This month, the first of four Advocacy Leaders Network (ALN) workshops focused on how to begin working with new Members of Congress. With the new 113th Congress established in office, it’s time to focus on fostering good relationships with the Members and their staff. This ALN event hosted a panel of three current and former House Chiefs of Staff who shed light on best (and worst) practices they’ve encountered as they set up new offices. They also shared some insights into what it’s like setting up a new office. Understanding their experiences can also help you build relationships with these Freshmen Members.
CMF’s Brad Fitch moderated the panel. Below are their responses to just a few of the questions posed during the workshop.
Brad Fitch: What was the hardest part of setting up an office?
Chief 1: Groups of people have different motivations and perspectives relative to constituent communication.
Chief 2: Congressmen sometimes do not understand the regulations and procedures. Some were shocked to learn that their family members couldn’t make changes to their schedule.
Chief 3: Getting used to the staff number being so large is difficult. A lot of compliance is required as part of the job, so it’s essential to stay focused because nothing slows down.
Brad Fitch: What was the biggest surprise?
Chief 1: The biggest surprise was that the dynamic of media relations with Congress has changed dramatically. Anything you do or say is picked up by the media and can snowball in no time.
Chief 2: What surprised me was that no one was there to walk you through procedures in the office. Everything you learned was second and third hand.
Chief 3: I was worried most about coming to the East Coast, but was pleasantly surprised to find the environment to be very welcoming.
Brad Fitch: What are some big strategies for building relationships with freshmen lawmakers?
Chief 1: One of the best strategies is to come prepared to talk to a Member of Congress who is up to their eyeballs in procedures. Also, Members like to sound smart, so do a bit of research on them to find out what their interests are. They may not want to talk about your areas of expertise.
Chief 2: First, remember that often times your relationship with the Member depends on your connection to the district, so try to localize. Also, another important point is to avoid coming in unannounced as it may get frustrating for both you and the Member when others are doing the same thing. Finally, try to bring in a one-pager and take the time to brief your Member. If your issue is something that affects the local area, it’s best to meet with the district office first and they will bump it up to the Washington office.
Chief 3: Keep in mind that offices are small and that the groups coming in tend to be much larger. With only so many hours in a day, it gets frustrating when bottlenecks happen. Put yourself in our shoes.
Brad Fitch: Identify a positive example of relationship building that stands out.
Chief 1: Ducks Unlimited had a great strategy in approaching the office. By patiently working through the issues we both agreed on first, they were able to establish a common ground before bringing up controversial issues.
Chief 2: Groups that go in with the right level of expectation and are not hard to please have a leg up. My advice is to do your homework, know the issues, and don’t immediately ask to see the issue.
Chief 3: Getting those local connections is very important.
Brad Fitch: Identify a negative example of relationship building that stands out.
Chief 1: One example is a group came in and immediately complained that our office was too small. I have not met with the group since because I don’t want to inconvenience them with our office. Another example was a group that called in at 11am and after not getting a quick enough response within a few hours, they took the liberty of emailing other groups to inform them of how unresponsive we are.
Chief 2: A lobbyist from a trade association did not take the time to come in and brief the Member on an upcoming vote. They had assumed that the office would vote a certain way based on a prior connection. Arrogance in assuming that my personal views have any bearing on the decisions made is a huge mistake. In addition, not taking the time to come in and brief the Member will not be beneficial to you in the end.
Chief 3: As a new office, we have yet to experience a negative example of relationship building.
For more information on the next Advocacy Leaders Network Workshop, “Come Fly-In with Me: Best Practices for Capitol Hill Lobby Day,“ on Friday, May 17, click here.