The Right Stuff
In the eyes of legislators, little will undermine an organization’s or a project’s credibility as quickly as factual discrepancies or disagreements. For example, if one person on your staff presents figures using fiscal year 2006 dollars and another staffer presents figures using fiscal year 2008 dollars, you have a problem. It causes one of two reactions, both of which are bad. Either it looks like your organization does not know how much a project really costs (or how to calculate costs), or it looks like you are trying to pull a fast one by fudging the numbers. The details matter. If the facts do not line up, it eats away at confidence in your organization and your project. And when looking for funding on Capitol Hill, confidence is everything.
Jeopardizing your credibility makes the lobbyist’s job much, much harder.
So, get your facts in order. Do not use fuzzy math to make things look better. Do not use jargon to hide a blemish. Be truthful and be able to support the figures you and your lobbyist put forth. Making sure that you and your advocate are on the same page, understand and communicate clearly your position in a way that is consistent with your current policies and procedures. Having said that, though, be careful of spending so much time crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s that you neglect the substance of what you are presenting. Let me give you an example.
Five years ago, if an organization presented a transit project featuring many revolutionary climate-change provisions, the legislators’ eyes would have collectively glazed over. Why? Though there was a great deal of controversy on the subject, there was still no clear, compelling public interest in climate change. People just didn’t get it yet. Of course, five years later that has completely changed.
Now, you must embed sustainable features in your project or it will not seem current — and you will be competing with other projects that incorporate it comprehensively. And those projects will seem more worthy of funding because they are “designed to help move commuters while saving the environment.” So the lesson here is this: Get your facts right; speak in one voice, with everyone on your team on the same page; and keep current about the legislature’s perceptions as it pertains to your project.
Draw the Bigger Picture
Unfortunately, many organizations seeking project funds remain too narrowly focused about their project’s benefits. Often, they present only the immediate transportation improvements offered by completing the project. That is a mistake. In practically every case, there are many collateral benefits. Showcase them. Explain how your project will help the environment, the community, another transportation project and another transportation mode. Will your project help transportation regionally as well as locally? Will it help nationally? Internationally? The more legitimate reasons you can present as to why your project is both important and beneficial, the easier it is for your lobbyist to line up support. In addition, your lobbyist can also help you line up support for the bigger picture through several means including working with various local stakeholders to generate wider support for your project.
When Sending a Card Won’t Do
Working with a lobbyist is not just about your relationship with him or her. It is also about your relationship with congressional staffers in Washington. So, make yourself and members of your organization available to congressional staffers long before you need anything from them. Establish a relationship with as many staffers as possible, and help them whenever you can. Position your organization and your staff as reliable sources of information and support. Become the go-to people when staffers need help. Why spend a good amount of time getting to know “lowly” congressional staffers?
Because even though they are not senior legislators, they are the information and access gatekeepers. And they have an inside track on everything that is going on in Congress. Want to make sure that your funding request finds its way to the top of a pile on someone’s desk? Who do you think puts it there? Want to know breaking news before it breaks? Who types the memo that is about to be released? So build and sustain substantive relationships with congressional staffers before you need something from them.
No Plan is an Island
As mentioned earlier, you must get your own house in order before proceeding to the legislature through your lobbyist. Having said that, though, it is equally important to know where you are going and what the lay of the land is there. Are you pitching a particular congressperson? Has he or she been recently burned by a similar project? Has he or she unofficially committed to a competing project? And in this scandal-ridden age, you even need to worry about whether that congressperson is about to face some very embarrassing personal controversy that may be forever attached to your project.