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Investigating issues.

How government relations can effectively gather and manage information on current and future issues.

Editor's note: "You can't manage anything intelligently without good information. Knowledge is the key to everything," says Charles S. Mack, especially in government relations programs responsible for researching today's issues as well as analyzing the issues of tomorrow. Currently president and chief executive officer of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, Washington, D.C., Mack's career spans 35 years of corporate and association management, as well as political involvement at national and state levels.

Staying up to date on government affairs keeps associations busy these days, according to Mack, who says their ability to get information on current and emerging issues has greatly accelerated, thanks to the Internet and other technological tools. "It's not so much that developments happen faster, there is just more information and it can reach you and your opponents faster. You have to stay on top all the time."

Associations, especially organizations with small staffs, can maximize time spent on issues research and issues management by "dealing with what's important - what can and does affect the membership," says Mack. "Focus on your objectives. Know what your goals are. Stay away from 'feel good' programs that have a limited impact on government relations."

Mack also recommends that associations assess both the likely impact and the probable emergence of each potential issue using a simple chart [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The chart enables associations to identify emerging issues as well as develop action plans for current issues. "It allows associations to focus their resources on early and high impact issues without ignoring changes in issues coming down the road."

Keeping an eye on the future is a tall order for associations. "It's hard enough to get a handle on what's happening today; to get a handle on future issues is even more difficult but increasingly important." Mack is fond of quoting the following statement made by Henry Kissinger: "The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been. Leaders must invoke an alchemy of great vision."

"Some issues leave shadows ahead of them. For others, it's difficult, if not impossible, to know when events will occur," observes Mack, referring to the unexpected disintegration of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989. "You need to anticipate in advance not what is going to happen but what may happen," he advises.

"Being able to look beyond is a service that associations need to render because members may be too focused [on current concerns] to do that," Mack points out. "The association CEO needs to be conscious of developing an ongoing process that will give him or her that information."

A staff-volunteer committee of creative minds can help keep an eye on potential future issues. Mack also urges association executives to identify, recruit, nurture, and manage creative, visionary staff - people who can see the larger implications of situations. "Be sensitive to the need to have this skill and talent on staff, make sure it's always there, and manage it intelligently."

The following article is an excerpt of the chapter, "Issues research and issues management" in Mack's new book - Business, Politics, and the Practice of Government Relations - published in 1997 by Quorum Books, Westport, Connecticut.

Issues research is important to develop sound positions and action plans, whether the issues be offensive or defensive, current or emerging. As in any other kind of managed activity, it is better to aim before firing. The aiming process in government relations means learning what is happening and why, what the impact is internally (on the company or among the organization's members), and also what the significance is externally - on friends, foes, and potential allies.

Time frame is the critical first consideration. If the issue is current, the kinds of information needed and the actions to be considered are wholly different from those required if the issue is still emerging or long term.

Researching and tracking current issues

To develop sound intelligence on current issues, the government relations researcher will seek out answers to such questions as these:

* What is this issue all about? What are the key bills or regulatory proposals? What are their provisions? What is their significance?

* How, precisely, will it affect us?

* Who are its governmental sponsors? What interest groups are their backers and allies, both actual and potential?

* What is the rationale underlying the proposal, and what are the motivations of its supporters?

* Who are the issue's opponents, both real and potential?

* What are the rationales and motivations of opponents?

* Are there relevant government reports, academic studies, or other pertinent documentation on this issue?

* What are the issue's prospects? Is it going anywhere?

* What are the potential implications of this issue? Is it part of some larger movement? Does it relate to the fortunes of important interest groups, political leaders, or candidates?

* What is the likely timetable for action - immediate, near future, or down the road? What is the issue's probable lifespan if action does not occur in the near term?

* Will hearings be held? If so, when? Who will testify? What are they likely to say?

* As the issue moves along, what is its status at any given time? Are amendments being offered? What is their significance?

* What are the long-term and strategic implications of this issue for our organization?

