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Public Policy Advocacy 101: Be Prepared … Really, Know What You’re Talking About

A former Capitol Hill colleague penned an item on her Facebook page yesterday that caught my attention because it is an issue I’ve wanted to share with you for some time. She was amazed at how few lobbyists and other advocates in this town know how to prepare an effective public policy effort or campaign.  My colleague is a former chief of staff as well as leadership staffer. She knows what is talking about. Why is this such a big deal?

For starters, people and corporations pay good money for representation and, most of the time, they know not what they pay for. DC representation does not come cheap. It is also one of the most un-regulated businesses in this town, so it attracts many people who really have no business doing it to begin with. I can spot these folks a mile away. Beyond the money, it makes for bad policy and mucks up the process with political garbage.

If you ever need to engage with a Congressional office in DC or the district office, the first rule of thumb: come prepared. I was on the receiving end of lobbyists and lawyers for many years. While I do not do as much lobbying these days as I used to do, I still do visit Congressional offices and executive agencies every now and then on behalf of my law firm’s clients. But because I enjoy politics as much as I do, I have a lot of friends in the business — both in and out of government — and spend a lot of time at these places.

What makes a great public policy advocate or lobbyist?

When I was on the Hill, the great ones took time to learn the issue. I’m afraid that most did not and, according to friends in government, that is still the case.  The real good ones would send me briefing papers a few days before our meeting or, better yet, would not want to meet at all. Rather than pepper me with talking points, they simply made their point (over the phone), explained both sides of an issue, and offered policy options for consideration. I used to like meeting with folks on the Hill, but sometimes there was just no time during the work week to do so.

On the other side of the spectrum, individuals with little or no Capitol Hill or other government experience practice what I call, advocacy by ambush. If your a Congressional staffer or political employee at an executive branch agency you know this practice well. These people do not learn the issue or just spew talking points. They never send you materials to review. And, the kicker, they will also work around the staff by trying to get to the Member of Congress directly through a fund-raiser or, the one that really irritates, a personal relationship. New flash folks: these tricks, and others, may be effective short-term rifle shots, but, they do not work.

Then the lawyers. Just because your a lawyer does not mean your ready or prepared to engage in public policy and lobbying. I’ll leave this topic for another day.

If you need someone to help you before a federal agency or the Congress, shop around. Ask tough questions. Look beyond the fancy resumes, titles, and promises of political milk and honey. In most cases, titles and prior positions mean little to future success.

Look for people who have experience and are genuinely interested in your case. A good rule of thumb: people who tell you, upfront, that lawmaking and regulatory matters are difficult and challenging processes. On the other hand, if they are quick to tell you that he or she knows Congressman X, Secretary Y, or Staffer Z, run. Fast.

More to come on this subject soon.

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