Finding Game Changers: Networking in politics and government
August 9, 2015
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The political networking game is a bit different than the one for finance. Generally speaking, the bar is set lower for obtaining cold contact information, but because of that (more competition), you’ll have to be more creative in getting a hold of the figures that you seek. Let’s make a distinction at this point that will be useful for laying out our framework: politicians are elected, public employees are appointed or hired. I don’t know if this is the textbook-endorsed vocabulary, but it’s how I will refer to this contrast.

Incentives differ between these two classes. Politicians thrive on influence, notoriety, and press, which all contribute to…votes. Career politicians climb the ladder by representing their district or constituency well enough to win elections or to seek a higher office. Keep in mind that a politician’s staff can be thought of as their entourage, and will usually rise and fall with the elected official’s trajectory. This entourage includes advisors, campaigners/managers, internal pollsters, and legal counsel. Thus, your best chance of interacting with politicians or their staffs will be through an avenue to good publicity. This could include inviting them to participate in a good cause or event with you, and covering that participation, or writing a positive feature article/blog post about them. Another great way to get an introduction is to demonstrate your means of endorsing a policy that is pivotal to the politician’s platform – especially if the issue is emerging or relevant. Of course, act with integrity and only demonstrate such support if you are truly a believer – true networking is about finding common ground and being your own person. You can’t win everyone over, and sycophantic antics are not wise in the long game.

If you demonstrate that a politician’s constituency will view your suggestion positively, you’ll have enhanced your chances of a recurring relationship. These tactics will work well at a state or local government level, and can also be effective with congressmen. Senators and national politicians operate on a larger stage – they generally have the same incentives – you’ll simply need to have a higher impact pitch.

On the other hand, public employees are not elected, and therefore focus on more traditional professional incentives to connect, such as value adding information or professional networking. This is not to say that many star employees don’t plan to run for office one day, or that they don’t’ seek notoriety, but it is not typically an existential motivation in their general calculus. On the whole – it’s more traditional relationship building.

Remember, above all else, if you want to meet more people, build personal bonds. I’ve made the mistake of being too transactional with others, and the relationship hits a wall. On the other hand, the people I have gotten to know better over coffee, lunch, or built a true friendship with are almost always the ones who have helped me with key favors time and time again. I can’t stress that enough. When I bring up incentives, it’s only in the context of front loading the work of finding common ground, so you can enjoy genuine trust and mutual respect on the back end,

Regardless of whom you are reaching out to, here’s the way to get email addresses and phone numbers to establish initial contact.

 

–Congress–

Visit http://www.contactingthecongress.org/

There are many sites that archive contact information for elected Federal representatives, but this is a good one that remains up-to-date. You’ll find a main phone number and email for the senator or congressperson’s office. Emails and letters sent to the Congress are ticketed and tracked for timely response. You will nearly always hear back from your representative’s office if you are polite and have something meaningful to say. However, it will typically take a couple of weeks for emails, and even longer for snail mail to be returned. Calls won’t always get through and you’ll get gatekeepers who seldom route you directly to the legislator or senior staff. Also, most replies are generated by batched template letters, or are written by staff – I’ve seen the other side of this working in a high powered political official’s office. No fault of theirs – too many letters come into these offices to respond to in a tailored fashion. Perhaps only a fraction of a percent of messages will make it to your representative’s eyes, where he or she can give it considerable attention. Here are a few other resources that can help you target key staff members. Instead of going for a home run and trying for a representative directly, another strategy and surer bet is reaching out to staff that are more likely to respond to your needs. Let’s say that you wanted to become a policy consultant for a Senator that you admire. Refer to this PDF file link, which lists up-to-date records of legislative aids in the U.S. Senate. I found this within a few minutes of Google searching, so do your own digging to find other staffers that are in relevant positions.

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=7&ved=0CEIQFjAGahUKEwjIxO_H_5THAhVGJh4KHXK4DRM&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.emat-tx.org%2Fassociations%2F10012%2Ffiles%2FSenateStaffLegislativeAssistantContactList.pdf&ei=VZvDVYjGOMbMePLwtpgB&usg=AFQjCNH_8Prja4ENpricgK9Q9tDWXbR1eQ&sig2=dhVJT4cIA4V0V-0xJSTbVw&cad=rja

Here are a few other resources in the same vein.

http://staffers.sunlightfoundation.com/positions?first_name=&last_name=&title=&quarter=&state=NJ&party=&committee=&office=

Use the above House staff directory link to find the name and position of any staffer in the House of Representatives.. Notice of their employment is part of the public record. While only a generic phone number is listed for each person, you can use their name and position to find them on LinkedIn, and establish a connection from there. I can personally attest to the power of building relationships with staffers. In many cases, they will be the best people who can help you get the ear of a legislator that you admire. They’ve helped me arrange personal meetings with my congressmen and other representatives outside of my legislative district.

http://congressional-staff.insidegov.com/d/a/Senate

Use the above link to find current Senate staffers. Just type the Senator you seek in the left search panel, and scroll down to select “current staffer” as an option at the bottom of the webpage. Otherwise, the search will include former staffers, who might still be useful connections on their own merits. Note, this resource does not offer an email address, so you’ll need to opt for the LinkedIn approach here as well.

Alternatively, you could try an email trick to contact these staffers directly. The email format for senate staff is

firstname_lastname@senatorlastname.senate.gov

This should have a pretty high success rate.

