Anne DarConte, CAE, Managing Director, HillStaffer, LLC
Like many organizations, you believe your Washington, DC or state capital fly-in is a success. After all, lots of meetings were held in legislative offices and your attendees went home happy and enthusiastic. Look more closely at the resources that go into the Hill Day as well as the benefit received beyond the event day itself. You may be surprised by the negative net Return on Investment (ROI).
There is great truth in the axiom that “all politics is local,” often attributed to Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. No matter how strong your professional lobbyists’ relationships are in legislators’ offices, the influence of the constituent voice is irreplaceable. Hearing the perspectives, personal stories and policy impacts from those in the home district are a powerful tool for moving the public policy needle. After all, it is the constituents to whom elected officials are accountable.
Therefore, using employee and member engagement to advance your organization’s issue agenda is a no-brainer, and Hill Day visits provide an engagement opportunity. Excite the participants before, during and after the event so that their engagement is long-term and consistent rather than short-term and isolated.
Whether you are responsible for designing the fly-in agenda or this role falls to someone else on the staff, it is imperative that all involved are clear about the Hill Day’s goals. The event should be a means to an end, not the end itself. Sadly, I witness too many organizations that view planning a Hill Day as just another task on their annual to do list to tick off. Such groups generally dust off the prior year’s agenda and simply change the date, times, location and speaker names. For those who attend such a program on a regular basis, this is predictable and uninspiring.
Generate enthusiasm among the attendees. Add some participative activities other than the Hill visits themselves. Create a game that tests your advocates’ knowledge of the issues as well as of the political process. Form teams, give them a creative assignment and have them compete for bragging rights among their peers. And by all means, use the feedback from each fly-in to improve your program and process.
Conveying your issue priorities to your employees and members and keeping them abreast of developments should be a year-round endeavor. No one attending a fly-in should learn of the organization’s legislative agenda for the first time at the program. Holding pre-event webinars on the issues and sending issue briefings and talk points ahead of the Hill Day can deepen attendee knowledge, but neither should be considered a replacement fo\\regular and frequent communications with and engagement by your internal stakeholders. So many communications tools and venues already exist in your organization, and your government relations agenda, activities and messaging can be incorporated easily.
In spite of living in a digital age of communications, relationships continue to be a core foundation for successful advocacy. In our personal relationships, we cannot expect a lifetime commitment after a first date; neither should we expect it from our elected official after a single, brief meeting. Successful relationships require an investment of time, energy and repeat interactions in order to develop trust, respect and understanding. As situations change, relationships require nurturing in order to evolve and last. This is true for our relationships with decision-makers too. And never forget that the decision-maker has eyes and ears to support him or her; these staff are essential to their success, so never minimize the value of a relationship with staff who are well-versed in the issues and process.
If your company or trade association conducts a fly-in, take the opportunity to assess the long-term value of your investment. If planned and implemented through a strategic lens, the fly-in can provide organizational value and create political capital well beyond the event itself. Focus on why the fly-in is a key tool in your government relations and advocacy toolbox, be willing to shake things up, and you can watch your ROI soar.