* Are there timely steps that could be taken either to promote or forestall action on the issue?

The issues researcher must develop answers to these questions that are accurate and actionable. Information and intelligence should be verified to the extent possible (not always feasible, though, particularly on political matters). Research also needs to be kept completely up to date. Once issues start to move, they can progress with escalating speed. Political, legislative, or regulatory environments can shift quickly.

Researchers get their information on issues from a large array of information sources - some published, some public though unpublished, and some private. Issues research is being transformed by technology, enabling it to become increasingly sophisticated in a variety of ways. Tools like the Internet and online services not only make it possible to get information in minutes but also to integrate or correlate it with other forms of data, producing analyses that were impossible or impractical not very many years ago.

Published sources

There is an enormous wealth of published information on both governmental and political developments, as well as specific current legislative and agency issues. The researcher's problem is less in obtaining data than in winnowing it to manageable proportions for useful analysis.

Legislative reporting services. Proceedings and documents of Congress, the state legislatures, and the larger local governments are often published by government publications offices or sometimes by commercial firms. These include texts of bills; amendments and revisions; current status and legislative histories; hearing transcripts; committee studies, votes, and reports (including minority reports); texts or abstracts of floor debates; and recorded floor votes.

For the national legislature, most of this information is published in The Congressional Record, except for committee documents that must be obtained from the particular Senate or House committee. Much of this information is also available online. Specialized commercial publications and online subscription services offer information on regulatory developments as well, indexing or abstracting by topic The Federal Register (the official record of departmental and agency procedures, rules, regulations, and announcements) and its state and local counterparts.

The press. National and regional newspapers offer important coverage of issues at all stages, though rarely in vast detail. Some are "must" daily reading (i.e., The Washington Post, The Atlanta Constitution, The New York Times) for certain kinds of issues. Others can be covered by subscription to a clipping service that will provide copies of news stories covering particular topics. The electronic media are also sources of news and comments but rarely of in-depth data. It is important, however, to know what the public is being told about relevant issues and developments.

Commissioned data. Market surveys, public opinion polls, and sociopolitical analyses can be commissioned from specialized firms to help ascertain the state of the public and business environment with respect to particular problems and issues.

Government publications. Federal, state, and local departments, agencies, and commissions are generally invaluable sources of specialized studies, analyses, and compendia of information. For the federal government, the catalogs of the U.S. Government Printing Office are an excellent place to start.

Trade associations and other interest groups. Virtually all organizations involved in the legislative process publish bulletins and other publications to update members on government and political developments affecting the industry within their geographic purviews. Many of these publications (and, increasingly, online services) provide the most authoritative information available from any source in their subject areas.

Federal, state, and local sources

Virtually every industry and issues group is served by specialized issue-tracking services, mostly in the form of newsletters or other periodicals. Some of these are published commercially, others are offered by trade associations and similar interest groups. There are also numerous broad-spectrum tracking and information services covering the federal policymaking structure. Among these, Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report and National Journal are indispensable.

Obtaining sound information has always been more of a problem for those who lobby in the states (and even more so for local lobbyists) than for their Washington counterparts. This is a shrinking problem as computerized information grows. Often however, there is still little in the way of advance warning or notification of planned actions, particularly at the regulatory level and in the smaller states and localities.

Interest group ratings

Many interest groups compile ratings of legislative voting records, particularly for members of Congress. Such voting record indexes are popular because they provide a shorthand evaluation of the positions of individual legislators on issues of concern to the interest group and its members.

However, these ratings should be treated with caution. For one thing, the rating criteria (and sometimes the issues) are chosen more or less arbitrarily. For another, the votes selected are usually recorded floor votes, and not all votes are on the record (for example, voice votes cannot be recorded). Moreover, the particular vote included in the rating may or may not always be the most significant one on a particular issue. For example, a vote on a key amendment or a vote to table a bill may be more important than the vote for final passage of a piece of legislation.

