This is more about how to work with lobbyists than it is about the lobbying industry itself, or the lobbying activities that tend to end up in the news. The main goal is to offer practical, usable advice for people who need a lobbyist – or think they might.
Much has been said and written about lobbyists (not much of it good, unfortunately). Lobbying was a hot button topic during much of the last Presidential campaign, and President Obama promised to reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interests in his administration, and has received some criticism for selecting lobbyists for a few of the positions in his cabinet.
But despite all the talk about lobbyists, I haven’t found much in the way of practical, unbiased information about them. I found that the information in the media is shallow at best (this is true of many subjects, but seems especially so with lobbying), and most people don’t know enough about lobbyists to make informed decisions.
Many lobbyists are people who used to work in the government, either as elected officials, political appointees, staff for elected officials, or career civil servants. Their experience in their previous position(s) gives them a great deal of knowledge of how the government works, and a long list of personal contacts – especially in the area of government they used to work in. Former elected officials and political appointees also often carry a reputation that helps them open a lot of doors.
There are more than 50 versions of lobbying laws in states and territories. Yet, all states share a basic definition of lobbying as an attempt to influence government action. Written and oral communications are both recognized as lobbying. Three states (Delaware, Kansas, and Texas) include in their definitions of lobbying providing entertainment, gifts, recreational events, food and beverages to legislators. The remaining states regulate the disclosure of and the amounts spent on such activities.
The definition of who is a lobbyist usually revolves around compensation. Most states define a lobbyist as someone who receives any amount of compensation or reimbursement to lobby. Among the exceptions are Hawaii, Minnesota and New York. These states stipulate threshold amounts of money and time spent on lobbying, and, if these thresholds are reached, an individual becomes a lobbyist.
Beyond their background, many lobbyists also share social and family lives with people that still work in the government. They often live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, send their kids to the same schools, take classes at the same gyms, and eat at the same restaurants. So lobbyists often know a lot of people in government in social circles as well. Lobbyists are often good friends with a lot of the people they lobby, and those personal relationships are things that people who come from outside the beltway simply can’t duplicate.
Although lobbyists can open doors for you, a good lobbyist will do a lot more than that. Lobbyists can offer a whole range of services, including:
- Set Goals ◦You really should already know what your goals are before you talk to any lobbyists. But lobbyists can help translate your goals (which may be business-oriented or end-results-oriented) into goals that make sense in the context of the government.
- Strategy, Timing, & Focus ◦Help you develop a strategy and focus your efforts where they’ll be most successful at the proper time.
- Education ◦Educate you on government processes, regulations, & potential traps (like numerous conflict-of-interest laws).
- Representation ◦Represent you and your interests to the government, so you don’t have to be there in person doing it yourself most of the time.
- Relationships ◦Help you develop relationships with people in government that can help you achieve your goals.
- Champions ◦Find and support “champions” within the government who are willing to push for your objectives from within.
- Marketing ◦Advertise you and/or your project in appropriate places and appropriate ways. For example, if you’re trying to sell an IT solution to the DoD, a lobbying firm with marketing focus might get articles published about your technology in magazines that DoD project managers read.
- Prospecting ◦Identify potential customers within the many, many agencies, organizations, and offices in the government.
- Legislation ◦Support your legal and political interests in new laws considered and enacted by Congress or State Legislatures.
◦Note that lobbyists do alot of work writing actual legislation. They often propose text for new laws and give it to elected officials staffers (who are more than happy to have someone else do the work for them). So a good lobbyist can help get laws written with specific language that meets your objectives.
- Appropriations ◦Seek government or private foundation funding for specific projects or interests.
- Delivery ◦Navigate the processes, politics, and regulations to successfully deliver a project after you’ve succeeded in getting it.
In my experience, the 3 most important of these are (in order):
1.Strategy, Timing and Focus