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e-Lobbying vs. In-Person: Two Perspectives

By: Brian Hess, VP, Emmer Consulting and the Goodfriend Group & Paul Miller, CEO, Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies

e-Lobbying Strengthens our Democracy

By: Brian Hess, VP, Emmer Consulting and the Goodfriend Group

I've been lobbying for almost five years. When the pandemic began, I was still green – having only lobbied for about a year-and-a-half. Today, while still green compared to many of the lobbyists in NILE's ranks, my green is more of a patina that only a healthcare lobbyist during a global pandemic can attain. During my time, there have been a lot of lessons that have shaped the way I view the profession's future, especially for young professionals such as myself. That experience leads me to believe that the argument that in-person access to the Capitol is paramount to the success of our democracy presents a false choice between a lower barrier to entry for advocacy and high-quality interaction with staff and Members of Congress. Instead, we should focus not on returning to the past but moving forward to a new, more accessible form of advocacy.

While I believe Congress is the House of the People, and their doors should always remain open, the virtual option – created out of necessity – has given way to a new form of advocacy which I believe should become the norm. There's no question that the virtual Congress has made advocacy, especially during hill days, more accessible to the average constituent. Having planned both in-person and virtual hill days, I believe virtual is easier to coordinate, gets more grassroots participation, and is more cost-effective for clients and their advocates. I disagree with the idea that Zoom meetings are low-quality interactions and the perspective that e-lobbying has prevented professionals or constituents from being compelling and influential voices for their cause. A voice, no matter how low quality you perceive it to be, is better than no voice at all.

That is what tens of thousands of Americans had in February of 2020. The kind of small organizations with passionate grassroots supporters who need to be heard the most in Washington often comprise caregivers, low-income workers, people with disabilities, and other disadvantaged Americans. Many of these advocates struggle to afford the travel expenses associated with coming to DC for a couple of hill meetings, assuming they even have time off from work. These voices sometimes stand in opposition to large interests that are better resourced. Those advocates can afford Hill Days, time off from work, and the associated travel costs. The virtual Congress has leveled the playing field for smaller organizations and, in doing so, democratized lobbying.

I've seen better participation from constituents for the fly-ins I've participated in. It showed me just how many "average Americans" actually want to engage with Congress and not just sign petitions. However, until now, the barriers of entry were just too high. Fly-ins required money out of pocket, time off of work, or, in some cases, time away from a loved one who needed caregiving. Now, a constituent could just call in from the break room for 15 minutes if they had to. Having more participants able to call in showed staff that there are more than just a few constituents back home who care about this issue but, in some cases, dozens.

Sure, you can argue that engagement is generally lower virtually than in-person. However, all that means is that we have to adapt our messaging styles to encourage engagement. For example, wonky monologues about the importance of an issue (especially if it's on a mundane topic) don't work anymore. Instead, quick, concise points and clear asks garner more attention and, in my experience, yield better results. I also think you should always be on camera when they sign in. Being on camera creates social pressure for everyone to be on camera, minimizing distractions.

In-person meetings provide you with opportunities to interpret social cues or other signs of a person's interest. No doubt, virtual meetings can hide those cues. However, we rarely consider the stress continuous meetings can cause and how they contribute to burnout. With that, any discussion of the virtual world needs to consider work-life balance and how that impacts what we do as lobbyists. Personally, I get better sleep, have time to spend with friends and family, and engage more in my hobbies. That means that despite the two-and-a-half-year sprint we've all been doing, I haven't burnt out and have translated that into better results for my clients and the causes for which I advocate.

From the conversations I've had with staffers, they feel the same way. Most of them don't want to come back into the office regularly and would rather be lobbied virtually. It saves them time, money, and energy. Legistorm recently reported that 2021 marked the highest turnover rate among staff in decades. While Legistorm cites the pandemic and January 6th as leading causes, we shouldn't overlook staff abuse and low pay either. Why take away the one thing that still provides some positivity for the young staff who effectively run our country?

In what may be considered an unpopular opinion, I don't think my ability to develop new or strengthen existing relationships has been significantly harmed. On the contrary, I feel like I have more and stronger relationships today than I did two years ago when this all began. I've been able to connect with staff through Zoom and, later, when the world started to open, have coffees and beers with those same staff. It's outside of the meetings where genuine relationships develop anyway; randomly approaching them at the Longworth Dunkin' isn't. Successful relationship building also requires us to engage with the other person on their terms, and many of those staffers still want to be engaged with virtually.

Frankly, I think a virtual Congress has been more helpful to young lobbyists than had the status quo been maintained. When Congress shut down, I was still a new lobbyist. I didn't know enough people on the Hill just to grab someone in the cafeteria or casually pop into an office. Not only that, but the nature of working at a small firm with 18 clients spanning health care, labor, and technology means I have to spend a lot of time researching the latest reports, drafting policy, and holding regular client calls – tasks better suited for a quiet environment. When I did have Hill meetings, I would lose at least 30 minutes to an hour of my day commuting from my office to the Hill.

In this regard, I don't think my experience as a young lobbyist is unique. Being at home saves us time and energy that we can reinvest into our clients' needs. Of course, those who have worked in the profession longer may still find value in hanging out in Cups all day, but the time I've saved not going to the Hill has given my firm the ability to focus more on our clients and grow our business.

