“This is where the real action happens.”
That is the proclamation you’ll hear from the countless lobbyists and grassroots activists who ply their trade somewhere other than in the halls and buildings of Congress. And many advocacy professionals who have worked on both federal and state legislative campaigns will certainly agree.
The actions taken by lawmakers, both in Congress and state legislatures, can have major impacts on your organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. Bills passed by Congress can drive overwhelming change to core social, environmental and health-related programs—think the Affordable Care Act or the Clean Air Act.
But it is state legislative and regulatory action that plays a critical role in determining how those types of policies are implemented. While Congress might receive most of the public’s attention, it is state officials who determine how those
changes actually reach the people.
Then, of course, there is the extensive list of policies that originate at the state level. Taxes, gambling, crime and health policies are debated regularly within state governments, impacting the flow of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds each year.
This is why so many advocacy organizations are more focused than ever before on state level advocacy.
Of course, launching a new state advocacy program or making a greater investment in an existing program can be a major step for an organization. It can come with the pressure of showing direct benefits to people in the communities where the money is being raised and maximizing the mission impact of every dollar spent.
To be successful, it’s important that you’re clear on the differences between Congress and state legislatures, as well as the tools you’ll need to help ensure that success.
Key Fact #1: A state legislature is not a miniature version of Congress
The constitutional mandates for Congress and state legislatures have many similarities. They are an equal branch of their respective governments, they pass a budget that is then executed by the executive branch and they are elected within districts by their constituents.
But step inside a few State Capitol buildings and you quickly realize the differences can be vast.
Perhaps the greatest contrast between federal and state government is the pace of legislative action. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 36 states held legislative sessions this year that lasted five months or less.
This shortened timeframe can result in bills that fly through subcommittees, committees and floor votes in weeks or even days. It’s not unusual for a bill to be heard in committee one afternoon and receive a floor vote the next morning.
For example, a bill to establish a national health mandate or regulation that might take 10 years to pass in Congress can get passed by a state legislature in a matter of months. It’s why the halls of state capitols are swarming with lobbyists and constituents each day the legislature is in session.
This accelerated pace means organizations must be prepared to respond quickly to lawmaker or public concerns and—more optimistically—immediately take advantage of opportunities when they arise. One missed committee hearing or a delay in countering your opposition could determine the fate of your bill.
Recommendations on how you can ensure you’re ready for any eventuality will be addressed in Key Fact #4 below.
A second major difference is staffing. When a federal lobbyist wants to share policy information with a member of Congress, they will typically meet with the legislative assistant (LA) for that issue or the appropriate committee staffer. At the state level, however, that meeting could very likely be directly with the lawmaker.
While each member of Congress has a team to support them, the state lawmaker might be working from an office suite with five other colleagues and sharing the services of one staff person, a receptionist who answers their phones and welcomes visitors. In some legislatures, lawmakers don’t even have official phone numbers or any dedicated staff.
There are states—typically those with the largest populations or that have full-time, year-round legislatures—that do have more extensive professional staff.
Even in those states, staffing for a typical lawmaker is not nearly as robust as in a congressional office. In fact, legislative staff are often reserved for members of leadership, committee chairs and other influential officials.
Don’t be fooled, though. There is no shortage of very smart and very politically sophisticated people working in and hovering around a state legislature. This is not the minor leagues. It’s merely a different venue for the same, very competitive
sport of lawmaking.
KEY FACT #2: A state’s legislative process is more predictable than you might think and that means you can create a lot of your content in advance
“Well maybe that’s how they do it up in [insert any northern state or Congress], but that’s not the way things work here in [insert my state].”
It’s the mantra of state lawmakers and lobbyists across the nation. They all believe their state is unique—a snowflake, some people might say. Yet, when you look into the process of how a bill becomes a law, all states are strikingly similar.
With the exception of Nebraska and its unicameral legislature, every state has two chambers, committees, subcommittees, conference committees and a governor eagerly awaiting the opportunity to sign or veto legislation. A state may label these bodies differently and have a few added steps—for example, a Rules Committee that determines which bills make it to the floor vote and when—but the process is still relatively the same.
Many states also have a predictable rhythm each year they are in session. For example, budget hearings might take place during a particular week. And “crossover day”—the deadline for when bills must pass at least one legislative chamber—could be set for a specific point in the session.
This consistency within a legislature and across states can provide an enormous benefit in planning your campaigns.
That being said, it’s important to understand and respect the nuances of each state legislature and the important role those intricacies can play in passing legislation. For any state you’re working in, it’s critical to have a local resource—be it a volunteer, staff person or contract lobbyist—who understands the culture and workings of their specific legislature.
One aspect of state advocacy that is very similar to Congress is the need for your team to truly understand its legislative proposals—not just the policy considerations, but also the political dynamics. Why would a lawmaker support your bill? Why will other lawmakers oppose it? What special interests or coalitions will be willing to rally in support of or in opposition to your issue?
Once you understand your issue, the legislative process and the unique characteristics of a legislature, you can begin writing the content for your campaign. Yes, that’s correct. You can begin writing—now, months before the start of the session. This includes your emails to volunteers, your action alerts, your Facebook posts, tweets and more.
Yes, you might need to tweak the content a bit as the session unfolds. But there are significant advantages to completing these tasks before the session even begins.
