Practical tips for working with executive branch agency staff

ANALYSIS – In talking with staff from executive branch state agencies and departments the past few weeks, there are some practical tips that were shared with me for those working with the staff members of the Governor’s agencies and departments. While some of these recommendations may seem obvious, many of them bear repeating.

The following are some of the suggestions shared with me these past few weeks:

  • Always identify the client you are engaging on behalf of.
  • It is important to engage early with the executive branch. For example, if you know you are going to run legislation on an item that will impact an agency or department, begin outreach in the Fall. Larger state agencies and departments may have hundreds of bills they are looking at during session and so early engagement will be helpful to you and the executive branch entity.
  • You should reach out directly to the legislative office of an agency or department because these offices will generally have a “global view” of their programs and the staff in these offices are trained to identify which employees and programs to go to in order to ensure that the response that you receive is as helpful, complete, and accurate as possible.
  • When setting meetings with the legislative offices of the executive branch entities, be transparent in your requests. And, you need to appreciate that setting a meeting, particularly at certain times of the year, can be particularly challenging due to the high volume of legislation being reviewed, the limited availability for subject matter experts who are executing program functions, and multiple meeting requests.
  • In order to ensure that your meeting is as productive as possible, and that all needed subject matter experts are in attendance, be transparent about the purpose of the meeting and be clear about what information you are hoping to get from the meeting. For example, it is helpful that an agenda or bulleted list of questions be provided. This way, even if a meeting is not possible, departments can work to provide you written responses, if helpful and appropriate.
  • Be aware of timing. For example, departments may be able to answer technical questions about how programs currently function earlier in the calendar year. On the other hand, most feedback regarding the impact of the bill itself is more likely to occur after the first policy committee hearing.
  • You should always expect that executive branch responses take time. In addition to needing time to carefully consider, research, and formulate a thorough response to questions, most agencies and departments tend to “triage” responses based on the urgency of the request, complexity of the response, and the current volume of requests in process.
  • You will benefit by giving an executive branch entity as much lead time as possible. And, understand that, despite staff’s best efforts, you may not receive a response on your timeline.
  • Keep in mind the state budget and what is happening there. For example, when formulating or advancing a request, you are advised to check to see if it is ancillary, duplicative of, or in conflict with any Administration proposal. In the same vein, if you are advancing a proposal with a large fiscal impact, you need to determine the funding source and mechanism.
  • Appreciate that providing technical assistance does not indicate a position on your legislation. In other words, technical assistance is language that the department or agency will need in order to implement a bill if it were to become law. By providing technical assistance, it should not be taken as support for a bill.
  • Working through the legislative director of the department or agency is key even though policy staff are often knowledgeable. However, they should not be your sole contact.
  • Don’t pressure anyone to give you their opinion or best guess.
  • Approach the relevant department and agency before the Governor’s Office, as the Governor’s staff will just push folks back to meet with the department and agency.
  • Communicate with Legislative Deputies in departments on bill ideas/proposals early in the process so technical assistance can be provided before the bill is drafted.
  • Keep the communication going as the legislation moves through the process.

If the Governor’s Office is suggesting amendments, they are not likely suggestions.

  • Be open to working together on solutions using the technical assistance provided by department and agency staff.
  • Don’t take the term “that’s interesting” as agreement that the legislation is a good idea.
  • Don’t expect anyone to “fix” your bill. Even if technical assistance is provided, that only makes the bill implementable, not necessarily good policy.
  • Don’t tell committee consultants that the Administration supports your bill language.
  • Be patient as department and agency staff work through their lengthy internal process to reach an approved position, if possible.
  • The email deluge is real. In addition to emails related to their job functions, staff inboxes are often full and they appreciate email etiquette. Your email should provide a clear subject line; put emphasis on the important points; make the “ask” clear; put all relevant info in the body of the email, and don’t include attachments unless they are imperative.
  • As a general rule, always start the meeting off with what your ask is so staff don’t have to figure it out while you’re talking. Put all the cards on the table and have honest discussions.
  • Keep committee consultants “in the loop” on amendment discussions and other actions or information that may affect the bill.
  • Return phone calls and emails from executive branch staff promptly. There are some lobbyists who have a bad habit of either not responding or responding after it is too late to be helpful. When executive branch staff reach out to you on a bill, they are doing so for a reason and are usually under time constraints.
  • Provide materials in an easy-to-use format, such as a Word document.
  • It may be helpful to meet with executive branch staff at the beginning of the year to discuss the upcoming session and policy interests, as well as your client priorities.
  • Always identify the client you are engaging on behalf of with executive branch staff. And be clear what you are asking for.
  • If the Governor’s Office is suggesting amendments, they are not likely suggestions.
  • Be straightforward about a bill’s strengths and weaknesses. No bill is perfect, and staff understand that any bill comes with trade-offs. Avoid puffery or excessive doom-and-gloom statements.
  • Don’t try to hide the backstory on your bill. For example, if a legislative proposal comes from an executive branch action or a lawsuit, disclose that fact. These facts always come out and, if they don’t come from you, you will lose credibility with staff.
  • If you happen to have a staffer’s phone number, don’t abuse the privilege.
  • Treat everyone in the legislative process with respect.
  • Above all else, be honest.

Chris Micheli, an attorney and adjunct professor at McGeorge School of Law, is a founder of the Sacramento lobbying firm Aprea & Micheli.

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