Ethics; Pension and Benefits; and Higher Education).

With a little legwork, you can use your expertise as a higher ed HR professional to make an impact on public policy within your state and on your campus.

Look for bills in those committees that might be of interest to or have implications for your college or university and keep track of them. You might create a simple “watch list” spreadsheet that includes the bill number, a brief synopsis, the status and the date. Many states offer bill-tracking services on their legislative websites. These free online applications will let you flag bills of interest and create reports.Private bill-tracking services can also be a great resource and a time-saver, but typically come with a fee (Google “state bill tracking in [your state]” to find options).

It does take some work and dedication to monitor activity in committees and review the bills that you’re tracking for updates, amendments and status changes, but the effort pays off when you can identify a critical bill early and take steps to help advance your university’s position.

Collect Data and Gather Stories

You’ll need to prepare to address a state bill by doing research, collecting data and, perhaps most importantly, collecting stories. Many bills are proposed based on personal experiences and emotional appeals of constituents to their state leaders. Data that show the reality of the expense or impact to your university is helpful and often eye-opening for lawmakers. Equally powerful, and sometimes more so, are brief stories that illustrate how a proposed bill might impact specific students, professors or employees. Prepare a one-page fact sheet (in a bulleted, easy-to-read format) that highlights a few key data points or stories.

Be sure to try and anticipate and prepare responses for counterarguments to your position and alternate viewpoints from others who are impacted. Also, think about whether you can or should involve others who are similarly impacted — are there local employers, state agencies, sister schools or other colleges who will sign on to a letter of support or host a meeting with you? Often your voice is strengthened by involving others. Finally, know your “ask” — what is it that you want your legislators to do? Support the bill, oppose the bill, amend the bill?

Identify How You’ll Communicate With Legislators

Now that you’re prepared to advocate for your university’s position on a bill or issue, how do you actually share your views? Phone calls and emails to your state legislators’ districts and state capitol offices are one of the quickest and easiest methods. If you call, you’ll likely be speaking to a legislative staffer. Always be brief, polite and positive. Practice what you can say in 30 seconds to a minute to give important highlights of your position. Reference the bill number, and provide your name, phone number and email address. If you choose to communicate via email, keep it brief and attach your fact sheet. If you choose to mail in a letter, a neatly handwritten or typed personalized letter is more meaningful and impactful than a form letter.

If you can visit your state legislator’s district office or travel to your state capitol, even better. Call ahead to the district office to make an appointment or find out when your representative is holding open office hours. Look for committee meetings and subject-matter hearings at the capitol that allow public comments. You can usually complete a short form online or in person, which indicates your support or opposition to a bill and allows you to receive a brief timeslot for making comments. You can also call to set up a short meeting with your legislator or committee members at the state capitol. Prepare and practice 30-second to five-minute “elevator speeches” so you can vary your comments and hit the highlights depending on how much time you are allotted. Always bring multiple typed copies of your comments and your fact sheet to the capitol as leave-behind material.

For high-profile issues, especially those that have your local legislators’ support, consider working with your government relations or public affairs office to hold a town hall meeting or press conference on campus where your legislators, faculty, staff and other supporters can speak to the issue.

The Takeaways

In summary, here are tips that can assist you in developing relationships and interacting with your state legislators:

  • Always be polite, even when things don’t go your way — you never know when you might need assistance on a new issue.
  • Focus on short stories about impacts on real people, but also have costs and data handy to back up the stories.
  • Be flexible and understanding of schedule changes. State legislators are pulled in several different directions on any given day and may have urgent matters or important votes come up, so your meeting might get postponed or canceled at the last minute. A positive attitude will win you a lot of points with legislative staffers, and you may be able to use the time to stop in at other legislators’ offices and make new connections.
  • Remember, if you’re advocating as a citizen (not representing your university), it’s a best practice to be clear about that, and you may also need to use your personal phone or home computer during lunch, breaks or non-work hours to do so to avoid any conflict with work responsibilities.
  • Finally, know when to stop advocating. Your bank of political capital is not bottomless. It might be better to agree to a less detrimental but still not perfect amendment, or to step out of the ring and start figuring out the best way to comply with a new law (and save some fight for the next bill).

Higher education HR professionals hold the keys to important information about the effects of many state proposals on their university in terms of impact to faculty and staff, increased costs and increased administrative burdens. It is important that we have a role in supporting or opposing state bills in order to protect our employees and our universities as employers. We can have a powerful impact with our unique perspective, data and stories from our universities. Taking an active role helps ensure that state legislative changes happen with you and not to you.

About the author: Katie Ross is senior director of human resources at the University of Illinois System.

Tips From CUPA-HR’s Government Relations Team

Whether advocating at the state or the federal level, CUPA-HR’s government relations team offers the following advice for higher ed HR professionals:

  • Get to know your institution’s chief government relations officer or federal affairs officer, and share with them CUPA-HR’s public policy resources (legislative and regulatory news and advocacy efforts and positions) and discuss the impact certain issues might have on your institution.
  • Get your institution’s approval before advocating as a representative of your college or university.
  • Determine contacts in both the state and federal arena who might need to be informed on the impact certain legislation might have on your campus and who might help champion your institution’s interests.
  • Partner with other senior leaders to help identify policy positions for your institution, and help ensure senior leadership is ahead of emerging public policy in the HR realm.
  • Understand your institution’s policies/restrictions on lobbying — advocacy must be done strategically and done right.


The CUPA-HR national office will be closed July 4 in observance of Independence Day.