Organizing Your Federal Affairs Team

Benefits of an Issue-Based Structure

For any federal affairs team, structure is critical. With 535 members of Congress, many organizations approach their structure and strategy by dividing responsibilities across different categories. Some assign each lobbyist to a political party, some have specific lobbyists for the House and Senate, some divide by region, and some by policy issue.

We spoke to three public affairs professionals who lead their respective organization’s federal affairs teams—Larry Chadwick of TIAA, Kristin McDonald of the American College of Surgeons, and Kirk Johnson of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Each of these three organizations divides responsibility amongst its federal affairs team by issue. Three themes emerged on why an issue-based structure works best for these federal affairs teams:

Developing Policy Experts

“I want folks to be able to be subject matter experts,” said Kirk Johnson, Senior Vice President of Government Relations at NRECA. “We want them to be able to talk about subject matter a little bit deeper than just the first two or three sentences.”

Johnson’s sentiment on the necessity of having subject matter experts was echoed in each of the conversations about structuring federal affairs teams.

According to TIAA’s Senior Managing Director Larry Chadwick, he realized the importance of building policy experts from faults in his team’s prior party-based structure. When the team was structured by party, each lobbyist had to know something about all of the policy areas that TIAA covered. However, due to the expertise needed to discuss each of the issues at the required depth, they were often bringing along policy experts anyway.

“I saw redundant efforts,” Chadwick said. “If it was a financial services meeting and the person wasn’t particularly strong in financial services, they would take along the policy expert with them.”

Having lobbyists assigned to a particular policy allows them to become known experts in the community so that when a member or other organization had a question about that policy area, they would turn to that particular lobbyist for their insights.

“They become known in the industry across different shops as, ‘Wow, Chris Spence really knows retirement stuff, you know, I need to talk to him about this,’” Chadwick said.

Maintain Consistent Policy Messaging and Bill Tracking

When Chadwick’s team was arranged by political party, he found that sometimes lobbyists working on the same issue on different sides of the aisle were sharing different messages.

We were getting an asymmetrical message to different parties across the same policy topic,” Chadwick said of his team before they rearranged to assign lobbyists to specific issue areas.

Along with consistent messaging, Kristin McDonald, Manager of Legislative and Political Affairs at the American College of Surgeons noted that it was necessary for College to align its lobbyists with particular committees so that lobbyists both had the policy expertise to advocate for a specific stance and could track legislation with information from both sides of the aisle.

“[It’s important] for them to have full committee access rather than just focusing on Republicans or Democrats,” McDonald said. “In our experience, if you really want to know what is going to happen with a bill and you are the lead on that bill, you need to be talking to both sides of the aisle.”

Provide Professional Development for Lobbyists

The American College of Surgeons saw that structuring its federal affairs team by issue provides professional development opportunities for its lobbyists by exposing them to the different rules and processes utilized by each chamber and party.

“It’s better for their careers long term to have access to both sides of the aisle, for them to have full committee access,” McDonald said. “While I think you can end up with someone who has had more experience with the Senate side rules, it’s helpful to be able to cross chambers.”

By assigning lobbyists to issues rather than parties or chambers, the lobbyists have a chance to experience both chambers and both sides of the aisle and bring those experiences to future lobbying positions they may hold at other organizations.

Best Practice: A Second Layer

Not every member of Congress may sit on a committee that is relevant to an organization’s work, but it is still to an organization’s benefit to have some means of making sure every legislator is assigned to one of the organizations’ lobbyists. McDonald and Johnson each noted secondary layers of structure to ensure that staff assignments account for each legislator.

At ACS, McDonald leads a type of draw for her team members to pick legislators who do not sit on the key committees that impact issues that ACS cares about.

NRECA organizes a program called “Co-Op 101” where it educates every new member or new energy staffer on the work their organization does. For members who are not already assigned to a lobbyist based on their involvement in one of NRECA’s key issues, Johnson allocates them geographically.

When your team is organized by issue, your lobbyists will likely cross over and be working with some of the same legislative offices on your respective issues. With Quorum, it’s easy to manage your engagement with offices and keep everyone on the same page with who each person is meeting with. See Quorum in action.

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