Making Your Case to Local Government
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, everybody has had to respond faster than they ever have. That includes government entities, which had to impose shelter-in-place restrictions in quick order.
This has resulted in considerable gaps or inconsistencies in information and enforcement of the requirements, as well as understanding of the pool/spa industry’s work.
For this reason, you may find yourself needing to advocate your case and your industry more than ever before with local government. Here, professionals offer advice on nurturing productive relationships.
Read the “Room”
These are truly unique times. In this current environment, government officials are overworked — and they’re hearing from everybody.
So they may not have as much time as usual, and they may not respond to the same arguments as they have in the past. In California, for instance, officials aren’t as receptive to hearing about the economic impact of work restrictions. The health and safety of consumers and workers takes precedence.
In Florida, officials are receptive to hearing about the financial impact of their decisions, but they want to know about safety first. Because of this, the Florida Swimming Pool Association leads with their talking points related to health and safety.
Take the temperature of your government counterparts to see how much sway arguments about employee count and contributions to the local economy will have.
Many allow emotion to get the best of them when dealing with government officials. They might express their frustrations by berating the official or aggressively listing reasons he or she is wrong.
But these officials have the upper hand — and exhibiting hostility may cause an inspector or legislator to dig in their heels even deeper.
Don’t assume an air of entitlement. “Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean everybody is,” cautions Shawn Still, general manager of Olympic Pool Plastering in Norcross, Ga., who has participated in major government-advocacy initiatives in his state. “Don’t assume that because you’re in their district or you’ve given them money that they owe you. You’re one of many constituents, and there’s no guarantee.”
Professionals also should consider the official’s time and try to make their points briefly, whether in a letter or during a face-to-face meeting.
“When fighting a proposal to enact a new law, say what the current law is, why that’s effective, and specifically how [the proposed change] would adversely affect your business and consumers,” says John Norwood, director of government relations for the California Pool and Spa Association. “You need to be on point — you don’t need a lot of excess.”
Understand the issue in detail
Before pursuing an argument, professionals should flesh out their own reasoning as to why a decision should be overturned or a new law enacted. It’s also important to read the actual text of the code or law.
Be prepared to offer supporting documentation, including codes or, when addressing Covid-19 measures, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) listing of essential critical infrastructure industries.
Advocacy Amidst Covid: Dallas Thiesen
All politics are based on good relationships, so I always counsel members to build relationships and then show up. That’s where it all starts.
Then be a resource. If you do those things, when issues come up, officials will look to you to help solve problems.
There is a time for advocacy and getting your voice heard. But don’t come in hot. It’s never helpful to sit in their office and talk at them. Instead, talk to them.
But the first step is to build a relationship and be a resource.
Make face-to-face (or video) contact
Letters can get lost, and public testimonials tend to blend together in the minds of officials, unless he or she can connect a name with a face. So it’s a good idea to start an advocacy campaign by meeting with officials or staffers most likely to agree with the industry’s position.
“We’re trying to talk to consultants, the committee chair, the vice chair and other members before we present testimony,” Norwood says. “Then they understand your issue. They oftentimes can’t deal with issues in enough detail at a hearing.”
On the local level, before appearing in front of a city council or board of supervisors, reach out to one or two members whose track record indicates they will be sympathetic to your cause. “If one of them becomes your advocate, they’ll make sure the others know there’s a relationship there, even if you’ve just met once,” Norwood says.
At the end of any meeting, leave your contact information and offer to help in any way possible.
Prepare for public addresses
If testifying, commenting or making a presentation at a public hearing or meeting, prepare in advance.
When a number of people are mobilizing together, it makes sense to choose the strongest public speaker to represent the group. One doesn’t need to be a certified Toast Master, as long as they have rehearsed any statement. It’s even acceptable to read directly from a written document.
Be mindful of time limits. “Certain city councils literally have a giant, digital clock on the wall, and it’s like the Oscars: When your time is up they’ll interrupt you and just cut you off,” Still says. “If you haven’t made your point, you’ve wasted a great opportunity.”
Most importantly, do not turn such a presentation into a complaining session. Instead, come to a meeting with solid notes, examples and data. It can be challenging to provide all the necessary information on a tight time limit, so Norwood often leaves officials with a Frequently Asked Questions handout to enhance his presentation.
Treat every meeting like the first
The most intense lobbying efforts require speaking with dozens of different officials, some of them multiple times. When discussions have gone on for weeks or months, it’s easy to believe that the issue has become common knowledge. But professionals should always begin a meeting with at least a brief synopsis of the issue — even to officials who have already attended meetings on the subject.
“A lot of people in the pool business are in sales,” Still says. “They’re used to saying, ‘Alright, what’s it going to take to get your buy-in?’ But here, you’re starting over again and again. You can’t just go and say it one time — it’s 50 times to 50 different people.”
Mobilize the troops
A professional might be able to contest a permit decision on his or her own, but when it comes to codes and legislation affecting everyone, it’s best to have as many others on the team as possible.
When coordinating multiple parties, determine each person’s strengths and limitations. Who should lead face-to-face meetings? Who would handle the public speaking portions? Who can provide short personal statements to illustrate the impact of a regulation? Who can call their representatives at a moment’s notice?
Each participant will be more successful when given specific directions, and if tasks are simplified as much as possible. For instance, if they’re charged with sending letters or making phone calls, give them form letters or scripts telling them what to say. Those who will speak in public should be given talking points.
Seek outside help if necessary
When it comes to larger battles, pool professionals should not go it alone. Even when trying to advocate at the city level, industry organizations can help.