On Legislative Interactions
Photo: Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors)
I considered myself to be an engaged community member who was aware of politics in general. When I was hired to lead a state government agency, I realized how wrong I was about the legislative process. One of my top lessons learned is “you should not look to legislation as the solution to your problem, if there is any other way to get it done”. There is something about the legislative process that seems to bring out the worst in people, while they try to better our community. If the following doesn’t scare you or tire you, then perhaps you have a chance at getting your bill enacted into law.
The next important thing to know is that each of the steps in the legislative process is not necessarily “democratic” in the sense that the voice of the majority wins every time. You can have a bill that is unilaterally supported by the community that might not pass. Conversely, a bill can have many letters of opposition from the community that end up passing. Think Alice in Wonderland. Don’t take anything personally (but remember the members of the legislature and their staff may, because, after all we are all people).
So, I practiced PEP:
i’m going to tackle the E first, because it sets the tone for everything else, and will do so in prose rather than a list because each point needs to be elaborated more than other sections.
Empathize (HOW we should be when interacting with legislators):
Like sound product development, we have to know our ‘customers’ (use elements of Design Thinking
Legislators are people, too. They appreciate acknowledgment, can have a bad day, are under great time constraints during the session (so, be respectful of their time: get to the point, do your homework ahead of time). They often have marching orders from “above” (e.g., the budget constraint is such that unless it is “revenue neutral” you can’t pass the bill out of a committee). They are expected to be versed in a wide range of topics, even within a specific committee, like Economic Development (which means they can’t be expected to read your long explanations or know about the nuances of your industry). The process somehow shapes all the participants to operate on a zero-sum game (the budget must be balanced when proposed, so the growing pie analogy doesn’t work within the budget cycle): if you get some, someone else lost some. The zero-sum attitude can emphasize win vs. lose dichotomy, and no one likes to lose, including legislators (I found myself channeling the kind of frustration and anger I’ve never felt before!). So it’s natural that the discussions behind closed doors can get personal. Legislators live in budget and election cycles. In addition to getting the votes of the public, they also need to win the respect of their colleagues to be able to maneuver their bills to support their causes, because without this level of influence, it will hurt their next election campaign. Therefore, they need to look good in front of their colleagues and the public. Dissing legislators in public won’t get you anywhere. First, ask why they voted the way they did in a committee, why they suggested the original language, rather than start off disagreeing. They may have good reasons (e.g., your bill might have been used as a pawn for some other issue totally unrelated to yours). Critique their bill language and not the person, and offer alternatives (e.g., bring a redraft of the bill for consideration). Legislators rely heavily on their staff (office manager, legislative aide, committee staff), so don’t go acting “do you know who I am?”, but show respect, perhaps even more than you would show the elected officials themselves.
When it comes to funding, legislators have often prefer what I call the “peanut butter method”: everyone gets some… even if it’s a very thin smear… (because they can then say “yes” to everyone, and there’s some sense of fairness). I was often told to celebrate if you were included in the peanut butter scheme, because at least they are aware of your cause and they deem it worthy enough to keep it on their plate. But beware, because if the bill is enacted, and then your initiative fails (because the funding you got was too little to accomplish the goals expected in the bill), it tarnishes your brand. Sometimes it’s better to say “if we can’t get these minimum points in the bill, we would rather wait, and let someone else have our share so their initiative will have more potential for success”. I don’t think many people say this (because you are so desperate for any evidence of acknowledgment), so if anything, they would remember you among all the other people who took the funding.
Empathy has something to do with our own emotional needs also. It is easy to just talk to the legislator(s) or people who come to the tech gatherings. Of course, speaking with someone who wants to know more about your industry or who has already shown support is much more attractive. But look at their track record, their faction, and their standing in their faction. There may be others who are in important positions who could leverage the education more. For example, why should the discussion of innovation remain only in for the technology related committee(s)? Surely innovation could revolutionize education, tourism, health, and government affairs as well. Identifying powerful outsiders (from your industry) and nurturing a relationship could pay off. In the same vein, do not ignore legislators who are not in the ruling party today. Powers shift among the factions (this is especially true within the Hawaii Senate).
Prepare (WHAT we should do):
- Know your district representatives: find out who they are here
- Learn the minimum general legislative procedure to make you feel comfortable (so you aren’t confused when you are asked to submit your testimony for the same cause again and again…and again)
- The Citizen’s Guide to the legislative process is extensive, and therefore, it could be overwhelming. Best to attend a legislative meeting held by a trade organization or government agency asking for your support and have them provide a summary that’s customized to the specific cause.
- Learn the format and procedure for submitting testimonies (usually government agencies and local chamber of commerce have mailing lists you can sign up to be notified of deadlines, form letters you can modify, etc.)
- ADVANCED: read the bill (or learn how to scan the bill by understanding parts of the bill, i.e., preamble in part I, vs. statute changes in part II, etc.): do not react to the title or the description given of the bill. They don’t necessarily capture the intent or reflect the end product. Find out what portion of the bill is/was problematic by speaking with the legislators.
Partner (WHO we are, and who we collaborate with):
- Individuals don’t have to track the bills or understand the nuance of the bill language changes from one version to another: let the entities who are already tracking the bills help you (see Prepare)
- Entities also do not have time to make legislative agenda their core operational area. Avoid duplicating work (e.g., establishing a bill tracker), so time can be spent more strategically, speaking to various legislators and their staff. Recreating the wheel because you see deficiencies in the way another entity is implementing it, usually leads to having multiple mediocre implementations. It’s best to speak with the entities involved to decide who has the best competitive advantage for the task and for the rest of the entities to assist the champion. If changes need to be made, see if they can accommodate you.
- Legislators expect the entities within the same industry area to have hashed out any differences before coming to the legislature. Hold pre-legislative planning sessions to go over the key points in the bill everyone can agree to. Identify which are deal-breakers and why. Stay on message.
- In the best case scenario, the legislators shares your goal and vision by the end of the legislative session. With their buy-in (which happens through site visits and meetings throughout the year), the industry initiates the general idea for the bill during the off-session, and works with the legislative staff to craft the bill language, which is shopped around among the industry members for their support. Parties opposing the bill are identified before session starts, and individual meetings should be held to air out the concerns.
- Keep the egos out. Credit should be shared. Do not get charmed into thinking that the level of attention is somehow proportional to the potential for your bill’s success. The best way to pass the bill is for the legislators to see that there is a potential to improve the community through your bill, and to accomplish that, entrepreneurs can’t be spending time lobbying at the expense of their core business.
- Leverage partnerships (e.g., key government agencies, local chambers) to identify instances where bills were successfully passed given similar circumstances. Study how they accomplished it. In the technology related area in Hawaii, the Open Data bill (Act 263 SLH 2013) comes to mind: successfully passed in its first year of introduction, no professional lobbyist retained, grass roots support popularized through networking events, piggy-backed onto success of open data projects from the City and County of Honolulu, gaining support of key government staff.
There are many other lessons learned, but a good assumption to keep in mind is that bad bills pass and good bills fail: do not assume a bill which will impact the community so badly that it can’t possibly survive this rigorous filtering process. You want to fight against it with all your might because without such opposition, it may pass. Meritocracy, like common sense, may not be so common in the democratic process. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.