Lessons from my government relations days

Tomorrow begins the 439th session of the Maryland General Assembly. In honor of that occasion and the swearing in of the 116th U.S. Congress on January 3rd, this blog post is about my time as a government relations professional from 2010-2016.

Growing up, it was hard not to get the bug for politics and public service. My father, Ron Sachs, is a second-generation photo-journalist and covers Capitol Hill and the White House for his own news agency called Consolidated News Photos. As early as I can remember, we would talk about the events of the day at the dinner table, in the car on the way to school, or running errands.

It felt almost inevitable that I would do something related to government or politics in my career.

And I did.

From 2010-2016, I worked as a government relations professional for a national advocacy organization, a local chamber of commerce, and a hospital system. That experience taught me several important lessons that I have integrated and also used as a health care professional in an operations function.

1) Relationships, relationships, relationships

If the three keys to real estate are, “location, location, location”, the three keys to advocacy are, “relationships, relationships, relationships”.

Relationships are critical for several practical reasons as an advocate. To understand why, it’s crucial to empathize with the official to whom you are advocating.

Most officials with power (and by power I am referring to the ability to impact policy) are inundated with requests. Think about your member of Congress. All day they receive correspondence by mail, phone, and email asking her to do many different things. People ask to vote one way or another on a bill, to sign a letter, to fix their road, to help with expediting a passport, etc. Meanwhile, they are meeting people, spending time on the floor with their colleagues voting, spending time in committee, and raising money for their re-election.

How does someone get through all of these requests prioritize them? Relationships.

For me, relationship building started during the elections. I enjoyed meeting elected hopefuls and learning the reasons that they were running for office, taking an interest in their campaign, and offering any advice. At this point in their political life, they are looking to meet people and make friends.

Once they are elected, everybody else is now looking to meet them. A pre-existing relationship goes a long way to accessing the official just as everyone else is trying to gain access.

That is also why it is vital that the relationships are based on trust and are not purely transactional. Elected officials are people and spending the time to build authentic and trusting relationships are what separates out the most effective advocates. Think of your best relationships where you have trust, open communication, and share work together. Those principles are the same in building impactful relationships with elected officials.

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2) It’s about Who and Why, Not What

Again, in a myriad of legitimate requests, how do officials with power make decisions about what to pay attention and prioritize. Another way of looking at it, why do certain things happen when others do not?

For years, good organizations like think tanks and NGOs have had outstanding ideas on solving some of our country’s biggest challenges like climate change, immigration reform, and health care reform. Many smart and capable people have these bright ideas (let’s refer to these as “What”, as in “what should be done”), but do not have the skills to get these ideas adopted.

It is because there are many good “What’s”, but usually they do not come with the right “Whos” and “Whys”.

To get things done, you need to have a “what” that solves the correctly defined problem (why) and the right people on-board who support your “what” (whos). The problem is defined not just as the issue itself, but how important that issue is to the elected’s constituents and who supports and opposes the “what”. If your “what” is a good solution to a problem, but causes many political issues for the official, it will not happen.

In a group of officials, there are leaders in the legislative body or organization who are power brokers and can get things done. These people are not necessarily its presiding officers (just like the CEO is a business is not necessarily the center of power in that organization). Those “whos” are all crucial to getting your “what” implemented. It’s knowing the right people to need to convince first, before others will get on board. In some smaller legislative bodies, the right one person’s buy-in may be enough, but that person usually chooses to lead very selectively. That’s where the relationship with that “who” is crucial.

3) Navigating the system is vital

We have all probably seen the video below from School House Rock on how a bill becomes a law.

While this technically outlines the process, there are many nuances and tricks in the system that help a bill get through the process or stall a bill in the process.

For example, if the committee chair, “puts the bill in a drawer”, meaning does not bring it to a vote, the bill will die right there, even if the committee would pass it if it came up for a vote.

Similarly, there are special procedural rules at different stages of the legislative process and those can change depending upon how the rules are written for specific instances with specific bills.

Having a working knowledge of how the process works and a notion about what the outcome will be on a particular bill is an art. Thus, knowing the processes, systems of government, and what every committee or agency does and who is on it and how it reports is important. Further, the ability to translate the workings of government to other professionals is a big part of the job.

In navigating an organization in the private sector, this includes knowing reporting structures, governance, and who is authorized to make which decisions.

Every organization has politics, group dynamics, and governance. Knowing how the system operates, both “on paper” and “in reality”, serves professionals well regardless of the environment.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Relationships, having the right people engaged for the right reasons, and knowing the system and processes are essential skills for advocacy whether it is at home, in an organization, or in government.