 

–The White House–

It will be difficult to get in touch with staff at the Whitehouse, let alone the President. You’ll have to go a layer deeper in your recon, finding personal blogs of staffers on Google (they exist), using social media, or lining up a warm introduction through other channels. One of the major deals behind networking is getting in touch with exclusive people by first building friendships with those who are easier to reach. One piece of advice I also have is that there are a number of PhDs hired into the White House staff and cabinet staff. Many maintain their academic contact information during their tenures. As I’ll go into with another post, academics are some of the easiest influential people to contact. Using a university email address to reach a planner or economist is one way to get in the back door with these high powered public servants. It’s actually how I got the Chief Economist of the Department of Labor to come to my college and give a talk to a club that I ran. She dealt with me directly, and I used her faculty email address at the University of Michigan.

Once again, LinkedIn can help you find staff and you can reach out to them directly this way. There’s no up-to-date directory available, other than for the figure heads (cabinet secretaries, top staff, and office heads). This echelon of officials can be a fun challenge to target, but use other people whom you’ve built relationships to get a shot at breaking in. I’d also advise that you build relationships with people who are campaigning, because their demand will skyrocket once in office. Better to be in front of the herd than a part of it.

If you do try to write a letter to the President and want a response, don’t expect anything long winded and personal. However, if you still want a letter to frame, you’ll have the best luck if it is:

-Hand Written -Of a subject that is personally moving

-Related to an existing policy issue or trend

-Able to resonate personally with the President (being a father, a minority, a fighter for a cause)

Based on what I have read online, the President’s Director of Correspondence chooses ten letters each day from a pool of over ten thousand. The first cut eliminates all but a couple hundred, and from this collection ten are added to the President’s daily briefing. If you make it to this point, you still may not get a personal response. I don’t think this is the best return on your time in any pragmatic sense, but for the sake of curiosity, I wanted to include this. I’d advise that you only take this up if there is a cause that you truly believe in sharing with the President, such as one man’s: He wanted Barrack Obama to quit smoking after losing his own father to lung cancer, and wrote him a letter with a picture of his deceased dad. Obama wrote back.

 

–Federal Departments and Agencies—

There are a great many agencies that you can get in touch with. Not too many people are salivating over a chance to hobnob with officials at the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, but there are many others with great quality people to meet. My advice will be brief and apply systematically across agencies. Here are the steps I would try – you can fine tune as you discover the ins and outs of the agencies.

1. Use Google to find the email address tail for the department. One you find its website, you have the tail of the email address. Poke around that site to see which agencies roll up into department names. The typical email format for a government agency is the following:

firstname.lastname@agency.department.gov

How does this look in practice? Let’s suppose that the you want to ask a high ranking USDA official something about farming legislation. You might search on the USDA site for reports (which usually have a bureaucrat’s email address enclosed). Let’s say a report brings you to the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service site, and you come across the name of a useful contact (I did this and it took about three minutes). Their email would look like this:

Billy.Smith@fas.usda.gov

Now you know the email template. Next, go to LinkedIn and search for employees at the agency until you find those in positions that match your search criteria. If your search returns full names, then you’ll be very close to having a valid prospect list. Just plug them into your working template, and you’re on your way.

2. For any financial government agencies/employees please refer to my post on networking for finance, as those tactics are applicable.

3. Try calling subject matter experts – they often have phone numbers listed online at the department site. If you can find the respective pages on department/agency websites, a call is at least as good as an email. I’ve had success working with many subject matter experts at the USDA, DOE, Department of State, and Department of Transportation. Many are extremely helpful and accommodating, not to mention encyclopedic retainers of information in their field of expertise. I’d certainly advise doing some of your own searching to find these SME pages.

4. If all else fails, try asking your network for warm introductions, and last case is to go through the traditional (generic) contact channels on the main department websites.

The keys to success for building a network in the Federal Government is persistence and ingenuity. Always be searching for a better way, and don’t shy away from gruella strategies if you give a damn about what you’re hustling for.

 

–State, County, and Municipal Government—

At these levels, you are more likely to connect with employees, but you’ll have to scrap a bit more to find contacts, as some localities don’t have adequate resources to maintain up-to-date websites and records. Additionally, your success will vary widely from place to place. Employees of Governors’ offices, state agencies, and local authorities are disclosed as part of the public payroll disclosures (not always online). Follow the same steps listed above for contacting federal agencies. Find the relevant email template, insert the names from payroll documents into LinkedIn, and build your source list that way. Important – you will have better success with direct phone calls at the local levels, unless the municipality is for a large city. You can also show up at government offices, federal, state, and local to request an impromptu meeting. Look online for records of when the offices will be open, and when your target is not traveling. These will be your best shot at arranging an on the spot meeting. There’s no guarantee that you will be able to successfully walk away with a meeting that day – it’s like showing up to the airport with no ticket and trying to get on a plane as a standby passenger. The results can be instant success, or you can end up out of luck. You have to be in it to win it, but I’d suggest some of the less time consuming strategies to start, and weigh your level of interest in the employee or politician against your estimate of their availability.

I may come back and clean up this article to add a few more crumbs, but as of this time, I think you’ll have enough dry powder to start making a dent. Techniques come second to getting off your ass and trying, something new. Good luck, and leave a comment if you have any questions or successes to share.

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