- Stronger Assets. You will have the time necessary to create highly compelling assets. This might include video stories from volunteers and social media graphics that will drive action.
- Better Quality. You can write higher-quality content, working through multiple drafts, rather than having to rush because you just learned the vote will take place the next morning.
- Simpler Approvals. Your content can get pre-approved. No more stalking the policy, media and legal teams when you only have 30 minutes to get an email out.
- More Bandwidth. When a crisis or unexpected development strikes during session—and it will—you will be better able to focus on resolving the situation because you know your other campaign materials are ready to go.
To put it simply, working in advance will allow you to execute more quickly and
powerfully when the call comes that it’s time for a vote.
KEY FACT #3: You need a state legislative tracking service that does more than just track legislation
One of the greatest challenges of running a state advocacy program is tracking what’s happening on the ground. Unless you have staff in-market roaming the halls of the state capitol, you will need to rely on technology to keep you updated—even if you have a local contract lobbyist.
In today’s fast-paced legislative environment, merely knowing about bill filings and votes isn’t nearly enough. Having good legislative intelligence means understanding what lawmakers are thinking before they vote, as well as how public sentiment is trending on your issue. There is no worse feeling than losing what you thought would be a successful vote only to have people tell you afterward that the outcome was pretty obvious days before.
You could subscribe to a myriad of different services to collect all of this information piecemeal, but more robust platforms now provide all of the intelligence you need in one consolidated dashboard.
Most legislative tracking services will provide basic features that allow you to identify priority legislation and monitor its progress. This includes seeing information about bill sponsors, hearing dates and votes. More advanced services will take that a few steps further, providing you push notifications when there is activity on your bill, as well as tracking keywords to identify related legislation.
A truly robust system will provide features that serve as your eyes and ears on the ground. They can track designated Twitter handles to report to you when your lawmakers are tweeting about your issue; monitor local media coverage of your issue and link to relevant articles; and report on any executive actions that might impact your campaign (i.e. orders from the governor, etc.).
There are two additional features that organizations often find to be very helpful. One is the ability to easily contact state lawmakers and their staff (in states that have them) through the same platform. Some systems will even include bios and work history for staff, so you can better understand their background before reaching out.
Another useful feature is the ability to access and engage with all of these tools through an easy-to-use mobile app. Very few organizations can afford to have staff on the ground in every state where they’re pursuing legislation. And even in places where they have contract lobbyists, a top-notch legislative tracking platform allows the advocacy team to be more knowledgeable about what’s happening and more strategic in their approach.
KEY FACT #4: All advocacy technology platforms are not created equal
When it comes to evaluating advocacy technology platforms, it’s important that you first work through a deliberate process to gain a full understanding of your organization’s needs. In doing so, you can distinguish between ‘must have’ features that are critical to your ability to run successful campaigns and other features that might belong on a wish list. This will allow you to more objectively evaluate the benefits and shortcomings of each platform and avoid becoming distracted by a ‘shiny’ feature that isn’t truly core to your work.
For any organization, there are several features that should never be sacrificed:
- The Ability to Quickly Launch a Campaign. It never fails. The announcement about an upcoming vote always comes when three other urgent matters are swirling. That means the pressure will be on to publish an action and send an email—sometimes within the hour. How easy does the technology make it to complete these steps? Can you copy a previous action and just tweak it rather than having to start from scratch? While you want your system to be robust, you want it to be nimble as well.
- A Full-Time, In-House Team Maintaining Lawmaker Data. State information technology (IT) departments aren’t always sensitive to the fact that constituents want to communicate with lawmakers during the session. It’s not unusual for
a state lawmaker’s webform or email address to break or change in the middle of the action. If your vendor doesn’t have an in-house data team, then some of your volunteers’ messages won’t reach that targeted lawmaker prior to the important vote. Ask vendors how they manage lawmaker data and be sure they provide very specific responses.
- A Variety of Built-In Volunteer Action Opportunities. Too many advocacy organizations have only one trick up their sleeve when it comes to taking action: sending emails to their volunteers and asking them to send messages to their lawmakers. Often, it’s because that is the only tool their advocacy technology vendor provides. This is no longer enough. Many lawmakers see tweets long before they check their inbox. And there is an abundance of data showing that volunteers are far more likely to take action in response to a text message than an email. Even a small organization just getting started in state advocacy should have a strong set of tactics at its disposal. (Your opponents will.) This includes the ability to send text messages to your volunteers and have them easily call or tweet at their lawmakers, all through your platform and without volunteers having to look up phone numbers or Twitter handles.
Launching or expanding a state advocacy program is an exciting and impactful endeavor for an organization. Your constituency (and donors) are likely to see results far more quickly than they will when you work with Congress. There may also be greater opportunities for them to be involved state-level efforts because it’s likely easier for them to visit their state capitol than it is to travel to Washington DC.
While the general principles of advocacy and legislative campaigning remain the same regardless of the level of government, the nuances—however small—can have a significant influence on the outcome of your campaign. Making the necessary investments now, such as increasing your understanding of the legislatures you’ll be targeting and having the right tools in place, will lay a strong foundation that allows you to maximize the impact state advocacy can have on your organization’s mission.
Brian Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Impact Group, helps nonprofit organizations and companies drive greater engagement with their audiences—volunteers, members, employees, customers and partners—to deepen relationships, run successful campaigns and strengthen their brands. You can reach him at email@example.com.