Reading Between the Research Lines: Activities that Influence Congress and Congressional Staff from the 2017 Congressional Communications Report (Part 2)

May 2, 2018 Amy Showalter

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Amy Showalter, a national authority on government relations best practices, grassroots and PAC influence.

In my previous column, I dug between the research lines of Dr. David Rehr’s Congressional Communications Report. It gives us insights that reinforce scientific influence principles that government relations professionals should be aware of and embody when leading their advocacy programs. In that column,   I provided commentary on the most effective lobbying activities that shape Congressional staff decision making.

In part two, I’m sharing my “between the lines” insights on what Congressional staff say are the most and least valuable sources of information, and more important, the most utilized sources of information, why they are valuable, why some sources are not, and what you should do to increase the value of your organization’s information.

Reputable Information Is a Factor in Congressional Access  

Virtually every advocacy group admonishes their advocates to “be a resource to your elected officials.” Government relations professionals also use the “resource” mantra as a government relations success metric; if our organization is a “resource” to legislators and their staff, we must be successful. There’s a lot more to persuasion than being a resource, but for now, let’s explore this since the research tells us that it is a determinant of the holy grail of grassroots: access.

The research showed that “providing credible, reliable information” was cited by 43% of Congressional staff as being the most important determinant of gaining access to a member of Congress or his / her staff.  Thus, if you want more access, providing credible, reliable information is a step on the access ladder. We know that social psychology literature reveals that a major element of the credibility formula is unbiased information. You’ll see how this manifests in the responses below.

The Information Equation – What is Valued? 

Here are information resources Congressional staff cited as ”very valuable” / valuable.” There is a second part to this question, so consider this a snapshot of the information source’s “reputation,” if you will.

Q: “How valuable are each of the following as ways for you to learn about policy issues?”   

Of note, Capitol Hill staffers were valued by 25% of respondents, and constituents by just 17%. As with any research, the devil is in the proverbial details.  When asked what sources are actually used, these two sources are ranked higher.

Lack of Bias = More Valuable

Reading between the research lines, it’s obvious that certain forms of information have a better reputation – there is a positive track record of previous use and engagement with those sources, so now there is a brand, if you will, to the source. They are likely less biased than other sources.

According to these responses, constituents aren’t so credible. How can this be? Why do constituents rank so much lower than other sources? I believe it is because we don’t recruit the right constituents to meet with lawmakers and staff. We take the “any warm body” approach to our advocacy outreach, rather than finding constituents who know more than the lawmaker or staff about an issue.

What ranks at the bottom of the “most valuable” list? According to the research, “Social media, Wikipedia or other wikis, and blogs are considered by Congressional staff to be among the least valuable sources of information.” What do those sources have in common? Lack of perspective and overly biased information, for starters.

But wait, there’s more . . . .these responses tell us the reputation of the resource; its perceived value. The next question asked staffers what they actually use — a major difference.

The Information Equation  – What is Used?  

Another aspect of this research I like is that it asks the respondents behavioral questions. For example, part two of the question regarding valuable sources of information asks where the Congressional staff actually go to find the valued information — is it actually utilized?

Q: “How often do you consult the following resources when learning about a public policy issue?”   

We have two dynamics at work here. First, the CRS is a non-biased organization with a “just the facts” analysis of legislative proposals. No political ramifications, no commentary on public opinion polls on the legislation, etc., is included in their reports.  As Dr. Rehr  advised our Innovate to Motivate ® community, “If you want your organization’s data and views more easily accessed, you need to find ways to have your data included in the CRS analysis.”

Capitol Hill staffers can also be issue experts, but what I believe is at play here is ease of access and similarity. We tend to trust information from similar others. When compared to all professions, current Capitol Hill staffers are in a limited club. There’s not a lot of people doing that job. Of course there are hordes of former staffers, but in terms of who is performing this job now, it’s very small. I am not surprised at this finding, as it reminds us that Congressional staff are very tuned in to the similarity principle of influence.  The lesson here is that you should always strive for as much grassroots coverage as possible, since the staff are talking to each other.

Constituent Warnings

It’s important to note that in Dr. Rehr’s 2012 iteration of this research, 69% of staff said they consult constituents to learn about issues, which is a 20-percentage point decline! How can this be? We were told that online communications and social media would bring about a new democracy, more of a dialogue between voters and elected officials, which was an adorable thought.

The reality is that many constituents may not be considered “valuable;” they may not have a great reputation, but they are nevertheless consulted to learn about an issue. That can work for and against you. In this data set, 49% stated that constituents were “almost always” or “frequently” utilized as information sources, as compared to 17% who replied that constituents were “very valuable” or “valuable.”

Reading between the lines, the fact that only 17% rated them as “valuable” tells me that while half of Congressional staff consult a constituent on an issue, it’s not a valuable interaction. The information may be too biased, incorrect, the constituent might be too passionate, a poor communicator, etc. Obviously, to maximize your organization’s influence, you want the constituents who are consulted by Congressional staff to, as I tell my audiences, “know yourself, know your story, and know your stuff,” and to especially know your stuff more than the legislative staff knows it.

Now What? Applying the Research Findings

What’s the bottom line? Let’s invert the findings. Based on this research, if you were to ask your government relations team, “What could we do to reduce the chances that Congressional staff use our information when researching important public policy issues?”

You would:

  • Neglect to develop a “elite force” of grassroots advocates. Just take whoever is available and willing—-the AWB (any warm body) approach to grassroots.
  • Do not share with your advocates that their reputation matters.
  • Spend most of your time posting issue information on social media sites than engaging the CRS and relevant federal agencies.
  • When you do post policy information, make it completely one-sided. Ignore other perspectives.
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