'Speaking the same language' is a powerful communicator

In the Fall 2016 issue of County Lines, AAC Consultant Eddie Jones wrote about the importance of of relationships between county officials and state legislators.

By Eddie A. Jones
County Consultant

Developing ongoing relationships with your state elected officials — especially your state representative(s) and state senator(s) — is an essential part of being an effective advocate for county government because in policymaking, it’s not who you know, but who knows you. So while you should be able to recognize your legislators and address them by name, in order to have an impact, they should be able to do the same.

The 2017 regular session of the Arkansas Legislature starts in January. I hope you have already established a good working relationship with your legislators. If you haven’t, start right now. Of course, I know there were several new legislators elected in November. Work now on establishing an ongoing relationship with them.

To lawmakers, what “the folks back home” think about legislative issues is often far more important than positions taken by groups like the Association of Arkansas Counties, even though our position is the position taken by our members — the elected county officials from around the state. The AAC staff talks with your legislators about bills of interest to our membership, and we advance AAC positions in committee meetings. We provide information as requested and help lawmakers prepare information for debate. We are the facilitators. YOU as county officials are the key lobbyists in the legislative process.

The work of lobbying the legislature continues throughout the year. While the work at the Capitol during session is the most visible, the “off season” is busy as well. Currently, the AAC process for developing legislative objectives and priorities for the 2017 regular session is well underway and, in fact, practically ready to go. The AAC staff works hard all year, along with members of its affiliate organizations, to ensure that county issues get a fair hearing by state legislators. But the best tool in our tool kit is YOU — the county officials who can lobby and explain how the specifics of policy decisions made by state government will impact county government.

Lobby — it’s a term that has negative connotations among many, but it shouldn’t. To lobby is simply “to try to influence public officials on behalf of or against proposed legislation.” As one story goes, the term “lobbying” originated during the early 19th century, when influence peddlers commonly milled around the lobbies of local government offices, statehouses or the U.S. Capitol waiting to buttonhole a particular politician. It is indeed noble for county officials to provide facts, documentation and expert information to legislators for or against legislation that affects county government — the level of government closest and most responsive to the people. I, in fact, believe it is the responsibility of county officials to do so.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that government will necessarily commit itself to certain positions in the course of fulfilling its function. As one commentator noted: “Courts consider government communication to be a function of the state that is not contained by the limitation of the First Amendment.” [F. Schauer, Is Government Speech a Problem?, 35 Stan. Law Rev. 373, 376 (1983)]

The Supreme Court has analyzed this issue as follows: “Government officials are expected as a part of the democratic process to represent and to espouse the views of a majority of their constituents. With countless advocates outside of the government seeking to influence its policy, it would be ironic if those charged with making governmental decisions were not free to speak themselves in the process.”

As a county constitutional officer you may speak on behalf of or against proposed legislation as protected “government speech” — and you should do so. Former President John F. Kennedy described the work of lobbyists in a positive light, saying they are “expert technicians capable of examining complex and difficult subjects in clear, understandable fashion. Lobbyists serve a useful purpose and have assumed an important role in the legislative process.”

Most legislators are not experts in the field of county government. They need to hear from those who are experts in county government operations in order to make informed decisions on bills that affect county government.

Here are a few tips when communicating with your legislators — starting with the most important.

Get to know your legislators: Every time you see a legislator, introduce yourself and tell him or her you live in his or her district. Do this until they recognize you and greet you by name. It is important to become well acquainted with your legislators before you actually need something from them. Help them to gain confidence with who you are and what you have to say. From the end of one session to the beginning of the next, you should be looking for opportunities to interact with your legislators. Invite them to visit with you at the courthouse. Show them county government in action and explain the challenges that counties face. Meet with your legislators regularly before, during and after the session. Bottom line, establish a rapport with the representatives and senators that represent your county so they will be more accepting of your message when the time comes for requesting a vote for or against an important issue.

Find out more about your legislator’s background so that you can find a common ground and build a relationship based on shared interests. Here is an example. Several years ago, when I was director of AAC, there was one senator that would not give me the time of day. He simply would not listen to me. He was rude, and as far as I knew, I had never done anything to this man. I really studied to figure out a way to gain some type of rapport with him. I finally remembered that a good banker friend of mine had moved to his part of the state years before. One day as I approached this senator about an issue, I mentioned the name of my good friend and asked if he was acquainted with him. As it turns out, they were acquainted and had become good friends. That was the connection I needed. From that day forward during his service as senator our relationship was much improved. Find some common ground.

Provide facts with documentation whenever possible: One of the first things a lawmaker wants to know about a bill is how it will impact his or her county. When AAC sends out a message to “contact your legislator,” your e-mail, phone conversation, text or face-to-face meeting will always be stronger if you can illustrate the message with specific facts regarding how the legislation will impact your county — revenues lost or gained, or the costs of a proposed mandate on your county.

Be persistent but brief and succinct: Tell your legislators what you want repeatedly and succinctly. Don’t assume they know what your issues and needs are. But, remember legislators are inundated with information from multiple sources. More is not necessarily better. A lengthy letter or e-mail may get placed in a pile with good intentions to read later — never to be seen again. Then your opportunity to make your point is lost.

Timing of your message is important: The life of legislation is driven by deadlines in the process. When AAC sends out requests to contact legislators about a bill coming before a committee or scheduled for floor debate, a quick response is essential. The best response means nothing if it is too late. Because of the time element, AAC uses e-mail to communicate our legislative requests to county officials. You can use technology to stay current and communicate between yourself and your legislators. Much communication occurs in real time via e-mail or other electronic means. However, it is a good idea to determine whether your particular legislators have a preference for phone calls, e-mails or texts.

Maintain respect, even when being firm: Often our positions on issues seem so logical, how could anyone else differ from our opinion? Lawmakers are pulled in many directions by other lobbying interests, so sometimes their vote may not reflect what we want. You can still hold them accountable for a vote, but we don’t want to “burn a bridge” today when we will want their vote on a piece of legislation tomorrow.

Thank your legislators: Don’t miss a chance to thank your senators and representatives for their help. It is important that legislators understand that we are appreciative of their efforts to address county issues, even when we don’t get everything we want. Even as you are asking for help with an issue, it is important to thank them for work they have done for your county in the past. They often have a thankless task, and their jobs many times are as frustrating as ours, so a little recognition from you can go a long way. As a general rule your legislators want to help you.

If we are to be understood as we wish to be understood, we need to understand the recipients of our messaging. George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem with communications is the illusion that it has taken place.” By being open to receiving cues as we are conveying our message to legislators, we can also realize when our message is not being understood properly, if at all. By ensuring that we are “speaking the same language” we will be much more likely to successfully communicate what we intend on communicating.

There are many opportunities for you to work with your legislators throughout the legislative process. The important point to remember is that the more active you are in the process, the more influence you will be able to have on legislation that could impact your county. Remember point No. 1 is to get to know your legislators and find common ground. It will be a great investment for your county. When the 2017 legislative session starts, don’t be in the situation Mark Twain referenced in one of his quips: “If you are looking for friends when you need them … it’s too late.” Know your legislators and speak the same language — it’s a powerful communicator.

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