Institutionalizing “government relations”

Sometimes, if we’re paying attention, we can get really good ideas in the most unlikely places.

It’s why I keep a huge stack of those tiny sticky notes by my bed, and why I read voraciously (one of the great side benefits of breastfeeding!).

I recently read David Cay Johnston’s Free Lunch, which is pretty terrifically disturbing all around, detailing the myriad of lucrative and often secretive arrangements that companies (and industries) large and small have negotiated for themselves, and the tremendous (and often hidden) costs of such regulatory frameworks (and lack thereof) to American taxpayers.

It’s a good thing I’m always exhausted, or it might be hard to fall back asleep.

But this isn’t a post about those deals (one can’t even really call it corruption, since it’s mostly completely legal, if not legitimate), or about the importance of transparency or about the reality of corporate “welfare” and what a true accounting of our investments would look like.

No, this is, instead, about the good idea, phenomenal really, that was slipped onto page 203, courtesy of former Cabinet member John Snow, at the time head of the transportation company CSX. He talked about how, key to the company’s successes in the realm of self-advocacy (including all kinds of regulatory allowances, special incentives, and opportunities to shape policy for the industry) was a commitment to “institutionalize government relations” within the entire company. The idea was to ensure that every employee, from the CEO to hourly maintenance workers to engineers to the human resources personnel, understood and valued relationships with elected and appointed officials and the government agencies with influence over the company and its work, and that they had skills and tools to deploy in order to contribute to that aspect of the business.

Granted, Johnston makes a connection between these cozy relationships between CSX and its regulators and an ultimately fatal accident attributed to poor maintenance, but bear with me.

What if we did that?

What if advocacy was seen in our nonprofit social service organizations as a core function, an integral part of the job description of every single employee (and, perhaps even more importantly, every Board member), and an essential skill worth considerable investment across the organization?

What if we didn’t have a “policy department”, but instead every individual charged with programmatic responsibilities (and, ideally, those participating in the programs, too) had strong knowledge of the policies that shape their services and how to make the case for them? What if, every time there was an event in our organizations, we were including elected and appointed officials, so that they would understand and value our efforts as well? What if our Board members could speak eloquently about our work when they encounter policymakers in other settings? What if each of our direct-service employees spoke a few times a year with their own elected officials, building relationships and confidence that would contribute to advocacy on behalf of the agency, too? What if everyone saw interfacing with those who make the decisions that shape the future course of our organizations and our communities as part of their daily job responsibilities, and wove that advocacy into their every activity? What if it was really seamless, so that advocacy wasn’t something at the bottom of the to-do list that seldom gets done, but instead an orientation to our work that resulted not in more sheer doing but smarter, more visible, and more powerful efforts?

What if?

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