By Michael Behm, Senior Vice President
I am writing this blog at 30,000-plus feet somewhere over Kansas, according to our pilot, as I travel to meet with a client about mid-year program planning. Much of that planning will include discussion about state and local officials Groups and the upcoming meetings we will attend. I know that at least half of the senior staff of our firm are also up in the air going to, or returning from, meetings of state and local officials Groups on behalf of clients.
Such are the summer months for many of us in the business of government affairs – traveling to and from Groups meetings between now and the fall. By my own count, there are nearly 40 meetings of state and local officials Groups between now and Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer. Many of us do this work and travel so often that it is routine. Targeting state and local Groups for participation is a theme we have raised in previous blogs. We intuitively know that engaging state and local Groups, and attending their meetings, can serve a variety of useful functions for our programs – there are few other economical ways to access hundreds of state and local policy makers from around the country at a single meeting or within a single organization.
But the alphabet soup of Groups meetings, airline seats we warm to get there and all of the associated contributions, memberships and sponsorships can be costly. Perhaps more costly than the dollars we spend to travel to Anchorage, Boston, Fort Worth, Park City or Sonoma can be the high value time we spend away from our office, our family and our personal lives in order to attend the meetings. It’s usually my wife who is asking me why I have to fly here or there, but in your office it might be the boss that wonders.
The arrival of summer seems like a good time to review the value proposition the Groups provide – really, a good time to review the reasons we are involved with these organizations, the associated travel and the time and resource commitments. The following are the seven most important questions to reflect upon as we plan for a summer schedule full of Groups meetings.
Does the Groups participation advance my program objectives?
This is really the fundamental, threshold targeting question. You should always be able to “map” your Groups work back to your retail advocacy efforts, your program objectives or an internal client. Also consider, does the participation raise your organization’s profile or provide you with a competitive edge?
This might seem to be a blinding flash of the obvious, but are the officials, staff and leaders who participate in the Group important to your program and will they be attending the meeting you plan to attend? Just as important for many Groups: are the staff easily approachable, can you work with them and will they help you identify (even create) opportunities within the organization?
Can you participate?
Are there opportunities to participate in presentations, on panels or the policymaking the Group performs or will you be sitting around the room? I should mention that sitting around the room might not be a bad place to be if you can influence the discussion by doing that, or if sufficient opportunities exist to build, or build-on, relationships with the participating officials.
Is it a leadership-focused Group?
Getting state and local leaders out of their states and local jurisdictions can be a real challenge these days, especially in this tight fiscal climate and the myriad of issues competing for their time. But there are Groups that place a premium on leadership events. The Groups that are able to corral the leaders into events and forums should be carefully evaluated, but the cost of attending or participating as a member also tends to be much higher.
The previous three points lead us here – can you leverage these Groups and their meetings to create productive relationships with the attending officials? Sure, it’s nice to meet the Governor or the Attorney General of name-the-state, but is there a follow-up opportunity and can you build a relationship with his or her staff? And don’t forget the Groups or policymakers’ staff. Getting to know staff is often the most overlooked activity in this business. A positive, sustainable relationship with the right staff can be just a valuable over time as the relationships you create with elected officials.
Does the Group create policy or serve as an Information Clearinghouse?
Very few Groups create so-called model legislation. Candidly, most of the policy-oriented Groups at the state and local levels weigh in on federal policy. But knowing that, be knowledgeable about how to effectively leverage Groups’ policymaking to the advantage of your organization. Furthermore, knowing which Groups do what is important, but also be knowledgeable about how you can influence that policymaking. And those organizations that strictly serve their members as a clearinghouse? Figure out how to influence the information the Groups distribute and serve as a subject matter resource to these Groups.
Is the policymaking valuable?
Does the Group’s policymaking influence state, local or federal government actions and – just as important – can you leverage good, or bad, policy that the Group creates on behalf of your program? Is it meaningful beyond the hotel conference room in which it was created? Another consideration: does the Group create so much policy that its individual positions are overlooked by its fellow state, local and federal policymakers?
Other considerations should include whether the Group is a political Group or strictly policy (although 527 Groups routinely include policy briefings now), how the Group obtains its funding and how those sources of funding influence the subject matter at the meetings and finally – at least for this blog – the Group’s reputation and influence among its members and the government entities it is trying to influence.
Targeting the Groups you plan to participate in and engage with during the summer months should be based on the value your participation returns to the program – the value proposition. The large number of meetings and travel commitments between now and through Labor Day tends to concentrate our minds on the rhyme and reason of it all, but this is really an exercise we should perform year round.
Michael J. Behm is Senior Vice President and a Principal of Stateside Associates. During his 20 years working at Stateside Associates, Mr. Behm’s advocacy work and leadership roles in the state officials Groups have brought him to many state capitols and local governments yielding an extensive network of relationships with legislative leaders and other public officials across the 50 states.