It is not difficult to develop one's own analysis or index on issues. All that is required is to pick the key votes on priority issues, tally each lawmaker's vote on those issues, and run a percentage of the total. (Some groups consider an absence or other failure to vote the equivalent of a negative vote, which is quite unfair.) If the index is to be disseminated, set forth the description of each vote included as objectively as possible.

Analyzing tomorrow's issues

Issues never arrive unannounced. They arise out of developments and potentialities that emit signals in advance of their advent. But analyzing emerging issues is something like consulting the Oracle of Delphi. The clues to the future are all there, if only they can be read; with the acuity of hindsight, they are always perfectly clear.

The dilemma lies in being able to discern which of the vast number of possible issues are actually likely to materialize and do so in ways that will materially affect the company or organization. Thus, assessing both timing and the probability of impact is critical.

Books, articles, and papers in specialized, often obscure magazines and journals; publications of the so-called "public interest groups"; the rise of particular bulletin boards and chat rooms on the Internet; a scientific study here, a speech there - all may be symptoms of the rise of a potential issue.

This is the dilemma for many executives: Emerging issues are often too diffuse, too distant, and too hard to filter into the reality of the present to gain high corporate attention - even though they are far easier to cope with than they will be once they become current issues. Once tomorrow's issues become today's, the company knows what it is confronting, but by then the economic, social, and political costs of addressing them may be vast.

Business executives are by no means the only group that finds future signals hard to discern. For example, few union leaders perceived that labor's political influence would decrease sharply in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the decline in "rustbelt" industries, the pressures of overseas competition, the stabilizing of both inflation and unemployment at low levels, and the conservative political trend that swept the country.

The advantage of spotting issues early is that something can often be done at an early stage to mitigate the worst effects of the issue on a company or organization, or to forestall it altogether. There are two drawbacks, however, to recognizing emerging issues.

First, out of the many trends that can be identified at any given time, it is extraordinarily difficult to know which few will mature into major issues with great impact on the organization-not impossible, but very hard.

Second, even when this has been done and steps have been taken to alleviate the potential worst effects, it is rarely possible to state with assurance that the issue would not have died without help anyhow, as most such public trends and concerns do. This problem is complicated by fears among many government relations and public affairs professionals that their managements will mistake effective fire prevention programs to mean that the risk of fires has now died out.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, a clear understanding of the value inherent in emerging issues identification can significantly alter the public issues agenda for many interest groups. Especially for businesses, so frequently on the defensive in issues debates, programs to identify and manage such issues can enhance opportunities to utilize the techniques of government relations and public affairs to open the public agenda for beneficial objectives.

How issues evolve

Issues first originate as concerns of an interest group or some other segment of the public. If that concern increases sufficiently, it will escalate into a need of that group, and pressures for change will begin to be felt.

As the problem evolves, it will acquire a name, a critical point in the evolution of issues for several reasons. First, a thing does not exist psychologically until it has been named. Second, naming that concept also defines it; certain characteristics are defined in, others are implicitly defined out. Third, the name can empower the concept and turn it into an issue of public concern. For instance, the concept that the public should have increased access to certain data in government files generated only modest public interest until naming it "Freedom of Information" turned it into an issue with vitality and excitement.

When the issue, or rather the problem or concept underlying it, first began, there were a number of courses it might follow as it evolved. But at each of the phases in the issue's development, options disappeared. At some points, the issue might have completely dissipated if certain private sector actions had, or had not, taken place. At other points, resolution of the issue might have been possible prior to governmental action. At still later points, one governmental strategy might have been substituted for another, perhaps weakening it, perhaps strengthening it.

This pattern of issues evolution is essentially pyramidal: At the beginning, there are almost an infinite number of courses along which the issue might develop, but these become fewer as the issue evolves until finally only a few possibilities are open, and then, at the end, there is only one.

Issues development is pyramidal in another sense, too. The vast majority of potential issues are culled and winnowed at each progressive stage. Only a tiny fraction ever make it from one phase to the next.

