Vox published a story earlier this week on all that is wrong with how Congress is staffed.
The article, and the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) study it covers, are well worth your time to read, so I won’t rehash too much of the content here. The Cliff’s Notes version:
- Congressional staff, especially committee staff, are dwindling
- With workload, and its complexity, increasing and fewer people to handle it, turnover is rising
- Smaller staff and higher turnover means that there are fewer people on the Hill with issue expertise
- There are very few non-partisan information sources
- Congress’ technology platforms suck
- There is too little time spent debating issues
These trends don’t bode well for our democracy for lots of reasons.
The most important to me is that Congress, from a communications standpoint, is broken.
There’s simply not enough staff and not enough time. Staff can barely ensure that Congress is functioning.
The typical issue communications tactics exploit, rather than compensate for, these weaknesses. By generating larger volumes of digital and phone communications with superficial messaging, you’re ignoring the realities laid bare by this CMF study.
You’re literally shouting into the wind. How much time do you think staff can devote to endless issue emails, FB posts and tweets? How much of your issue would they be able to understand even if they could read them?
If you’re making it harder for legislators and staff to engage with your issue, expect to lose.
Within this communications chaos, however, is an opportunity for you to stand out among the issue-peddling masses.
The plan to stand out
Getting what you want in this crazy communication environment requires you to be different. Being different means using an approach that helps staff and legislators compensate for the weaknesses detailed in the CMF report:
1. Start early and be consistent. This is the most important piece of advice I can give. With staff doing too much and not being up on each issue, don’t expect to just do a last minute push and get what you want. You need time to get on a legislator’s radar screen and build relationships. You need to establish your organization as a trusted source of information. This means that you’re offering legislator offices something of value; something that is clearly in very short supply. Offering this value consistently is the only way to cut through the din.
2. Plan contacts from different people. This is a corollary to #1. If you’re a healthcare provider, for example, after your government relations team and lobbyists have done their meetings, line-up visits from executive leadership, doctors, researchers and patients. Legislators will grouse about taking multiple meetings on the same issue–and you don’t want to waste their time. Lining-up different messengers guards against this by helping you provide the legislator with different stories and different angles on your issue.
3. Focus your issue education efforts on staff. You need the staffer handling your issue to know you, trust you and be on your side. The legislator will ask for their advice. This CMF study makes clear that staff need more support–you can provide it and make their life just that much easier.
Become the source of information on your issue. Have your fact sheets ready but be able to back them up with more detailed data. If they want a different perspective, be prepared to help them find it.
Plus, meetings with staff are easier and take less time to arrange, which leads me to my next point…
4. Focus on face-to-face instead of Facebook. It seems counter-intuitive. If everyone’s so crazy busy, how do you get a meeting? See #1 above. Start early and don’t stop until you’ve gotten on a staffer’s and/or legislator’s calendar. (The art of setting-up these meetings is another blog post.) Given the crush of email and social communications, the lack of issue debate time and Congress’ weak technology infrastructure, a face-to-face conversation becomes a much better way to make sure staff is engaged and focused only on what you need.
After a face-to-face staff meeting, the staffer will likely give you their work email and invite you to communicate directly. Now, you and your advocates have a line to someone who can help–not the same inbox the rest of the issue-peddlers are using. Once you’ve proven to be a valuable source of information, follow-up meetings will be easier to get.
5. Communicate with district offices. The Vox article slips-in a hugely important piece of information: as Hill staff has been declining, more investment has been made in district offices. District offices are typically less stressful environments. They are more generously staffed (relatively speaking). Basically, it’s everything D.C. is not. So you can get more time and attention from staff. During recess periods, like right now, you’ll also get more time with the legislators. And, remember, any communications you direct to the district office–letters, calls, etc.–get reported back to Capitol Hill. District office engagement is an easier way to get on the legislator’s radar screen and begin the relationship building process.
Don’t misunderstand: you should definitely include email and social in your communications mix. But use them as a supplement–not as the centerpiece–to your issue communications. Use them to bridge the gaps of time between your personal meetings, calls and letters.
Have a strategic purpose behind your digital communications that fits with this approach. Provide a staffer with more detailed data or a different angle on your issue. Share a conversation you had with their colleague in a district office. Or, just take a minute to recognize a staffer’s birthday or engagement.
A broken Congress doesn’t need to be an obstacle. You just need to know how to use it to your advantage.
Let me know what you think. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.