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Advice: How Government Affairs Sophisticated Is Your Employer?

In our last essays, we examined two foundational questions new lobbyists must face: Who do you want to be in your organization; and, are you strong enough to avoid burnout? In this post, we consider the office context into which you will be working, specifically your employer’s level of government affairs (GA) sophistication and its commitment to the GA program and especially to you, their new employee.

How government affairs sophisticated is your employer? Especially in corporate America, employees are hired to produce results for organizations competing in the market place. For profit-making companies, this means vanquishing enemies, that is, business competitors.  However, legislators expect consensus among similarly situated groups; and if they don’t see it, then they become wary about getting involved in “family quarrels.” Because interest group coalitions are foundational politically and tactically, you are going to collaborate with marketplace competitors in a, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”1

However, unsophisticated employees may see their in-house lobbyist as “fraternizing with the enemy.” I once had a VP tell me I was making the “wrong kinds of friends” to the distress of his marketing team. However, to top management, I was getting laws they needed to stay in business. Nevertheless, unaware employees may doubt your loyalty and find you disconnected to the tribe.

Further, unsophisticated management may think you an unproductive employee because you did not meet your annual goals, such as repealing a specific law. All company employees have on-time deliverables. Manufacturing did it; marketing did it; how come you didn’t get the bill repealed? Many don’t grasp that the legislature often is a wholly irrational body. They are politicians, act and think like politicians, which utterly befuddles the C-Suiters who ask, “Why doesn’t government operate like a business?”

My experience has always been with corporations or associations whose memberships are corporations. However, this “produce or get fired mentality” pressure often is not found tax-supported, grant-funded, or membership-based social service organizations, nor is the sophistication that will determine your job satisfaction.

How committed is your employer to an effective GA program and to you? Lobby School students, especially those working for tax-supported, grant-funded, or membership-based social service organizations, have told me that they thought they were being hired to be lobbyists only to find themselves working as part-time meeting planners, membership marketers, and helping out with database management. An uncommitted employer may want a warm “jack of all trades” body, not an effective lobbyist. You can find yourself with a title of Government Affairs Manager but in reality, your employer is not committed to government advocacy.

Sometimes this is because the above kinds of organizations are image representatives rather than advocates. That is, lobbying “success” is defined as showing the organization’s colors, making political statements, and bringing members to the capitol in shows of force. Ideological purity is preferred over compromise. And because often members have no choice but to pay dues, staff paychecks keep flowing, rewarding association staff for purity rather an achievement. They may be sinking but they are doing it with full orthodoxy.

Finally, you as a new lobbyist can estimate just how committed the employer is to you by how much you are “protected” from the association’s current contract lobbyist. I’ve written about this in past blogs, especially November 17, 2018 “All Too Cozy, Association Staff and Contract Lobbyists.” [2] If management makes clear to the contractor that he or she is there to support you, then everything will be fine. But failing to do that, you may find yourself in regular conflict with both contractor and your boss – and that will lead to a short unhappy career.

Employer GA sophistication will greatly affect your longevity and happiness on the job. Working for 1) a sophisticated employer 2) committed to their GA program and 3) to you will be a tremendous experience.

[1] Benjamin Franklin, In the Continental Congress just before signing the Declaration of Independence, 1776. “Franklin’s Contributions to the American Revolution as a Diplomat in France.” Historic Valley Forge (accessed February 6, 2019) ww.ushistory.org/valleyforge/history/franklin.html

[2] “All Too Cozy…” The Lobby School (November 17, 2018) https://lobbyschool.com/all-too-cozy-association-staff-and-contract-lobbyists/.

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