February 4, 2016
Honesty is the best policy… really. At home. At work. When advocating.
Whether it’s an outright lie, a lie by omission, a lie because you didn’t do your homework, or a lie of plausible deniability, where you think the onus should be on the government worker to ultimately fact-check you – it is usually found out – and will sink your efforts.
Little secret: many government offices talk — even across party lines — especially in Wisconsin offices where that whole “Midwestern Nice” thing is legit. Staff members form an informal, bipartisan club of sorts and frequently exchange information and questions. While partisan-based anger may be the prevailing attitude across the country right now, most staff, on both sides of the aisle are still diplomatic public servants eager to get the job done and get it done right.
Once a lobbyist came in to see me on behalf of a cause and swore a certain member of Congress was supportive – even said that representative was absolutely endorsing it at an upcoming hearing. My gut told me the lobbyist’s issue and the member’s position were probably not on the same page. When the lobbyist left, I picked up the phone, called the member’s aide and asked the office position. That’s when I was told, “No, we made it clear we’re not endorsing it at all. We simply said we could, and would, ask a neutral question on it in the hearing.”
Was this a misunderstanding between the lobbyist and the congressional office? Perhaps. But the reason I immediately called to check was because that lobbyist had already lost credibility with me on a similar issue in the past. At this point, ALL credibility was lost, with me, as well as with the member’s aide, who was not surprised this lobbyist was given an inch and tried to sell it for a mile. Two battleships sunk. Oh, and that issue also needed Senate committee support. The Senate committee person responded with, “Yeah, I fact-check everything [lobbyist name] says. I don’t understand why people keep hiring [lobbyist name].”
Three battleships sunk. Two political parties. One lobbyist and a cause that would not be moving quickly.
Government employees many times feel compelled to accept a meeting, at least once, with a lobbyist or group on an issue, whether they like said lobbyist or not (and contrary to what some in the public may believe, most lobbyists that I have encountered are good, honest people with a reasonable cause). What is more, Hill staff often take several meetings with a group. However, that does not mean an aide is always going to encourage or invite the boss to join the meeting, or that the aide will bend over backward to help them if the lobbyist is not trusted. Once credibility is lost, well, that ship has sailed.
I still needed to meet with that lobbyist on other issues. But I no longer gave the benefit of the doubt – only doubt. The trust-but-verify attitude I had when we first met, was now just verify, even when I wanted to engage on the issue.
Bottom line: successful advocacy takes time and requires building relationships and earning trust. It is a marathon, not a sprint, so never, ever, lie. If you unintentionally misrepresent a situation or fact, correct it immediately in the meeting, with a follow-up email, or pick up the phone. If you burn one office, word will spread. Credibility will be ruined with more than one person, and where does that leave you and your issue? Sunk.