Q&A: James Hickey, Association of Government Relations Professionals
James Hickey, president of the Association of Government Relations Professionals, readily admits that not much is getting done in Washington these days from an advocacy perspective.
Partisanship and its companion gridlock have made it very difficult for advocacy professionals in the nation’s Capital to accomplish their goals. But make no mistake: they are not twiddling their thumbs and hoping for a better day.
Instead, many are ramping up efforts to coordinate with their state counterparts to get something done on behalf of their organizations and clients. “If they can’t find a solution to work with their elected officials in Washington, they are going to turn to the state and local levels,” Hickey said.
And he would know. Hickey has three decades of experience in Washington advocacy. We caught up with him earlier this week, and he shared his perspective on the state of advocacy in Washington and the government relations profession in general. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What’s your take on the current political environment in Washington as it pertains to the state of advocacy?
Not much is getting done in Washington compared to past Congresses. There’s a growing partisanship and gridlock as our elected officials aren’t really cooperating and coordinating with each other as they may have in the past. As a result, there are a lot of problems out there across the country requiring attention and solutions, but they are not getting it.
What’s the solution from a GR professional’s point of view?
People in both the GR and private sectors are reacting to the gridlock in Washington. Both local-level people as well as GR people in Washington are saying, ‘If Washington can’t get it done, what can we do at the state and local level?’
Those people are still in the community, and they are more fully aware of the problems and the impacts on their constituents. They are more motivated to try and seek solutions. A lot of the federal GR folks haven’t seen a lot of progress in the last six years, so we’re turning to the states and working with our counterparts there to see if there are things we can do in the absence of a solution coming out of Washington.
Is there a feeling that the current Administration has been less inclusive?
There’s a frustration with this current Administration because in 2009 it disallowed hundreds of GR professionals from serving on government advisory boards. (Editor’s Note: In August of last year, The New York Times reported that the Obama Administration loosened its ban on lobbyists.) There was a perception on President Obama’s part that somehow we were going to influence the outcomes perversely, and that’s not the case.
Ultimately, it’s his people who make the decisions, but he has to turn to people who are subject matter experts. Quite often GR people know the issues very well and can translate them for the purposes of policy makers. We all represent constituents, and they are being affected by these panels and need some kind of representative. If you can’t get it from the GR professionals, who is it the Administration believes it is going to get the information from?
With the combination of being taken off those panels and committees and the gridlock on Capitol Hill, GR professionals are turning their attention, whenever possible and whenever necessary, to the state and local levels.
Are we seeing people start to do more regulatory work as well?
In the absence of a lot of progress on the legislative side, you’re going to see some attention being spent on the impact of regulations and how they are slowing down the economy and preventing us from being competitive. That needs to be addressed, and hopefully it will be within the next couple of years.
However, working on the regulatory side is a slightly different animal. You’ll see GR people here in Washington readily agreeing to work the regulatory side to mine value for their associations, firms or companies. Ultimately, we want to be navigators or trail guides for our customers. That’s really what we are. We have to help your clients walk the halls of certain bureaucracies and agencies to get heard and progress.
Even though GR professionals may have been focused on the legislative side for the longest time, we have to evolve and look at regulatory reform as one option for providing value to our customers.
How do you prove your worth in an environment where it seems like little is getting accomplished?
As frustrating as the gridlock is, one of the lessons it has taught us is that there will be occasions where someone gets in office and not a lot is going to get done in Washington. How do you play a role so that you can advance policy and work with the elected officials?
At AGRP we determined that, despite the fact that for many years we thought Washington was the only game in town, that’s not the case. As an association, we’re trying to broaden the internal makeup of our membership, but also broaden our outreach. To do that, we’re rolling out a couple of different initiatives.
The first is state outreach. There are approximately 30,000 registered lobbyists at the state level in the 50 states, which doesn’t even include grassroots advocacy or public affairs people or compliance and fundraising professionals. When you include all of them, the number of potential members could be roughly 100,000. Right now they don’t have an association. We’re going to reach out to them to try to make sure that they are connected with their federal counterparts and vice versa.
Given the gridlock and frustration it causes, is the GR profession becoming less attractive?
GR is a growth field. However, the profession has really changed. Back in 1979, some registered lobbyists started the American League of Lobbyists, and there were probably about 10 people sitting around a table saying, “Well, everyone else has an association. Why don’t we?” This was probably the right model for the association at that time.
However, as the industry began to evolve, we started to look at the makeup of our membership. We did a survey and, of our 1,100 members at the time, only 17 called themselves lobbyists. Most of the others said they were government relations professionals, congressional relations/affairs, grassroots or advocacy.
AGRP re-branded two and half years ago because it became clear that, while many of us are registered lobbyists, this may be only 10 percent of our jobs. Eighty-three percent of the membership voted in support of rebranding and renaming the association. Today’s government relations professional has to wear a lot of hats representing a variety of responsibilities.