Being effective in DC is not unlike being effective in other markets: connectivity is King, sophisticated strategies are vital, and a process-oriented action plan is a must. Unfortunately, too many people come to DC leveraging tactics that do not work and, even worse, could actually hurt the issue they are hoping to advance. DC has complexities that are worth studying, but avoiding these five proven mistakes is important to know before stepping off the plane at National Airport:
The “One and Done” Fly-In: Showing up is really important, but doing so once a year without a meaningful presence (virtually or in-person) throughout the remainder of the year is not worth the cost of a flight. Policymakers and their staff have thousands of meetings on every topic imaginable. Unless you are a celebrity, world leader, or local elected official, a meeting once a year does not move the needle. Think of engagement as an ongoing dialogue - not a one-time meeting.
The One Party Strategy: A partisan strategy simply cannot work in any landscape that does not have one party controlling the White House, House of Representatives, and the Senate. Even in that rare scenario, focusing on one side of the aisle (assumably the one in power) is short-sighted and fraught with risk. A strategy that bets on one party getting something over the finish line without support from the other side of the aisle lacks any fundamental understanding of how a bill becomes a law. Strategies should be unique based on the party, but strategies should engage both sides of the aisle.
The Last Minute “Ask”: Advancing initiatives in Congress or a federal agency takes significant vetting, preparation, some internal approval process bureaucracy, and lots of behind-the-scenes work. Running to your Member of Congress the morning that funding requests or amendments are due simply is not how DC works if the “ask” has not be socialized long before then. Start before deadlines are even defined and you will be much better positioned for success.
The “Choose Your Own Adventure” Plan: Advocating without a thoughtful and sophisticated strategy is sort of like operating without a strategy in any other sector…a really bad idea. The lack of a strategy tanks many well-intentioned advocacy efforts in DC because they tend to focus on the wrong targets, have bad timing, miss the importance of the broader policy ecosystem, and do not have the metrics to identify when a directional change is needed. Build a good strategy that considers all aspects of advancing an issue and that includes real metrics to understand when a shift is needed.
The “Contact Everyone” Campaign: It sounds so appealing to approach all 435 Members of the House, 100 Members of the Senate, and countless White House staff to resolve a tax issue. If resources do not matter, connecting with every office in DC will not hurt. That being said, the overwhelmingly majority of those targets will have no impact on a tax issue until it reaches the very last stage of the legislative process. Focus on those who are best-positioned to impact an issue and who have some jurisdiction, historical leadership, or very strong connection to the issue. Otherwise, you may be burning time on tactics that will not help get your issue across the finish line.