Humanizing Government Relations

My fellow lobbyists, I have distressing news. Our members don’t know who we are and why we exist within our associations. They don’t see our value. We have to deal with a Congress that can’t get shit done (yup, I just cursed). Congressional staffers don’t want to meet with us. We’re being told that a 10% cut to our program areas should be considered a legislative victory. We’re in the age of the SuperPAC where our association PAC check isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Former members of Congress can be “consultants” and lobby their friends to their heart’s content while we have to be registered and scrutinized at every turn.

Friends – It’s time we humanize government relations.

If you don’t read another book this year, please read Humanize, from Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant. Jamie and Maddie challenge their readers to take a hard, honest look at how things are done and ask themselves, “Is this the best we can do?” There’s a number of valuable lessons here, way too many to mention in this space. The social media aspect alone is worth three blog posts. Humanizing government? That’s a book in itself. Book reviews can be found here, here and here. I want to exam a few of the basic principles within the four elements identified in the book: Open, Trustworthy, Generative, and Courageous.

Open – The authors identify the need for organizations to be human by becoming more open. Being open can take many forms: decentralized cultures, structured silos, and ownership. From a government relations perspective, are we as open as can be as far as engaging members and staff on advocacy? When we pull together an action alert, are we willing to have staff from other departments look at it before it goes out? More often than not, we, as government relations professionals, tend to operate on our island either by choice or circumstance. Do we make our members feel that they can make a difference on Capitol Hill? Anyone can bring their members to DC. What are we doing to show the benefits of participating in a Hill day? It’s got to be more than just a pin and their names on a bulletin board. Our members need to be an active participant in our legislative agenda.

Trustworthy - In Humanize, one aspect of being trustworthy is transparency. I once knew a PAC Director who outright refused to publicly list the names of candidates who received contributions from their association’s PAC. The reason? They feared that they couldn’t justify the contributions to the membership. If this is how you manage your PAC, just quit your job right now. How can you possibly get members to contribute and support your PAC when you are unwilling to tell them who their PAC dollars support? To garner support of our initiatives on Capitol Hill, we must let our members know what we’re doing. Sure, sausage making is nasty stuff, but I’d rather know than assume.

Generative – At the individual level, being generative is to be willing to build relationships. The very nature of our job is based on relationships. The Sunlight Foundation reported that lobbyists are willing to give up expertise in a particular issue area if it meant maintaining a valuable connection on Capitol Hill. However, do we value relationships with our members as much as the ones with congressional staff? Do we know anything the members who respond to our action alerts? Our members, in many cases, have better connections to members of Congress than we do. In fact the quality of those relationships is probably better. But we don’t know this because we don’t take the time to get to know our members.

Courageous – To be courageous is to be willing to experiment. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, government relations isn’t the first thing you think about when it comes to innovation. However, don’t think that it’s not happening. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen was during a workshop on communication with the Hill. One of the panelists, representing the Southeastern US chapter of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, showed the audience how in-district congressional visits were conducted using an iPad. Who would’ve thought to use Skype and FaceTime during a congressional visit? It’s this type of experimentation that is so desperately needed in government relations.

As you go through your day today, think about the lessons laid out in Humanize and ask yourself, “What am I willing to do to make government relations more human?”

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