The Future of Lobbying Looks Different, But Bright

By: Robert Hay, Jr., CAE

Technology and stricter regulations have had a major impact on the lobbying profession and on association government relations departments. But while the number of registered lobbyists may be on the decline, the profession is as alive as ever.

Whenever the "state of lobbying" is discussed in the trade press or even around a conference table in Washington, DC, the first comment usually references the decline in registered lobbyists. Primarily, this is related to the changed definitions of lobbyist and lobbying activities contained in the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA), as well as the restrictions placed on those who do register. Thus, the conclusion drawn is that lobbying and government relations are giving way to a technological revolution by removing the middle man and allowing people, if they wish, to advocate for themselves and their issues.

In 2014, I would argue the opposite: The government relations profession has never been more alive and vibrant, despite the drop in the number of registered lobbyists.

The perfect storm of antilobbying stories coalesced into the creation of more restrictive laws. Jack Abramoff, who was prosecuted under the Lobbying Disclosure Act almost a decade ago, was caught in exchanging money for favors and working both sides of an issue—and making money off of the interested parties. That, on top of other high-profile Republican lawmakers getting caught in lobbying scandals of their own, prompted a new Democratic majority to want to crack down on the abuses of Washington. With a Democratic majority and the population souring on the ways of Washington, HLOGA was passed and it has since changed the way lobbying was conducted in the city.

Gone are reimbursed meals (up to $50) with legislators and staff, unless you meet one of the 24 exemptions [PDF], also known as the "toothpick rules." Lobbyists and lobbying organizations had to increase their reporting, and organizations with registered lobbyists now fall under the same rules as the lobbyists in many ways. When the Obama administration began in 2009, HLOGA was taken further when the administration prohibited registered lobbyists from serving in the administration and on advisory boards—a move that has come under recent scrutiny in the courts. Lobbying became a bad word, requiring a "scarlet L" as a noted lobbyist has written.

Why, then, is the government relations profession in better shape than ever? The availability of advocacy has never been more widespread. By this, I don't mean the fact anyone can tweet Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) but rather that associations, businesses, and firms have more tools than ever to tell stories and relate the impact of policies to lawmakers and regulators at all levels.

No longer are issues restricted to one-pagers with bullet points. Now a lobbyist can bring her mobile phone and show a Vine of someone being affected by an issue or a stream of tweets and hashtags that show people's views on that issue. The technology is there to create maps that break down information about a population by district, by ZIP code, or even by neighborhood. Information can be disseminated at the touch of a button in ways never conceived 20 years ago, potentially making decision-making more precise.

Where does all of this leave government relations? Technology and communications development expands the role of GR. No longer is the work done just by the people who visit regulators or lawmakers on the Hill; rather, many GR shops now need people with skills in communications, social media, web design, and other specialties that many lobbying shops may have overlooked in the past. These people become just as much a part of the team as the people doing the shoe-leather work at the Capitol.

This, by default, makes the profession more diverse as people from different backgrounds and training become exposed to advocacy and enter a field they may not have had the experience (or interest) to enter in the past. This benefits lobbying shops and associations by giving them new ideas and perspectives and allows them to pull those perspectives into their lobbying campaigns.

While the drop in lobbyist registrations is a concern, and I agree with those who say some definitions need to be reexamined, it does not foretell the death of the government relations profession. Rather, the profession has never been more diverse, inclusive, and informative, and this will help drive a healthier and more deliberative government.

Robert Hay, Jr., CAE

Robert Hay Jr., CAE, has been executive director of the Association of Government Relations Professionals in Alexandria, Virginia, since September 2014, his first CEO position.