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Leading or Chairing Task Forces, Committees and other planning groups set in statute

First, you should do it. It is a great opportunity to get your voice (and your clients' and your organization's voices) heard by policymakers. It gives you the credibility of developing recommendations that have the force of the state's letterhead (your letterhead as an advocate or citizen doesn't compare). It is also critical to a functioning democracy. Legislators and their staff do not understand your world as well as you do; it is your job to help them understand. Task forces and committees bring expertise to the policymaking process that the state could not gather (or afford) any other way. These groups are the crux of intelligent policymaking and you should serve. Having said that, it is a royal pain, a ton of work and, more than likely, you will make someone unhappy. You will not be thanked and may be roundly criticized. You may feel at the end that no one was listening, your recommendations are ignored, and that you wasted your time. You didn't – you never know how your work will impact the issue or what really bad ideas were stopped because of your work. Sometimes, especially on very contentious or expensive issues, just getting everyone talking without spitting at each other is a win.

If you want to find out how to get appointed to a task force or committee, click here.

First, you will not be paid for your time, your staff's time or the costs you incur - get over it. Don't even ask - policymakers will be offended, will not understand, and will start to question your motives.

You need to be completely transparent, going well beyond the requirements of Freedom of Information laws. Your recommendations cannot have even a whiff of secrecy or deal-making. You don’t need to have a completely open process; the General Assembly is transparent, you can see exactly what they are working on, but only members get to vote. Be as open as you can be, but sometimes people with agendas ("bomb throwers", see below) are there to get their company/interest at the front of the line or to shut you down.

You will probably have a Co-Chair. Set up a meeting, preferably face-to-face, as soon as possible. Be upfront about your thoughts/biases/agenda, but polite. Allow your Co-Chair to be equally honest. The most important part of a successful task force is that the two of you are a team. You need to keep him/her in every loop of everything you are doing. There should be no surprises for either of you. If your Co-Chair is an opponent, do not avoid him/her-- consider this an opportunity to find common ground (yes, really). You need to make a few decisions together, ideally at that meeting.

  • Choose a few dates and times for the first task force meeting
  • Set up a timeline - start with when your report is due and work backward
  • Outline the work to be done and who will do what
  • Consider who else you need to reach out to beyond your committee members, and what role you want them to play (i.e. active participant, sit at the table at every meeting, give a presentation to the group, or just to keep informed and ask for feedback) - be as inclusive as possible
  • Decide on the issues you will consider, agenda items to discuss and how much time each issue needs - some contentious issues need a whole meeting, some can be shorter
  • Set up a list of background materials for the committee - readings, links, etc. - ideally these are posted online somewhere -- most will not read them, but you have to have the information available

One of the first things you should do is find out who will be staffing your task force and meet with them, along with your Co-Chair. It will probably be legislative staff and may be outlined in the law. For more on working with legislative staff, go to our Toolbox page. You need the staff to arrange meetings, get you a room, post agendas, and take minutes. Do not expect more than this, you will have to write your own report and do your own research. They do not work for you. Thank them every chance you get - they are probably handling several of these. Be the one with the smallest ego, the most flexible and understanding person they have to deal with.

Staff will let you know who else has been appointed to the task force and/or who else has asked to be involved. Get email addresses for everyone and keep the list yourself. Reach out to all for a first meeting. It is best if you can offer a few times and dates for that meeting and use the one that fits best for the most members; Doodle is a fantastic tool for this.

If yours is not a task force with a defined membership, you will need to develop a list of nominations. Reach out to people you know and the people they know. Making the expectations clear ahead of time is helpful – be sure everyone agrees. Click here for an expectations agreement sent out to one of my committees. Notice that we expected everyone to put aside their narrow interests and work collaboratively. I wasn’t nave enough to think that agreeing to this would get them to behave better, but reminding them at appropriate times was an important tool.

At the first meeting:

  • Go around and have each member introduce themselves and a couple of minutes to give their thoughts, why they agreed to serve, what they are hoping for
  • Your list of issues, ask for additions, subtractions, comments
  • Introduce (and thank) the assigned staff
  • Let them know about the recommended readings
  • Give a general schedule of meetings and the timeline
  • Review the statutory charge, read from the law. Make sure there is a discussion about what you are empowered to address and what is beyond your scope. There may be other groups studying those issues (which is a wonderful out sometimes), and in deference to those Co-Chairs you don’t want to step on their hard work. You can suggest that anyone who really wants to work on that issue should attend those meetings or suggest another task force to policymakers.
  • Give out your contact information and your Co-Chair's. Make it easy to reach you.

Be very diligent about moving through your list of issues – do not allow the group to be sidetracked by details or irrelevant issues. Stick to your schedule. You can decide if you let the group know what issues will be discussed at which meetings. Knowing allows them to be prepared, but it also allows bomb throwers to know when to show up as well.

Your final report can be in whatever format works for you. The usual sections include background, what the committee did (list meetings, presentations, papers, members, etc.), what we learned and recommendations. Send the draft around for comment by email rather than having a meeting to discuss. First, there are no issues that someone's input is left out because they couldn't make the meeting. Also, you have their comments, and your response, in writing. If you can't accommodate them, it is helpful to have documentation of your explanation. Try to accommodate some comment from everyone; it is particularly helpful when the really self-serving types embed their worst stuff in lots of grammar and style changes. You can make a couple of the easy changes.

Generally, the law that created your committee tells you who you need to send the report to. You also need to send it to the House Clerk's and Senate Clerk's offices, the Connecticut Legislative Library and the Connecticut State Library. Call and see if they can take it electronically; most can. You should send it to all the members of the committee you report to, not just the Chairs, as well as any caucus staff or OLR staff who may be interested. A copy of a transmittal letter to accompany the report is attached. Your staff person can help with this.

A note on bomb throwers. They may be paid lobbyists, but more likely are members of interest groups who can only see their point of view or their bottom line. You will never change their minds. Some can be accommodated or are willing to compromise, but others aren’t. You may follow a completely fair process, give them as much time on the agenda as they need to make their case, hold a vote and find that they are the only vote for their point of view, and they will still try and blow up your report at the end. They may even promise to work “collaboratively” and to abide by the decision of the group, and then violate that promise. There is nothing you can do about them. But when they go around you to legislators and policymakers, you can document that their issues were fully considered by the group of experts appointed to look into the matter. That is usually enough.

Tips for handling bomb throwers, self-serving types, people looking for jobs, people trying to sound smart, people who just like to hear themselves talk, and other blowhards:

  • First, stay calm. Take a deep breath. Be professional.
  • I brought chocolate to one meeting hoping to improve the manners of a few blowhards. It didn’t work for me, but it might for you.
  • Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak at each meeting, if they don’t put their hand up - call on them. It is best if everyone speaks once before anyone goes twice.
  • Do not allow anyone to interrupt.
  • Do not allow anyone to question anyone else's motives, even obliquely. Make a joke of it if you like or head on if it is a repeat offender ("Did you mean that to sound that way?").
  • Move particularly heated decision making out of meetings - we put up a surveymonkey poll (only members could vote) after a particularly contentious meeting and found that the blowhards in the room were in the minority. Others did not feel comfortable speaking up at the meeting but felt very differently than the dominant personalities. You may only have to do this once. As the blowhards learn that yelling over everyone actually backfires, they will stop.
  • Do not hesitate to confront poor behavior - start privately if possible, but publicly if necessary. A very wise person once told me that the best way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him. 99% of the time they back down.
  • It isn't fair to everyone else in the room. If you don't deal with the blowhards, people will stop coming to your meetings, won't pay attention, and your recommendations will be ignored.


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