State Budgets Create Virtual Groups

The Council of State Governments announced Monday that it was shifting its annual Spring Meeting (this year’s Growth & Prosperity Summit of the States) from the usual large, in-person conference to an online format. While a dramatic move and, I am sure, disappointing to the senior staff and leadership of CSG who had to make the difficult decision, the move reflects some of the “new normal” in this climate of cash-strapped states, travel-restricted policymakers and a growing trend toward virtual meetings.

Now, this is not the first time that a large legislative Groups forum has been threatened by the new state budget and travel realities, nor the first time a Group has moved all or part of a meeting into cyberspace. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has now moved its Standing Committee Officers Orientation Meeting – a once very popular networking opportunity with NCSL’s up-and-coming committee members – to a webinar format and it cancelled this year’s stand-alone Winter Executive Committee meeting. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) briefly considered cancelling its 2010 Spring Task Force Summit as a result of cost concerns, but then modified the agenda to hold both in-person and online Task Force meetings to accommodate members who could not travel. Other Groups have scaled-back their once large meetings, amended or suspended quorum rules regarding policymaking or have created a hybrid format, allowing policymakers to “dial-in” to meetings in addition to physically attending.

These changes will ultimately test the Groups’ ability to compete for future private sector sponsorships and attract busy state policy leaders. And they will also dramatically impact those of us government affairs managers who are accustomed to the face-to-face meetings the Groups facilitate and who rely on the Groups as an integral part of our issue management programs.

These considerations must necessarily play into your overall Groups planning and your priority Groups should be re-evaluated, especially those most vulnerable to travel restrictions and budget cut-backs. But in the meantime, how can you adjust your Groups participation to return value to your program, especially if the Group forums you are targeting have moved into cyberspace?

The immediate practical problem of “virtual” meetings is that it translates into less face time with targeted policymakers. Relationship-building – one of the key reasons we participate in the Groups – becomes more challenging. Those relationships with policymakers you made at past Groups events, or by visiting state capitols, are now more important to nurture than ever. Continue to reconnect with these policymakers offline and stay in touch; email them or call and ask how you can assist them; support their reelection efforts; and generally find ways to remind them WHO YOU ARE. You should also use this opportunity to place new emphasis on familiarizing yourself with Groups staff. Their value to the Group is very likely to increase as elected and appointed official members reduce their commitment and participation as a result of travel restrictions.

Even in the virtual world, the Groups will continue to make and advance policy. But meetings held in cyberspace inevitably make it more difficult to influence the process. You must know the rules of engagement – guessing is not good enough when you cannot be in the room or are out of reach of one of your champions. Knowing who will be participating in the forums, and in advance of the forums, will be more important than ever (this is true, online or off). Put a premium on contacting these policymakers in advance and leveraging staff relationships – this will be important to your success at online forums.

Finally, consider becoming more involved in a “leadership” role of the Group. The continuity of your participation in between meetings – and especially in a leadership role – adds both credibility to you and your organization and raises your profile as a known and respected quantity among the Groups staff. Several of the policy-oriented Groups have a foundation, advisory committee or some vehicle by which the private sector can provide input into the policymaking, contribute to the education of their constituent members or, at the very least, be better informed about the Groups’ activities online and off. Find opportunities to host small hospitality events or issue briefings at the Groups meetings, outside of the official agenda – once frowned upon, these outside events are becoming more important to the Groups, as their own hospitality and reception dollars shrink. And even if the Group you are targeting does not offer this opportunity – or your own tight budget does not permit a contribution – you can always “lead” by providing expertise, resources or bringing new policymakers from your state to the Group – these gestures can yield high returns in terms of political capital, especially during this lean time.

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