One of the most important realms of action for local business coalitions is assessing the political landscape in your community and developing specific plans to advance your mission through working with elected officials and civil servants. The people you wish to meet usually are eager to hear the views of small business owners and advocates, especially early in a new term — a key constituency for most politicians.
Be proactive rather than waiting until a serious concern arises to learn who’s who. You don’t want the first call to an official to be one asking for immediate help or reacting to something you don’t like. Be proactive in developing relationships and consider how your group can be a useful resource for them. If your local government comes to trust you as a reliable source of information and the ideas and concerns of local business owners, influence will follow. Here are a few widely applicable steps to consider.
1. Know What Your Members Want
Have you surveyed local businesses (especially your members) to learn their top concerns and desires for government policies, regulations, and programs? If not, start here. Your credibility will suffer if you claim to speak for the local business community without genuinely knowing their needs, concerns, and attitudes.*
2. Who Matters Most?
Create a spreadsheet of elected officials and civil servants — both veterans and rookies — who likely have the power to impact your concerns. These may include municipal, county, state or special jurisdictions unique to your area (taxing districts, for example). Be clear about who has authority over what.
Discuss who may be relevant to help you advance specific goals. This may include a wide range of activities, from making informal procurement policies friendlier to local businesses to official public policy.
3. Determine Your Best Access Points
Share the sheet (via Google Sheets or another platform that allows multi-party editing) with your board and volunteers and ask them to indicate who they have personal relationships with or know a personal connection. Also, ask them to share any specific insights about people’s personal values and other “leverage points.”
4. Request Meetings
Aim to meet with local, state and federal officials or their staff at least annually. Simply getting to know each other personally can go a long way toward opening minds and creating a positive relationship. Especially for people who may serve many years to come, it’s likely best to make the first meeting an opportunity to get acquainted without making any substantial request. Proactively educating your officials is time well spent!
5. Prepare for an Effective Meeting
If not, Have questions ready for them so you can learn what they care about most, what their baseline knowledge of your concerns is, etc. Consider bringing up to three leave-behinds to inform the person about your organization or specific policy interest. Be sure to cite reliable sources if quoting data (for example).
Familiarize yourself with existing government policies and the campaign platforms of incoming elected officials. Is there a way your group can help them deliver on a campaign promise that aligns with your mission?
Lastly, be aware of the image your organization has with local government and any relevant political parties. Are there any key points about your group you want to be sure are understood? Any misperceptions you wish to correct? Bring evidence if so.
Arrive early! Don’t risk losing any available time. Look for ways your organization can be an information resource for your government officials. Offer to serve as a sounding board for their economic development ideas. Perhaps there’s even an opportunity for a government contract that would pay your organization to survey the business community, execute stated goals of informing the public, or other economic development roles.
Send a thank-you email to each of the representatives or staff people you met. If any questions arose that you could not immediately answer, provide them by the next business day. If ideas were discussed that warrant submitting a proposal, move quickly.
8. Praise Publicly, Criticize Privately
When a positive, meaningful action is taken that serves your independent business constituents, publicly thank those responsible. One big reason elected officials tend to prioritize luring big absentee-owned corporations is the positive publicity they receive when it succeeds.
If local officials get positive reinforcement for the steps that help a small new business start, enable a local entrepreneur to add an employee or simplify a needlessly complex regulation, they’ll be inclined to focus more energy there and less on business attraction.
While public criticism sometimes may be necessary, use it as a last resort and then only when you already have the power to influence the process. Seek every opportunity to discuss areas of disagreement privately before an issue becomes public.
* AMIBA provides free business and consumer survey templates to affiliates. Related resource: Determining Appropriate Political Engagement
Related Tools and Reading
AMIBA’s Member Resource Library hosts many useful articles, templates, and webinars under Government Relations, including many Local Purchasing & Contracting Policy Resources (login required). Learn more about the benefits of joining AMIBA.
Wish List for Salt Lake City Government (pdf) Local First Utah
Local Policy Action Toolkit (pdf) Institute for Local Self-Reliance