As the interactions between business and government become more complex and fall under a wider and wider net, the need to hire government affairs specialists has increased proportionally. The influence of government is not just on politics, it is on policy and specifically, the policies that impact your clients’ bottom line. As client needs grow in this space, how do you ensure that you are represented before government as effectively as possible? Practically speaking, this begs the question: Who can you call to help?
Two choices immediately come to mind: consultants and lobbyists. Professionals in these two areas are sometimes thought of interchangeably, but in fact, there are important differences. How they approach a solution, how they are regulated and the power that they hold are key distinctions. Broadly speaking, a consultant is a professional who provides expert advice in a subject area, but normally lacks the authority to implement change. On the other hand, a lobbyist not only provides advice but then actively seeks to influence external decisions, often with significant impacts to their client’s bottom line. The ability to influence change has become a key aspect of success in today’s business worlds.
The “who to call” debate has been ongoing for years. The answer is that it obviously it depends on the circumstances, but one undeniable truth is that these two professions are no longer interchangeable. Calling the right professional can make all the difference in the end. The trend toward lobbyists was strongest at the federal level as our central government took on more and more power during the 1960s and 1970s. However, President Reagan persuaded a generation of voters—Democrats and Republicans— that the 10th Amendment did reserve power over many issues for the states. His view that the Founding Fathers intended for states to have all powers not reserved for the federal government and that these rights and powers should be delegated to the states whenever possible shifted the government affairs debate to the statehouses across the country.
There is certainly cross-pollination between these two professions, but the effectiveness of each specialty is maximized when they are used in a manner consistent with their experience and work history. In the end, it all comes down to whether your clients just need information on how a specific government program works and its subsequent effect on your business, or whether there is a real need to advocate for change. If information is the primary asset being sought, then hiring a consultant should be all that you need. Though the same consultant could advocate for your company on a specific issue, advocacy has become a highly regulated profession at all levels of government—local, regional, state and federal—and therefore should be left to those who are familiar with its constantly changing rules. In addition, having an experienced lobbyist leading the advocacy increases your chances at a successful outcome without increasing the risk of a political misstep.
A professional lobbyist will be able to leverage relationships to benefit your interests. Most importantly, an effective lobbyist will navigate, educate, advocate and identify legitimate business opportunities with the ultimate goal of increasing your company’s bottom line. Recent research studying the effectiveness of corporate lobbying of the legislative branch of the U.S. government found that firms with the highest lobbying intensities outperformed comparable non-lobbying or less-intensely lobbying firms.
Both consultants and lobbyists have a role to play in the modern business world, but as time marches on, and the trend toward specialty work has increased, the ability to use these professions interchangeably is rapidly coming to an end. For in-depth technical information and analysis, consultants are a solid choice. But if the situation calls for a two-way dialogue and directional changes in policy, then interacting with government though a professional lobbyist is the more effective choice.