The Value of Engaging Elected Officials

John “JB” Byrd

“The reason we have no influence is because we don’t take the time to contact our congressmen or senators.”

This astute point was made by Professional Surveyor Magazine subscriber Craig Johnstone in a letter to the editor in the November 2011 issue. Mr. Johnstone was referring to simple outreach to elected officials that can heighten their awareness of issues affecting the surveying and mapping community. Sharing your professional knowledge and experience with elected representatives can benefit you, your firm, and the profession.  Learning how is not difficult.

The act of engaging elected officials has little to do with your political affiliation and everything to do with putting surveying and mapping on the political map. Politicians at every level are dealing with issues from agriculture to zoology.  Connecting with them, and their staff, increases awareness of the profession and its issues and helps to create a clear picture of what concerns those in surveying, mapping, and other geospatial fields. To help engage elected officials in the education process, try these tactics and strategies.
 

The KISS Principle

Often, one of the first mistakes geospatial professionals make when speaking with elected officials is focusing on technical terms. The KISS principle (keep it simple and short) should apply. The most effective way to deliver a message is to show how geospatial technology provides a solution to a problem.  Surveys, maps, aerial photographs, or GIS samples in digital or hardcopy format are great illustrations.  The old adage—a picture is worth a thousand words—truly applies. 

Only a handful of congress members have a background in engineering, surveying, or mapping. Describing geospatial technology in a broad, layman’s way and how it will affect citizens of the community is the most efficient way to communicate your message. As an example, instead of talking about a cadastre or boundary lines, explain how mapping parcels and properties in a geospatial database will provide a visualization of foreclosures in an area. 
 

Recognize the Importance of Staff

If you visit a congressman or senator’s office in Washington, DC or your home state (or a state legislator, for that matter), you do not always get the chance to see the lawmaker.  If you meet with staff, don’t be offended.  Staff does considerable background work, and their job is to advise the legislator. 

Think of it this way: Do you always work with the president or CEO of a company, or does the real business get done with a project manager or division director? Legislative staff members are the division directors, people who can be as influential as the representative or senator. Staff members often have backgrounds in certain areas and cover a select number of issues. These are the people you are most likely to work with, whether you ever see the lawmaker or not, and they will contact you for any follow-up.
 

Attend a Town Hall Meeting

Town hall meetings have become a popular form of engagement with constituents for members of congress. These events can be public-complaining  sessions; however, if you have started a relationship with your congressman through conversations at other events, a town hall meeting can provide a chance to increase your representative’s awareness in a public venue. Instead of piling on to the same topic with the masses, thank the congressman for his or her work on something that has helped your business. This single act can pay great dividends, especially when done in a public forum. 

Invite Elected Officials to Your Office

MAPPS Federal Programs Conference

The oldest and largest “Day on the Hill” in the surveying and mapping profession is the annual MAPPS Federal Programs Conference.  The 2012 gathering (and the 21st annual program) will be held March 27 - 28 at the Westin City Center in Washington, DC.  The first day of the conference features briefing on upcoming contracting opportunities by officials of the major Federal surveying, mapping, and geospatial agencies, followed by a day in which MAPPS members go to Capitol Hill to meet with senators and representatives. More than 100 surveying and mapping professionals will visit some 300 congressional offices in a single day.  For information, visit www.mapps.org.
 
An invitation to your office can be mutually beneficial to both your firm and the elected official. Representatives go back to their home districts almost every weekend to engage with their constituents; in fact, the official term on the congressional calendar is “Constituent Work Week.” During these days, representatives seek opportunities to meet with voters by visiting groups and businesses.

Extending an invitation to your congressmen through their staff allows for employees to engage with their elected official and allows for your firm to highlight the work you do for the citizens of the district, state, and country. Providing an opportunity to learn how geospatial technologies are used, including how they relate directly to current legislation, is the best way to help educate.
 

Invite Candidates to Speak

The year 2012 is an important election year. Candidates will be seeking opportunities to engage with voters. You and your workforce are potential voters. Having candidates to your office can benefit you and the campaign. Do not think that your business is too small (or large) to reach out to candidates and their campaign staffs. 
 

Show Respect

Follow a few common-sense rules.  First, at any meeting with an elected official, gentlemen should wear a jacket and tie, and ladies should wear appropriate business attire. This shows appropriate respect for the office (as well as the office holder) and projects a professional image on your part. 

When meeting with an elected official, it is never appropriate or constructive to make threats (e.g. “if you don’t do as I ask, I, my family, and my staff will all vote against you in the next election”) or promises (e.g. “if you help me, I’ll make a contribution to your campaign”).  The former is dumb and the latter is illegal!

These simple practices can help your firm and the surveying and mapping profession become engaged in the political process—and possibly create business opportunities. The tips provided here do not constitute lobbying. These are tips by which a citizen and constituent can educate and inform elected officials and their staff, which is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It is important that the surveying and mapping community become more engaged in the political process to educate elected officials of the importance and abilities provided by the profession to grow the economy, improve the quality of life, and solve issues confronting the nation.

 
John “JB” Byrd is the government affairs manager for John M. Palatiello & Associates, a public affairs, association management, and consulting firm in Reston, VA. He has more than 10 years of public-policy experience. He is also the government affairs manager for MAPPS, the national association for private-sector geospatial firms.

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