I also think it's telling just how many NextGen lobbyists made NILE's 2021 Top Lobbyist list. Succeeding in this new environment requires more creative thinking and different skills than lobbying has before. In that sense, I believe the virtual Congress has leveled the playing field between the old and the new guard.

Successful advocacy depends on adapting to changing political realities, not trying to relive the glory days by scuffing up leather shoes. Democracy only thrives when the entire citizenry can easily engage with lawmakers and staff. A virtual Congress must be the backbone of the United States' 21st-century democracy. Capitol Hill should reopen to the public, but the only way to live up to the government the Founding Fathers envisioned is to create systems and provide the infrastructure necessary for everyone to participate; that is how we truly achieve "for the People, by the People."

Brian Hess is the Vice President of Emmer Consulting and the Goodfriend Group. He also serves as Executive Director of the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, Sports Fans Coalition. Brian founded NILE’s NextGen Executives initiative. In 2021, he was named one of 2021’s top lobbyists by both NILE and the Hill.

Virtual Democracy Limits the Voice of "We the People"

By: Paul A. Miller, CEO, Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies

James Madison, the father of our Constitution, said “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.” This statement was true then and even more true today as COVID-19 has transformed our government of “by the people,” to a virtual world, leaving voices hidden by virtual platforms that have diminished their ability to play an active role in their democracy.

I know some will say that COVID-19 has created new opportunities for more citizens to play an active role in their government. They are correct that the pandemic enabled more people to participate in virtual meetings with their elected officials and their staff. The reality is this is all perception. If you count success on the number of people being able to participate virtually, your campaign was a homerun. If you judge success by outcomes, then we need to dig deeper to see if quantity is better than quality. More people may have been able to participate, but have they really been heard? I argue they have not and let me tell you why.

In 2020 trade associations, labor unions, corporations, non-profits, and professional lobbyists had to quickly transition from in-person meetings to a virtual world, which was a great solution during a global pandemic. The problem is, even though technology has made doing business easier, it places limits on the effectiveness of your advocacy in turn limiting true participation in government. For example, getting a virtual meeting doesn’t mean it was an effective meeting. My argument is: How effective are these virtual meetings? Are your voices truly being heard?

How many of you have been on a Zoom call and found yourself multi-tasking? How many of you have found yourself on these calls walking away from your computer to do something else, even for a minute? How many of you signed up to participate in a virtual event only to cancel because another priority came up and decided to just catch the recording? How many have participated in a virtual event only to forget about the focus of the event by the end of the day? I suspect we all have done one or more of these things. Technology has made somethings easier, but by doing so, it has us working longer and harder. Zoom fatigue is real and why I believe long-term success via virtual advocacy is a myth. While video platforms like Zoom can be a useful tool, it cannot become the only tool, because it deprives “We the People” of truly being heard on critical issues impacting our lives.

Virtual democracy has allowed congressional staff to multi-task as well. We know how hard congressional staff work and how busy they are in “normal” times, now double or even triple the amount of time they are having to meet with constituents and special interests virtually. I’ve been on virtual calls where the person I was meeting with was loading their dishwasher. I’ve been on a virtual event where the person didn’t turn on their camera, leading me to believe they were multi-tasking while meeting with me. It was reported in the press that one congressional office was closed for more than a year and not responding to constituent calls. Ask yourself how effective can a virtual democracy be if Members of Congress don’t even answer constituent calls?

While some may think a virtual democracy is effective, I think the evidence proves otherwise. Just look at the number of Members of Congress who haven’t been in their DC offices since 2020. Look at how many offices today still won’t meet with you in person even though the country has opened back up. Ask yourself why do Members of Congress keep Capitol Hill closed? How many members of Congress continue to support proxy voting?

While in-person democracy isn’t some automatic success story, it has a better chance at a discussion that is effective in advocating on issues. In-person meetings help elected officials see their constituents and have real conversations without distractions. A key part of any advocacy campaign is building, sustaining, and growing your relationships with lawmakers and their staff. Meeting in-person provides windows that allow for networking, consensus building, information sharing, and building a trust that virtual meetings just can’t match. Hard for me to build a connection with a Member of Congress if I am on a Zoom call with them and one hundred other people.

So, while some support a virtual democracy, I point to Capitol Hill still being closed, proxy voting more than a pandemic tool, and Members of Congress and staff not being in their Washington offices for over two-years now, as why this has not worked and cannot be a long-term solution for an inclusive democracy.

In my opinion, successful advocacy depends on old school shoe leather lobbying. A successful advocacy campaign depends on “We the People” being in our Nation’s Capital having their voices heard in-person. Our democracy depends on its citizens having an opportunity to play a hands-on role in issues they care deeply about. One cannot do that over Zoom while multitasking. Now is the time to reopen Capitol Hill so that members of Congress and constituents can get back to the government our Founding Fathers envisioned: For the people, by the people. That is only possible if we get back to meeting in-person. It’s time and critical to the health of our country and democracy.

Paul Miller is CEO of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies. He also serves as Chairman of the Board of the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics.

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