By Taralinda Willis
Government affairs is a relationship business, especially at the local level.
For lobbyists, in-person meetings and casual interactions with lawmakers have always been a crucial part of the relationship-building that helps them accomplish their advocacy priorities in local government.
So when face-to-face meetings are out of the question, what can government affairs experts do to make sure their clients’ voices are heard?
It’s not like you can just seamlessly convert all of your in-person meetings to virtual, although virtual networking can be an effective lobbying strategy. But everyone has a limit to how much screen time they can handle, and the last thing a local lawmaker wants to do — while juggling fighting a pandemic, saving an economy in freefall, homeschooling their kids, and learning a host of new digital communication platforms — is to have another Zoom meeting with a lobbyist.
Luckily, there are many other productive things you can do with your time while waiting out the apocalypse that can set you up for success when normal(ish) life resumes.
Local lawmakers develop their regulatory priorities based on the views expressed by concerned local residents and businesses. And they rely on experts to educate them about complicated local ordinances. Typically, this education happens through in-person meetings. But with a little proactive effort, you can still provide invaluable education about a topic virtually. Consider creating educational assets that local policymakers can watch, listen to, or read on their own time.
One of the biggest challenges local governments are finding as they respond to the economic crisis the pandemic has caused is a lack of information. Local governments are poorly equipped to share and receive information from residents during a rapidly-evolving crisis.
If you represent a large utility or a membership-based trade organization, you likely have sophisticated communication tools that connect you to a huge segment of the regional population. To assist local lawmakers when they are crafting their response to the pandemic, find ways to leverage your membership or customer base to provide useful data about which communities are being hit the hardest, and what their particular challenges are. This could happen through surveying your members or customers or just examining your internal data. Of course, make sure to respect the privacy of your members or users by sharing data only in aggregate and with permission.
Without any upcoming trips to conferences, or coffee meetings in your schedule, it’s a good time to reflect on your processes and find ways to refine them, especially if your process up until now has relied a little too heavily on the grapevine.
Take some time to make sure your process for reviewing local government agency reports, local regulatory actions, and municipal minutes and agendas is comprehensive. If you’re only covering the cities and counties that you directly operate in, consider expanding your coverage to all of the neighboring jurisdictions, or, ideally, the entire state.
To monitor that many agencies, you’ll need either an army of sharp-eyed interns or a force-multiplying government relations tool like Curate.
To understand how important it is to expand our lens, take a look at the justification Wood County, Wis., provided for doubling a handful of highway fees in a meeting on March 12:
“Hawk has completed research on neighboring counties...Hawk is requesting the cost of the OS/OW permit increase from $25 to $50 to be consistent with the other permits...These fees are all in comparison to Marathon, Portage, and Adams counties.”
It’s very common for communities to borrow policies from their neighbors when it comes to utility fees and permits. If surrounding counties have already raised permit fees, then it’s only a matter of time before the county you operate in will propose a fee hike.
With Curate, you can track every mention of upcoming changes to fee schedules, permit processes, and local ordinances across the state, even in towns so small they don’t have a stoplight. Curate’s weekly reports will give you the best chance of preventing unfair increases in permit fees.
When municipalities get back to normal — or maybe even before, in some cases — they’re going to be on the hunt for new revenue sources to make up for the massive shortfall in tax revenue of every kind.
One easy target? Fees. These tend to disproportionately impact large entities like energy companies, utilities, developers, and other organizations that maintain physical infrastructure across a large geographic area.
If you successfully spot an upcoming discussion about raising fees and you’re able to join in the conversation, your chances of defeating those fee increases will hinge greatly on your relationship with the broader public.
That’s why it’s smart to focus on building public support when your access to lawmakers is limited. And with so many communities needing extra support during the pandemic, there are infinite opportunities to build goodwill right now.
For utility companies, there’s a ready-made opportunity to proactively position themselves as team players in the community, since most public utility commissions have suspended disconnections for the duration of the public health emergency. Look for similar opportunities to present your organization as a compassionate member of the community throughout the crisis — public support will come in handy when you face future fee hikes.
Whether it's sharing actionable data with lawmakers pulled from your customers or your operations, taking the opportunity to widen your advocacy lens, or building public support, you are sure to be improving your
These three strategies will help you build a more effective government relations program even during a pandemic.