• April 7, 2021

If ‘Politics is Local,’ Government Affairs Should Be Too

Most industries are regulated at least in part at the local level and most issues have a local component. That means smart don't ignore local government, where campaigns can have major impact. 

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics is local.” Government affairs is heading in the same direction. 

Most industries are regulated at least in part at the local level and most issues have a local component, from education and public health to gun control and police reform. More importantly, changes happen fast at the local level. An ordinance can move from introduction to final passage in a matter of weeks. 

Smart organizations can no longer afford to ignore local government and, thanks to advances in technology, they don’t have to. Local government affairs work is no longer the chore it was even five years ago. Using the right professional tools, organizations can track legislation, contact officials, mobilize advocates and run grassroots campaigns just like they do at the state and federal level. 

There is one big difference: local campaigns often have far more impact. 

Most mayors, city council members and county commissioners do not get anywhere near as much constituent feedback as state and federal lawmakers. So when advocate letters fill their inbox, they get attention. Local government is also far more personal. Residents can often attend meetings—no appointment needed—and talk directly to local officials.  

Lessons From the Gig Economy

Some of the leading companies in local government relations are those that operate in the sharing and gig economies. Lime, Airbnb, Uber, Expedia, Lyft, Etsy and others are experts at municipal government relations because local policy has a major impact on their business. 

In many locales, local officials determine how Airbnb hosts are able to rent and where Lime parks its scooters. Accordingly, these companies learned early on how to build grassroots support and make a case to local governments.

“Innovation is at the core of what these companies do,” said Philip Minardi, head of public policy at Expedia Group. “These companies are incredibly innovative. There’s a recognition that innovation is not just a product feature or a company feature. It’s a cultural feature as well. It’s important for our company to innovate culturally. That’s what you are seeing.”

At Lime, for example, the company uses grassroots advocacy to open new markets. “Advocacy has been a critical tool for Lime in demonstrating to elected officials that there is strong support for shared scooter programs among the communities they serve,” said Jonathan Perri, director of advocacy at Lime. “Personalized emails from our riders let mayors and city council members hear exactly how their constituents are using scooters.”

The strategy often works. In Orlando, for example, Mayor Buddy Dyer initially opposed electric scooters. Lime reached out its local riders, who sent roughly 1,600 emails advocating for scooters. The mayor gracefully yielded to the desire of his constituents. 

As Dyer put it, “A guy can change his mind when hundreds or thousands of people email you and say ‘we want scooters.’” 

Improving Your Local Advocacy 

For years, local advocacy was a difficult process, primarily based on the numbers. There is only one U.S. Congress. There are only 50 state legislatures. But there are hundreds of city and county governments, and thousands of local agencies. All have different rules. All use different technologies. Tracking ordinances and launching campaigns was all done manually—and that was a lot of time-consuming work. 

But that has changed. Using the right professional software, most of those functions can now be done digitally, making government relations at the local level very similar to working in state capitals or in Washington. In fact, given that local officials are extremely approachable, it may even be easier.

“The advances in recent years have been dramatic,” Lopez said. “Many organizations that we work with have expanded into local work with very good results.” 

Here are some steps you can take to improve your local government relations program.  

  • Develop Local Advocates. Even in a big city, constituents can play a major role in the process. When an ordinance is introduced, residents are almost always invited to comment before passage. Cultivating local advocates to carry your message to public officials directly can be extremely effective, a great augmentation to sending in experts.
  • Use Professional Software. With so many city governments at work all year long, professional tracking software is one of the most dramatic improvements you can make. It allows you to track a broad range of issues across a wider geography, without adding lots of additional work. Email alerts turn your tracker into an early warning system, so you know when issues are in play.
  • Make the Right Contacts. Because the action moves fast, being able to focus quickly on the right city officials—council or staff—is important. Whether you are seeking to get a meeting or to apply grassroots pressure, adding a robust and up-to-date database of local officials facilitates fast connections.
  • Sharpen Rapid Response. Using grassroots advocacy to support or oppose council action quickly is vital, and few tools are more effective at mobilizing your supporters than text messaging. Text has a 99-percent open rate, with most of the response taking place in the first seven minutes. Conversion rates can double or triple those of email.

Of course, it is also important to remember that a little bit of action goes a long way when addressing local government. Operate with a light hand to start. The aggressive approach needed to gain a voice before Congress can be overkill at a county commission.

“It takes some calibration,” Lopez said. “But it dials in quickly. We’ve seen many organizations get really good at this in a very short period of time.”