By Sarah Giencke
Government regulation and policy change are some of the biggest threats to a business’s operating income. While this is true at every level of government, the speed at which policy can change at the local government level makes the threat of local policy change the most urgent for many organizations.
High-performing public affairs teams and government affairs directors have relied on legislative and regulatory tracking software to keep track of their advocacy priorities at the state and federal level for years, but it’s only within the last five years that local government tracking software has become available.
The timing is apt as more and more organizations are feeling the impact that local policy changes are having on their operations, revenue, and their bottom line.
Savvy public affairs teams are realizing that word of mouth is no longer a reliable source for timely intel about legislative and regulatory change at the local level, and they are turning to tracking solutions to make sure they never miss an issue.
Before investing in local policy tracking software for the first time, it’s helpful to think through the following questions so you can better evaluate the different software options.
The number of governing bodies that you need to keep track of will determine whether you need local legislative software. If your team only tracks one or two small municipalities, you may be able to keep up with what is happening in each of the commissions, committees and other voting bodies in those two cities by manually finding agendas and minutes on the government websites and reading through them. But if you need to track three or more cities, the massive amount of documents produced by those cities will likely be overwhelming if you don’t have a tracking solution. Adopting a local tracking solution will ensure you never miss an issue.
A local issue tracking service will do you no good if it doesn’t track the cities and towns your organization operates in. The number of cities available and the size of the cities tracked are two major distinguishing factors between the local policy software options available in 2021.
The software providers typically break down their coverage by population size, ranging from a solution that tracks cities as small as 1,000 residents to providers that only cover the 200 largest cities and counties within the 50 states.
For public affairs teams that work in highly populated areas, it’s often not enough to be able to access local legislation updates at the county level because that still covers too large of an area.
For example, Los Angeles County in California encompasses 88 cities and about 140 unincorporated areas. If each of your team members is only responsible for tracking issues in five or 10 municipalities within that county, you will need a tracker with more specificity than just county-level.
Make sure that the tracking technology you choose offers the ability to filter results within the dashboard in the same way your team divides up your coverage area so that team members don’t waste time looking at legislative alerts that aren’t relevant to them.
A key difference between many of the tracking solutions available comes from the user experience after the software has identified a document that contains a relevant mention of one of your advocacy priorities.
In some solutions, the software points the user to the government website where the agenda is stored, and leaves the user to search through the document on their own, or even read it through from top to bottom if the agenda is not in a searchable format.
The better user experience comes from the solutions that import the agendas and minutes into the software in a searchable format, taking users directly to each mention in context.
Most government relations teams will find the second option saves time and is much easier to work with.
In addition to using local legislative software to mitigate policy risk, many companies monitor the discussions happening in local government for reputation management purposes by including their own company name as an advocacy priority. Similarly, they can also gain insight about their competitors by getting updates when their names are mentioned in meetings.
If reputation management is an important use-case for your organization, make sure the solution you choose tracks meeting minutes in addition to meeting agendas, because company names often come up during discussions even when they are not mentioned on the agenda.
While you can’t do much to change the past, you can still learn a lot from researching how different cities across the country have dealt with controversial issues over the last few years and what laws they have passed in response to them. For example, if you're unsure how a local community feels about an issue like wind power, you can use legislative tracking tools to research that topic in past council and committee meeting minutes. See how to do that in our political advocacy case study: Uncovering local attitudes about wind power.
Make sure the option you’re considering offers a search engine function that allows your team members to search through historical meeting minutes and agendas across an entire state during a given date-range for any mention of a topic.
The options for automated tools to track local policy issues include a few all-in-one federal, state, and local solutions that aim to organize all of the activities that fall under the external engagement umbrella, and one specialized tool for tracking local legislation.
The suite-style solutions were built with the state or federal lobbyist in mind, but have in recent years branched out to include some local features. Because of this, all of the suite-style state and local solutions offer less local coverage than the local-focused option.
But let’s say that all of the communities you want to track are available in one of the suite-style options. Should you go with the suite-style option because you’ll get more functionality?
Not necessarily. Here are a few reasons why a specialized local tracker may serve you better than an all-in-one solution:
Effectively tracking and anticipating legislation at the local level requires a completely different approach than tracking state or federal tracking because of the way local governments operate. A local ordinance can go from idea to law extremely quickly—sometimes as fast as two weeks.
When suite-style legislation trackers apply their system for tracking state and federal bills to local legislation, they usually only catch ordinances when they are listed on an agenda for a hearing or even a vote, which is almost always too late to influence the outcome. But those local ordinances don’t come out of nowhere. They’re often presaged by comments and conversations that go on for months between elected officials and concerned citizens that are captured in the minutes of various public meetings where the issue of concern was not on the agenda.
Services designed around tracking bills can’t provide those insights to government relations teams, but specialized local legislation trackers can and do.
An all-in-one solution typically has a much longer onboarding process than a best-in-class solution. An all-in-one solution might take months to set up, but with a best-in-class solution for local tracking, your team should be able to start incorporating the tool into their workflow after one short training session.
While all-in-one local, state, and federal solutions offer an impressive amount of integrations between functions, they also come with a higher price tag than best-in-class solutions. If you don’t need to access every feature in a suite-style solution, you may end up paying for functionality you never use.
If, in addition to tracking policy changes at the local government level, you also want to track mentions of your advocacy priorities on social media or at the state government level, you will want to compare the suite-style services with the best-in-class services for all three of those functions. A general rule that applies to local legislative software is that if you want super granular local tracking, but you also need state legislation and social media tracking, you’re going to be looking at a minimum of two different tools to accomplish all of your goals.
It’s a little bit like choosing between a mountain bike, an all-terrain hybrid, and a road bike. A hybrid bike can go on both road and trail, but if you want to win races on both trails and roads, you’re going to need a bike that’s specialized for each terrain. If your local political advocacy priorities are mission-critical for your organization, then you need a best-in-class local legislation tracker in addition to a state legislation tracker and/or a social media tracking service.
The pricing structure for local legislative tracking software is often broken down by the number of accounts or users needed. To make a smart decision, it helps to figure out how many people on your team need access to the solution with a unique account. This may or may not include all of the people who will eventually act on the civic intelligence discovered in the software. Think about your company’s organizational structure to figure out who needs to be receiving alerts, who might need to conduct their own historical research, and whether there is overlap between the coverage areas or if each team member needs to track different regions and different topics. Knowing the answers to these questions will help you choose the right provider.
The most important question when thinking about buying local legislative tracking software is this:
What will happen if you miss something? Can your organization afford the repercussions if you’re blindsided by an ordinance that cripples your business model or destroys your profit margins?
In 2021, the only way to effectively monitor local policy change is with an automated software tool. If you’re not proactively monitoring local policy, you’re at risk of getting surprised by adverse changes to local policy, and you’re missing the opportunity to improve the external environment through political advocacy.