Anything a lobbyist can do, you can do yourself, if you’re willing to spend the time (and usually money, especially if you don’t already live near Washington D.C.). So why would you want to spend money to have someone else do it for you?
The difference is that most of us are novices at it, and lobbyists are experts at it. And just as you probably wouldn’t want a new medical student to do your brain surgery, or a 2nd year law student to defend you in a murder trial, you probably don’t want someone inexperienced representing you to the federal government. Brain surgery is complicated. The legal system is complicated. Dealing with the federal government is also very complicated; it takes an expert to do it well, and although the results of a failed effort may not be quite as dire, a failure is still a waste of time and resources.
One of the best ways I can illustrate how lobbyists can help you is to describe one of my experiences. The details have been changed or modified, and the names have been changed to ensure there’s no conflict of interest, but this is the core of it.
My company was trying to present a solution we developed to a safety issue in some federal government buildings. We knew it was a problem for them, we knew the agency was criticized for not having a solution, and we knew there weren’t any other solutions to the problem on the market. Our efforts to reach the agency involved went nowhere – our calls were never returned. I traveled to Washington D.C. to try and meet people face to face – and nothing happened. Months of effort got us nowhere.
Then we turned to our local representative, asking for help. This appeared to be much more successful – within a few weeks, they helped us get a meeting with the head of the agency, and the right people in all the supporting agencies. We went to the meeting and presented our solution, and they liked what we presented. But after that, it went nowhere – they didn’t call us, and didn’t return our calls. Another few months of effort gone, and we were back to where we started.
Several months later, we hired some lobbyists to work on the project, and they approached it from a different angle. They identified the lawmakers that drive the process – the committee chairs and committee members that the agency reported to, and the lawmakers on the appropriations committees responsible for funding the agency and approving the agencies’ budget. They set up meetings with those lawmakers, built political support (including support to fund the project), and got these lawmakers to communicate with the agency to express their support. Our lobbyists knew that the head of the agency was personal friends with another lawmaker that our lobbyists already had a good relationship with, and presented the project to the lawmaker they knew, who asked the agency head about it. Then our lobbyists contacted the agency again, and set up another meeting. This time the meeting was very different – the same people were in the room, but this time they were enthusiastic to work with us. And afterward they drove it, calling us and working with us on the schedule.
The problem with the first meeting wasn’t that the agency wasn’t interested in our project. In fact they were interested. It’s that they knew that the political situation made it nearly impossible for them to be able to get the project funded – they were already being pushed to reduce the budget requests they’d already made for projects which had political support. They needed the political support to be able to work on our project – and our lobbyist helped build that for them, making it a win-win-win (for us, for the agency, and for the lawmakers supporting it – who can point to the project as a success in their safety record).
Note that our lobbyists actually did alot more than this, including: helping us to avoid some land mines (lawmakers that we should not approach about the project), checking with lawmakers’ staff to find out what issues we should highlight to gain the lawmakers support (and then refining our proposal to highlight those areas), meeting with committee staff to learn which lawmakers had the most influence on the appropriate committees, and more. The end result wasn’t that they got us a meeting with the right people – we already had that. Instead, they helped us understand and address the whole process, including the political and resource needs of everyone involved. That enabled us to have a successful meeting, and the support needed to complete the project.
One of the reasons lobbyists are so important for success with the federal government is simply because there are already so many other people using them. This means that if there’s anyone else competing with your efforts (such as a direct competitor or just another organization with different goals for the same issue), there’s a good chance they have lobbyists working on it, and you’ll find it hard to compete without similar support. Lobbyists are also important simply to make sure your issue doesn’t get lost in the noise – there are so many issues being pressed in Washington D.C. that, no matter how important your issue is, without continual highlighting, it will likely be forgotten.
The other main reason lobbyists are so important for success is that they know the system inside and out. That includes the processes, the people, the politics, and the land mines to avoid. This is something you can learn, but unless you’ve actually worked inside the system as a lawmaker, lawmakers’ staff member, or civil servant (as most lobbyists have), it will take a long time to learn, and you may never learn it as well as someone who’s been on the other side.
For more specific details of exactly what lobbyists can (and most should) do for you, please see Working with your lobbyists.