CJ Evans, Managing Director, American Diversified Enterprises, outlines the 15 essential steps to lobbying government for your cause and 12 that must be avoided.
1. Join all industry groups that work on behalf of your interests
The more members they have and the more member dues and contributions they receive, the more effective they can be. But don’t let your involvement in political activities begin and end with your dues payment. Pay attention to legislative alerts. Do everything you can to follow the industry group’s lead in keeping yours and its priorities on the minds of policymakers at all levels of government. Participate in annual lobbying days when your industry group organises these policymaker visits to draw attention to these priorities.
2. Recognise the difference between lobbying at different levels of government
At the town, city, municipal, county, parish, and district/provincial/state levels, you will usually meet with and speak directly to policymakers; if they have any staff at all, it is likely to be administrative, not policy-oriented.
Policymakers at these levels of government often have other jobs in addition to being policymakers. Those at the district/provincial/state levels also may meet only a few months a year. To be effective, reach out to them, and spend time at their receptions and fundraisers in between and before the policymaker sessions begin. At these levels of government, and particularly where legislative sessions only last a few months, legislation often moves at lightning speed, and opportunities to spend more than a few minutes with a policymaker to make your case are limited. Be prepared with quick, walk-with-me-down-the-hall and ride-with-me-in-the-elevator pitches, backed up with a one-page, bulleted handout.
At the national level, knowing and talking with elected policymakers is less important than knowing and talking with the staff members responsible for the legislative areas in which you are interested and the professional staff of the committees and subcommittees devoted to those legislative areas.
Policymakers at the national level of government set the priorities, make the decisions on how they wish to influence upcoming and pending legislation, direct staff activities, and make the votes that count.
All work in legislative bodies at the national level, including the US Congress, is most often conducted by staff. They are charged with understanding the details of legislative actions, crafting the language and making the arguments in subcommittee and committee meetings to support their national-level policymaker’s position, and working with other staff to move initiatives forward. They work long hours and can get swamped with demands pulling them in many directions.
Whatever you want to do in a national-level legislative body, there is a group of staff members who will make it happen or prevent it from happening. You can meet with a national-level policymaker, and they will direct their staff to work out the details with you. That is the top-down approach to getting things done.
The other approach, which I often have found to be much more successful, is the bottom-up approach. Staff members, despite the demands they face, have more time to spend listening to arguments, pros and cons, new ideas and approaches, and requests. If you make a compelling argument, they will take it to their bosses. If they like what you have said, and see its benefits, they will become strong advocates, not only with their bosses but with other offices as well. Once they get the green light from their bosses, they’ll sit down to work out the details with you while providing critical guidance on strategy.
3. Keep in mind that each office and each policymaker – at every level of government – is different
There are no hard and fast rules, only generally applicable ones. This leads to a key point: be sure you’ve studied everything you can about a policymaker – their background, priorities, committee assignments, and accomplishments – before setting foot in their office or stepping in an elevator with them. What you say and do in one office can backfire in another. The trick is to recognise that every issue has multiple facets; your success hangs on being able to select and emphasise the facets of the issue, and to adjust your emphasis and strategy, in ways that will fit with and appeal to each policymaker that resonate with their worldviews, and will provide a tangible benefit to their constituents, prospects for re-election, and have the potential to generate positive publicity.
4. Waiting for a crisis before reaching out to policymakers is a mistake
There is a months-long (sometimes years-long) legislative process that begins with the requests and priorities that policymakers set at the national level. This leads to subcommittee debate, priority setting, and drafting of the initial language that is introduced in a bill. Next come the subcommittee, committee, and floor votes that move bills forward, which are then conferenced to resolve differences between bills from the different chambers of the legislature.
5. Starting early is particularly important for appropriations
The annual appropriations process begins in the US in February each year. It’s wise to have your planning, strategy, and key talking points ready by January. Same with your staff contacts in each office. Having the figures from the previous year’s appropriation and the administration’s budget request is useful.
6. To be effective, you need to voice your support for the programmes that affect you early in the process and throughout the process
This advice extends from suggesting programme priorities (as well as improvements and fixes) and commenting on bill language each step of the way right through conferencing. Legislation tends to be worked out well in advance of floor consideration and, often, is considered in large packages. The key step in the process is getting your item in the package. That starts weeks and months in advance.
7. Have your key information ready in a concise form
What you’re asking for, why it’s important, any relevant policymaker constituent and district impacts, how much it costs, who else is on board, and who opposes it. If someone opposes, be upfront: tell the staffer why someone opposes it and why you think your side is more persuasive. Think of yourself less as an advocate and more as an educator.
8. Recognise that some issues pop up suddenly
When that happens, it isn’t possible to do early outreach. But if you already have established a good relationship with offices that can make a difference and are keeping track of what is occurring with legislation affecting issues important to you, you can immediately reach out to those offices.
9. If policymaker offices at the national level don’t hear from supporters until a vote is scheduled, there may be little that can be done
The trade-offs that allow one program to go forward often are balanced by takeaways from other programs; these will already be in place once votes are scheduled.
