Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.
Ethically Exerting Political Influence
Political lobbying or corporate campaign donations can bring negative associations to mind, but there are legal, ethical, and effective ways to influence lawmakers. It's important that business leaders identify these ethical ways to influence and educate lawmakers so they can be a part of changes they want to see.
Imagine that you have just accepted a job as the city manager of a moderately-sized municipality. In that role, you'll be overseeing the public works department, all public safety services, information technology, and all finance activities.
There's very little chance that you're a subject-matter expert in all these areas. How will you successfully lead so many diverse operations? You'll need the best people - individuals you can trust - in charge of each department. They'll be invaluable to you in giving advice, educating, and advocating for the needs of their department as well as the citizens they serve.
You wouldn't classify that kind of involvement as unethical, would you? Probably not. In a manner of speaking, this is the situation that faces lawmakers every day. They are asked to vote on hundreds of pieces of legislation pertaining to dozens of topics well outside their existing expertise. Sure, they have policy advisers on staff, but individuals and industries can and should use ethical means to influence decisions on the things that matter to their industries. You can revisit the lesson Business Strategies for Influencing Congress and Regulatory Agencies to review the general principles of influencing lawmakers.
Let's review some ways to do this effectively, but ethically, by analyzing a few short scenarios.
Supporting a Good Cause
Imagine two organizations with a material interest in a government decision about placing the Gunnison sage-grouse (a bird with a declining population and a narrow habitat) on the endangered species list. One organization, Open Range Outfitters, doesn't want the bird placed on the list because it would reduce the amount of land upon which their clients can legally hunt.
Another organization, Friends of the Sage-Grouse Association, wants to see the bird on the list before the population dips too low to recover.
- What strategies could each organization use to raise awareness, support their position, and maybe even achieve a win-win solution?
To answer this question, let's look at these three scenarios.
Scenario 1: Groundswell
Although both organizations have a material interest in the issue, the community around them has an indirect interest. They just don't know it yet. The outfitters wants local business owners to know that a decrease in hunters means a decrease in all tourism and hospitality industry businesses in the area. They visit various community groups to tout the possibility of fewer hotel rooms and flights booked, and reduced customer counts at local restaurants.
The environmental organization also wants to let people in the community know a thing or two about the bird. On their part, they use social media ads that tell the story of how extinctions and decreasing biodiversity negatively affect ecosystems, and how future generations should enjoy the presence of the bird and healthy ecosystems for recreational purposes.
- What kind of influence is this, and how does it influence political decisions?
This type of effort is called grassroots lobbying. It is aimed at influencing lawmakers indirectly by influencing their constituents. In this scenario, the outfitter hopes that their efforts will spur other local small business owners to oppose placing the bird on the endangered list because it will hurt the local economy too much.
Similarly, the environmental group wants advocates from all across the country to apply pressure on lawmakers to act decisively to save the species. Grassroots lobbying that works effectively often uses petitions, social media, email, and phone calls from the public to push their position with existing office holders.
Scenario 2: Send in the Experts
After looking at the professional background of the lawmakers currently in power, the environmental group is concerned. They're worried that their representatives don't understand the environmental consequences or alternatives to a blanket up or down vote on the issue.
Interestingly enough, the outfitter is worried about the exact same thing, except that they are concerned their representatives lack a working knowledge of the economic impact of a yes/no vote.
The environmental group hires a biology professor, and the outfitter employs someone from the US Chamber of Commerce to engage and educate the lawmakers one-on-one. They are both convinced that when their lawmakers fully understand the situation, there is likely to be a better outcome.
- What influence strategy is this, and how does it work?
This is traditional lobbying. Lobbyists are individuals who engage political leaders to advocate positions in which their clients believe. Lobbyists are often on the receiving end of public criticism as unethical influence-peddlers, but this is often a poor characterization of their work.
In most cases, lobbyists are required by law to disclose that they are being paid to support a specific position. They are also subject to limits on what gifts, meals, or other things of value can be used in lobbying efforts. When the system works as designed, lobbyists are both educators and advocates.
Scenario 3: Money Talks
As is only natural, both organizations want to support political candidates who support their positions. To this end, both the outfitter and the environmental activists identify political candidates favorable to their position and contribute to their respective campaigns.
- What influence strategy is this, and how does it work?
Like lobbying, political contributions (especially those from corporations) are often the subject of criticism for being ''big money, special interests''. Also like lobbying, there are cases where this is true. In fact, some companies ''hedge their bets'' and make campaign contributions to politicians on both sides of the aisle. However, even as individuals, we support the causes that matter to us. Many of us donate to charities, religious institutions, and civic groups. Many corporations also make campaign contributions in the same manner.
When utilized appropriately, these three methods of exerting influence can be legal, ethical, and effective.
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