The Buzz: Who Really Influences Policy?

18 May, 2023


The Buzz: Who Really Influences Policy?

May 2023

By Alan Crawford
Impact Editor

There’s no way this could be your boss, but you probably know the type. You’ve heard from peers about their bosses — capable and confident executives who, in their eagerness to influence public policy, insist on meeting with elected officials and will accept no substitute.

They want personal time with the representative or senator and are insulted by being palmed off (that’s how they see it) on some mere hireling — a committee staffer, say, or legislative aide.

What they fail to realize is that time with an elected official — and the higher the office the truer this can be — too often turns out to be a perfunctory meet-and-greet photo op. It’s a far less productive use of anyone’s time than a serious sit-down with a member of the elected official’s staff. The staffer is often more of a subject matter expert than the officeholder, and a strong relationship with such a staffer can be far more valuable than a CEO or trade association head realizes.

New studies reveal this is true even on the level of state legislatures, where the elected official can be a next-door neighbor and is far more accessible than, say, a powerful committee chair on Capitol Hill. The studies, conducted in two state legislatures between March 2016 and March 2018 and scheduled for publication in the Journal of Experimental Political Science, find that lobbyists aren’t as effective at influencing a lawmaker’s policies as we’d like to think. “Legislators receive so many appeals in a session,” the researchers say, “that they may be overwhelmed by another request to support legislation.” Legislators in fact tend to be skeptical about information that comes directly from lobbyists. But the same information “is influential when provided by a legislative staffer.”

The implication seems obvious: Get the information you hope the elected official takes seriously to one of their staffers. Then let the staffer relay it to the officeholder. This might be something you already know, but your boss might not. The new research gives you additional support if your boss (or even a well-meaning colleague) insists on meeting with the big cheese instead of the lowly — but influential — staffer.

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