10. Programmes and policy requests receive priority because one or more constituencies have banded together and gained the support of their policymakers to advance these requests
Preference will go to the requests that appeal most to each policymaker, do the most for the places and people they represent, generate the most positive publicity, and for which there is a clear constituency and consistent support. Be sure your request – and the policies for which you wish to secure support – check off as many of these positives as possible.
Be sure you know how they compete – and/or fit in – with other programs and policies that the policymaker supports. If there are competing interests that oppose or wish to take resources away from the requests you are making, be prepared to address the points being raised.
11. Use each member’s online forms to submit requests and ask to schedule meetings
You also may use the online scheduling forms to request a meeting with staff. Or you may reach out to a staff member directly. If you do not know which staff member handles the issue in which you are interested, call the policymaker’s office to find out.
12. It is helpful to schedule a brief introductory visit or Zoom call early on before making a request
This is useful in ‘taking the temperature’ of a policymaker’s office, learning about upcoming priorities, developing a rapport with staff, and connecting with them so they know who you are and will recognise your name. This will provide valuable insights into knowing how to approach the office when you make your request.
Staff, however, will not take time to ‘chat’ with you. There has to be a reason, a hook, that ties into your issue, even if tangentially, that is related to something the policymaker has done or about something important to the policymaker, such as a recent news article or an event.
This is not a time to advocate but ask questions, draw staff members out, getting them to talk about upcoming priorities and actions with a clear but soft tie-in with the issues important to you. Please note: Introductory calls and visits only can take place before a legislative session gets in full swing and staff become too busy to spend time on anything that is not specifically related to advancing policy.
13. Bring in constituents to explain why an issue is important to a policymaker’s constituents
The most compelling arguments you can make are those solidly based on constituent interests and how the request you are making impacts jobs, wages, well-being, and the economic interests of the communities where they live.
14. Don’t overdo a good thing
Having repeat meetings or prodding several members of a coalition to contact staff only to make the same point repeatedly makes a staffer less likely to act favourably. Reach out to staff if you have something new to add, if you find another compelling constituent angle, or if you have a valuable tidbit to share. Follow up on your meetings with a short thank you, along with a short, two or three-sentence summary of the points you discussed and your request.
Don’t forget to thank staffers when a bill is introduced that reflects your input and when a vote goes your way. To call attention to an action on an upcoming subcommittee, committee or floor vote, encourage others to call, write, or email their policymakers. Keep these calls brief: 25 words or less to name the issue, the action occurring, and how you wish to have your policymaker vote. Keep emails and letters brief, too. In terms of effectiveness, calls work best.
15. The seagull style of lobbying does not work
More damage than good is done when an individual swoops in, struts around, squawks about what hasn’t been done, gesticulates disparagingly (about other companies and interests, the legislative process, specific offices and parties, etc.), then flies away to not be heard from again (until there’s another problem).
The dirty dozen no-nos to avoid
- Overstaying your welcome: meetings should be no more than 15 minutes:
- First 1-2 minutes: introductions, exchange of business cards, optional ice-breaker, but only if it relates to a policymaker’s interests or the subject at hand;
- Next 5 minutes, no more. State your case and cite details that support your case;
- Next 5 minutes, listen to the staff member’s or policymaker’s response;
- Next 2 minutes, discuss possible next steps;
- Final 1 minute, thank the staff member or policymaker for their time
- If you are awarded additional time, make good use of it; having extra time means you have done an effective job up to that point stating your points; don’t blow it (see number three below)
- Not having key points written out in a one-page handout to use as a springboard for discussion and leaving behind
- Talking without listening: don’t waste the time of those who have granted you time to meet or take part in a Zoom call by being long-winded or talking on and on; the less time you take to get to the point and the more time you listen, the more you will get done
- Not offering solutions or workarounds
- Emailing or handing out too much information (anything over one or two pages is too much); if more information is available (and it should be), offer to provide it on request
- Showing up with a large crowd of people (two to three people per meeting is best)
- Becoming belligerent or argumentative
- Not showing respect and consideration
- Not wanting to meet with or talking down to staff (i.e., not recognising that staff carry out requests of the policymaker for whom they work and are important advocates in taking things up with the policymaker)
- Not understanding the legislative process or the legislation that relates to the matters you wish to discuss
- Making a request for a meeting or a legislative action without knowing anything about the office, a policymaker’s interests and priorities, and the policymaker’s recent activities and legislation
- Finally, a big no-no is interrupting policymakers at work, when they are having dinner, or are socialising with friends. Please keep their day jobs and policymaker jobs separate and respect this separation; you won’t do yourself any favours trying to approach them about a policy issue when they are at work. Especially don’t interrupt them should you spot them in a restaurant or enjoying time with friends; you’ll deep-six any effort to advance your initiative and likely close off the opportunity to speak with them again when it most matters during their policymaker sessions. The only exception to this is if you know a policymaker well enough to socialise, play golf, or go fishing or hiking. Even then, keep policy discussion light, with a brief mention, saying that you will follow up at an appropriate time. If they invite you to continue, then that is their choice, and be prepared with your quick, walk-with-me-down-the-hall and ride-with-me-in-the-elevator pitch.
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