How to Understand Your Congressional Customer

How do you better position yourself for communication success, especially in this age of aggressive partisan politics? What should you consider if your department or agency needs to update a member of Congress or testify before a congressional committee? Maybe you work for state or local government and need to have Washington “tweak” upcoming legislation to prevent financial hardship for your community?

Today, you succeed by understanding the background of the person you will be communicating with and not just assuming he or she in the legislative branch will understand what you are talking about. They probably don’t. It is your job to educate and ensure the officials are hearing what you are actually saying.

Information and data clutter

There has never been more information clutter coming into and around the U.S. Congress, including the information you will be sharing. It seems to be getting worse, not better. The barrier to providing information from everywhere in America to Congress is close to zero. As a citizen, you can email Congress, post an idea on social media, “tweet” a viewpoint or produce a video on an important issue facing the country that could go viral and hit national media. You can even write an earnest letter on public policy and hope the right person in the legislative branch will be moved to action.

But information clutter is immense. My three favorite facts: 1. 2017 data reveals there were 11,562 registered lobbyists active, interacting with members of Congress and their staff, attempting to influence the outcome of laws and regulations; 2. $3.36 billion was reportedly spent on advocacy, not only the cost of direct lobbying, but also including all influence tools available to obtain the right advocacy outcome (paid media, grassroots engagement, proactive public relations, research, coalition building and the expanding digital properties); 3. Results from The Congressional Communications Report (2017) reveal congressional staff is younger and less seasoned since 2012 and that there is an experience drain accelerating in Congress among the staff, impacting institutional knowledge and history.

These factors make it even harder for non-legislative branch officials to have their voices heard, given they can provide information to Congress but some at the federal level cannot technically lobby.

So how does an individual, agency or government department at any level ensure their perspective is heard and acknowledged?

I believe that obtaining the best result from advocating before the U.S. Congress is a direct result of understanding the desires and interests of members and staff you wish to influence.

Often, staff in government units think about how a regulation or piece of legislation will impact their organization or constituency, but it is much different to begin the advocacy effort with the question of “how does the member of Congress benefit from hearing our viewpoint or helping us achieve our end results?”

As a former congressional staffer, I rarely heard discussions in meetings looking at an issue from a clear and authentic member’s perspective. That’s important because you need to align your issue interest with that of the legislator who has the ability to make or break your success.

The best preparation for creating Capitol Hill momentum is to thoroughly understand the motivations of the legislators. Knowing them will make the probability of their involvement significantly higher and your communication better because you understand their mindset. Here are my nine favorites to consider:

  1. How did the legislator get to the position?

Was the election hard-fought? Was the last election close? Or did the member just move from one safe seat in the state legislature to the next, giving the perception that is was their turn? Or, was the member’s election a surprise? Learning what the member did to win the election will give you important insights into how he or she will serve in Congress. The election victory often impacts how the elected official thinks about issues.

  1. What was their former occupation?

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich mentioned to me years ago that effective advocates need to look at the former occupation(s) of a member of Congress to understand how he or she processes information and makes decisions. A medical doctor processes information differently than an entrepreneur. A nurse might bring a different perspective than a former state legislator. We all bring experiences and insights from the positions we hold. It helps shape how we think and act.

  1. How partisan is the member?

Unfortunately, Congress has become more partisan than ever before. However, not all members of Congress are strict ideologues. Most members always pay the most attention to their state or district. But it is important to determine how partisan a member might be because it says something about you and your issue. Picking the wrong champion or having too many conversations with fervent ideological ties could sink your effort, even if the cause is right and just.

  1. What is the member’s long-term vision of success in Congress?

President Obama’s victory demonstrates that you can lose a congressional election, win a senate race and end up being President. No, it isn’t easy. But my point here is to try to assess the future aspiration of the member of Congress. Many of our elected Senators and Representatives want to do their job and be an effective member of Congress. Others are already thinking of how to use the current position to obtain a higher-viewed elected position. Knowing this will help determine how active the individual can be on your behalf.

  1. Who supported the members’ election or re-election?

Tracking those who helped the member win his or her seat can often reveal much about them. Determining which, if any, political action committees weighed in with financial resources – and to what degree – might give you more insight into the member. It may reveal economic interests connected to the district, past professional connections or even personally held values.

  1. What is the economics of the district?

This is extremely important. For most members of Congress, the economics of their district (businesses, jobs, labor union members, etc.) will help drive their decisions on policy. Years ago, I worked for a member from southwestern Minnesota – agriculture country. He was always aware and sensitive to farm interests and small businesses, as his largest city was Willmar, Minnesota, with a population slightly under 20,000. Tens of thousands of farms and small businesses were scattered across the congressional district.

  1. What is the individual’s personality or pedigree?

Congress does represent America as we have all kinds of personalities representing us. It is important for you to make an assessment of the member’s personality. Some are very nice and are easy to interact with on issues. Some are hesitant to make commitments and will need additional information. Some can be prickly and there are probably better times to schedule a meeting with him or her. The point here is that their personality or pedigree (was their mother or father an elected official?) impacts and shapes their worldview and subsequent actions.

  1. How competitive is the next election?

Members generally have a 94.6 percent chance of getting re-elected. But that doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing. Members of Congress (especially members of the House) are always concerned with their re-election. They are always focused on the upcoming race. Your understanding of the politics facing the member will help you evaluate how much he or she can help you on particular legislation.

  1. What are the members’ personal interests?

Getting to know the personal interests of members of Congress is harder these days. Many members are not in Washington when Congress is not casting votes. But you should work at this because it can reveal individuals who will give you their all in supporting public policy that impacts their family or friends directly. I served on the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) board, which worked actively with the Congressional Diabetes Caucus to secure federal funding for diabetes research to match the 100 million plus contributed each year by JDRF supporters. All of these members were passionate and committed to working toward a cure. I was never so moved by the amount of passion and positive energy to get results across partisan lines. It taught me that leveraging a member’s personal interest with an important public policy issue creates an unstoppable force.

This whole process of understanding the member of Congress takes time and commitment. Getting to really appreciate the elected official is a great first step in understanding how he or she will hear and understand your communications and/or able to do for you and how your voice will be heard.  It is worth the time because it will help you be more successful.

David Rehr is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Mark Hensch

Thanks for a thought-provoking article! There are great tips here for impacting legislative change and becoming a better-informed citizen.