Scanning and tracking

How is one to know which issues will eventually become full-blown and which will fall away? Careful tracking, research, and analysis can provide valuable clues. Spotting the leading indicators is what emerging-issues analysis tries to do. The process of analyzing emerging issues utilizes a number of techniques that are part of a process called "issues management" (a misnomer since it is not the issue that is being managed as much as the organization's analysis and response to it).

* Content analysis databases and services report to clients on trends in media coverage of current and potential issues [or] track changes in the focus and concerns of particular stakeholder groups.

* Futurism is a specialized field of several research and consulting organizations that forecast trends, conditions, and potential issues.

* Several states are often pacesetters whose innovations others (sometimes including the federal government) tend to follow.

* Public opinion surveys are a principal signal of trends among major demographic groups or in the public at large.

* Less systematic, but nonetheless valuable can be brainstorming seminars with academic and issues experts.

Screening and evaluation

Hundreds of potential issues will surface through the tracking and scanning processes. These must now be culled to produce a list meaningful to the organization. While specialized consultants can help in the winnowing and evaluation process, it is also possible to create an internal committee or task force for the same purpose.

Such a task force will be engaged in work that may be speculative in its process and sensitive in the implication of its findings. For that reason, it should not be attempted without the strong backing and participation of the highest levels of management. In the case of membership organizations, support must also come from the board of directors.

In a company, the mission of such a group is to assess the possible impact of each potential issue on the company's existing or planned lines of business, markets, products, or services. In trade associations and other membership groups, the impact analysis will necessarily be somewhat broader, examining the industry's future development or current or planned programs.

To the maximum extent possible, these impacts should be quantified so that they can be compared and prioritized. The probability that events will materialize should also be estimated on a time scale. The interrelationship of impacts and probability can be charted as a guide to placing in priority issues for action planning (see "Assessing Impact and Probability of Emerging Issues").

Communicating findings

To be useful, the products of emerging issues analysis must be communicated to decision makers as inputs to the strategic and business planning process. This might occur through distribution of an annual or semiannual issues inventory to association boards of directors and members. As an alternative, a periodic emerging issues newsletter could be developed in order to disseminate research findings and analysis. Whatever the medium, it should provide the following information:

* Name and brief description of the emerging problem, concern, or issue.

* Its background, history, and origins; sponsoring or opposing interests; causes and symptoms of its development.

* Assessment of the time frame of its potential emergence and its potential internal impact on the organization - along with an evaluation of its possible beneficial or adverse external consequences. This assessment should also rate the issue's priority, based on the cross-evaluation of impact against probable emergence.

* The relationship of the issue to other existing or potential situations, problems, or information, including recommended positions and strategies.

Plans and actions

Some emerging issues will be potential threats. Others will present marketing or other kinds of opportunities. Many will have mixed or unclear significance. But all should be assessed with an eye to the possibilities of influencing their course to the organization's advantage. That, after all, is the purpose of emerging-issues analysis.

Action planning cannot be a static process. By their very nature, emerging issues are in a state of constant movement. This means that monitoring, analysis, evaluation, and review of the issue have to be continuous, and that both internal and external strategic action planning must be flexible to accommodate new developments, pressures, and insights.

We are surrounded by an ever-shifting flux of indicators of tomorrow's issues and possibly even historic trends. What is the future role of currency in an economy dominated by credit cards for consumer transactions and by electronics and satellites for institutional ones? How will computerized commerce be regulated and taxed in the future? In a global economy that knows no borders, what will be the role of the nation-state?

It takes minds that are analytical, imaginative, visionary, and highly intuitive to spot the events, trends, and patterns that will shape the future. The organizations and institutions that will thrive in tomorrow's world are those that know how to utilize such minds and that are open to the kinds of change their analyses suggest.

Charles S. Mack is president and chief executive officer of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1998 American Society of Association Executives
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Title Annotation:includes related article on assessing impact and probability of emerging issues; issues research
Author:Mack, Charles S.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Previous Article:Meeting the media.
Next Article:Honored best.

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