New Administration, New Changes for Associations

It's been a little more than a year since President Obama and his administration made their way to Washington, DC. With their arrival came new priorities, which have meant a number of changes for associations. Here's how organizations are making the most of it and what it means for their day-to-day work.

Christine Bushway has had a busy year, to say the least. As executive director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association, she has experienced plenty of new and exciting legislation and events. These include the opening of an organic garden on the South Lawn of the White House, a number of legislative measures that pushed organic food safety and nutrition issues to the fore, and a whirlwind summer media tour in New York City covering organic issues that got a huge response from publications like Newsweek, Good Housekeeping, The New York Times, and O magazine. And if all this wasn't enough, last month may have been Bushway's busiest to date. That's when, after 25 years, OTA, which is headquartered in Greenfield, Massachusetts, opened its first office in Washington, DC.

"It's important to point out that this was something that OTA was thinking of doing for a number of years," says Bushway. "But after looking at everything, the board voted in July that government relations issues should be our number-one priority. Clearly the administration is very interested in organic food, and this is a positive for the industry. It was the perfect time for us to have a physical presence in the DC area."

As the opening of OTA's DC office illustrates, a new administration means new interests, legislation, and regulations, all of which can have an effect on the industries represented by associations. With a year come and gone, here's what they've learned works best with the new administration.

Meet the Demand

For Bushway and OTA, times are busy. "Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining," she says. "We're in a great position, a position where we can effect change for our industry and our members. But to do so we have to ramp up everything." Given the administration's interest in the organic sector, OTA needs to make sure it can keep up with the regulatory issues that involve and affect all of their members, who range from large companies to individual proprietorships that deal with anything from food to personal-care items (toothpastes, lotions, and so forth). "The organic industry is growing at a rate of 22 percent per year, so we have a lot to keep up with," Bushway says.

Add into the fact that the National Organic Program within the United States Department of Agriculture is also growing. "They started with 11 staff people," she says. "By the end of this year, they'll have 31 employees who will focus on things like production processes and third-party inspections."

What does this mean for OTA? "Well, we need additional staff and key people to look at policy issues," Bushway says. To that end, OTA has promoted its director for marketing and public relations to chief of policy and external relations. In addition, a new legislative and advocacy position will be filled and based out of the DC office. "All of this will allow us to be at the top of our game, to meet the interest that the administration is putting forward," she says. "We want to make sure we can advocate for organic agriculture as strongly as possible in Washington, because if we don't, there will be no one else out there to represent our industry and its best interests."

Be the Best Communicator

Whether it's a big-picture issue like climate change or healthcare reform or a smaller but just as important issue like food safety, greater Washington area associations are seeing communication to their members, legislators, and members of the administration become increasingly important. For the American Academy of Audiology, healthcare legislation and reform is something that has always been top of mind. With the arrival of a new administration, it has become a bigger priority.

For example, legislation that was introduced by the House last October contained a 2.5 percent sales tax on medical-device sales, which would include hearing aids. This tax would cause an increase in costs to audiologists, which would mean an increase in cost to patients. Kate Thomas, senior manager of government relations at the association, says it was essential to communicate to members how important it was for them to call their members of Congress, asking them to support the Senate Finance Committee version of the legislation, which exempted hearing aids from this tax. "We needed our members to know how they would be affected and what version would likely be the better choice," she says.

Bushway expresses a similar sentiment. She points to the fact that her time on the Hill has definitely increased over the past year. "When it comes to food safety and climate change, there are a lot of positives about the legislation," she says. "It's my job to make sure that the positives continue to be pursued by our legislators and other elected officials. We need to keep our members informed of what's going on; that's our job. I also need to know what my members care about, so I can communicate that to the officials in charge of setting policy. It's a cycle. You can't have one without the other.”

Keep Moving Forward

While nobody knows what the next two or three years will bring, there's definite agreement that it's important to advocate for your association's industry by sticking to what's preferred. Thomas notes that her organization has seen an increased preference from those on Capitol Hill for coalitions. She says that having a diverse group of individuals and organizations come together around a cause is likely to garner more attention for everyone involved, as officials will see it as having more weight.

Bushway says that President Obama's election will likely benefit the organic industry, but at the end of the day, who sits in the Oval Office is not the only thing that matters. "What OTA tries to be is a trade association that responds quickly to whatever policy is introduced or adopted," she says. "With an increased interest in the industry, we will do what we can to best move forward with our legislative agenda in a way that works for everyone involved."

Samantha Whitehorne is managing editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]