If new laws enacted in response to the Sept. 11 attacks prove anything, it?s that government policy can reach into every aspect of how companies use information technology. From measures to encourage airlines to improve how they screen passengers to new powers for investigators to monitor private e-mail, lawmakers are telling companies how they can, or should, use IT to promote all sorts of policy goals. The government?s reach, of course, isn?t limited to national security. New policies regulating e-commerce, privacy, telecommunications and trade all have an impact on corporate IT.
CIOs should be at the table when such policies are forged because they?re in the best position to advise lawmakers on how new legislation will affect corporate IT. But they have a history of being out of the loop when it comes to influencing the federal government. In the past, this has led to trouble.
Lee Jones, CEO of AmericasDoctor.com and former CIO of Abbott Labs? pharmaceutical division, says drug company CIOs were taken by surprise when, in 1997, the Food and Drug Administration issued onerous technical and procedural requirements for companies that wanted to maintain their records electronically. The rule, which Jones says had Y2K-like implications, forced many companies to forgo new, strategic IT projects while they made their legacy systems conform to the rules. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry?s leading trade group, estimates that it will take the average large drug company 10 years and $150 million to comply. The outcome would have been different had CIOs been involved from the outset, says Jones.
?[The FDA] spent two or three years getting feedback on the rule, but nobody understood how it would impact IT because the right people weren?t engaged,? he says. [[RYAN: JONES IS A ?HE? RIGHT? Just wanted to make sure Yes. EV]]The experience taught Jones to be involved in policy-making from the get-go?and so should you regarding any policy issue that affects your company?s systems.
Here?s some advice from CIOs, lobbyists and legislators about how to become an influence peddler.
1. Get Informed
The first step to successful lobbying is knowing which issues you need to worry about. Reading the daily papers isn?t enough: The mainstream press won?t cover every piece of legislation or regulation that affects IT in your company. You can learn more from the many resources, including the following, that cover technology or your industry.
- Government Websites The U.S. General Accounting Office (www.gao.gov) provides daily updates of its research and analysis of federal legislation and regulations. Many reports address IT policy. CIOs can also find industry-specific legislative and regulatory information on FirstGov (www.firstgov.gov), a federal government portal. The U.S. House of Representatives (www.house.gov) and the U.S. Senate (www.senate.gov) also have websites containing information about pending legislation.
- Industry Associations Most trade groups have print or online newsletters that update members on the status of policies they?re working to influence.
- Wall Street Analyst Reports These industry-specific reports from financial analysts cover anything about an industry that could affect its financial outlook.
- The Information Technology Association of America This trade association, which lobbies on behalf of IT vendors, maintains a government affairs page (www.itaa.org/govt) with news and position papers about proposed IT policy.
- Trade Publications For every industry there are trade magazines and newsletters that report on business and technology trends. Many also cover politics and policy. Warren Communications? news services (www.warren-news.com), a daily subscription-based service, is a favorite of Cathy Hotka, vice president of IT with the National Retail Federation, because it provides comprehensive coverage of government policy impacting the IT and communications sectors.
2. Work Within Your Company
Almost every company tries to influence policy-makers on issues of corporate concern. By networking with executives who set your company?s lobbying agenda, you can ensure IT concerns are included.
The place to start is the CEO?s office, says Jones. He advises CIOs to find out which policy issues are most important to the CEO and figure out how their IT policy concerns fit in to the CEO?s agenda for the company. ?You want to be seen as someone who?s helping solve more than just their own parochial interests,? he says.
Many companies also have a management committee that identifies high-impact policy issues facing the business, says Harvey Ernest, president of Rivergroup, a government affairs consultancy in Falls Church, Va. If that?s the case, you should present your concerns to this committee too. Convincing fellow executives to advocate a position on a policy issue isn?t much different than arguing for some internal project. Data helps.
Explain, for instance, how much a policy could cost your company. And have information about the impact a policy proposal will have on your industry as a whole. If other companies are also affected, your company may be able to forge alliances within your industry and present a stronger case to policy-makers, says Ernest.
But it?s not enough to get IT policy on the company?s lobbying agenda. It?s also important to build relationships with your company?s lobbyists. Most major companies have a government affairs department (sometimes called legislative affairs or public affairs) that monitors day-to-day policy developments and meets with policy-makers. Once the department knows what you care about, it can help you stay informed about what lawmakers or agency officials are planning, and it can make sure you?re included in meetings about issues that could affect IT. The department also needs your expertise to help it argue your position.
When Jones was with Abbott Labs, he made it a point to travel to Washington twice a year to meet with company lobbyists and touch base whenever they visited the pharmaceutical division?s Lake Forest, Ill., headquarters. He became their sounding board whenever they were preparing to meet with legislators or writing comments on proposed regulations and congressional testimony about technology-related topics.
If your company is a government contractor, its government marketing staff can help you find out what key officials think about an IT policy issue, and even help you get to know officials who can help your cause. Ernest, who headed 3M?s government-marketing arm before joining Rivergroup, says that because he met with policy-makers regularly in the course of business, he got to learn who the key players were on particular issues?such as e-commerce?and what they were thinking about.
3. Work with Your Industry
Policy-makers concentrate on issues they think most people care about. You can get more clout in Washington by working through your industry?s trade associations, which typically represent hundreds of companies. Many trade associations already have CIO or IT subcommittees that follow IT policies that affect their industries. Getting involved in these committees is the best way to get companies concerned about a particular regulation or legislative proposal.
In 1998, the National Retail Federation (NRF), which counts 1.4 million stores among its members, used its muscle to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reduce a proposed surcharge on multiple telephone lines from $6 a month to about $2. The FCC wanted to use the surcharge to fund Web access for schools, hospitals, museums and other nonprofit institutions. But CIOs on NRF?s IT Council, who are in charge of telecommunications at their companies, recognized the proposal would cost them millions because they maintain hundreds of phone lines. They got the NRF to mobilize its members against the proposal, flooding the FCC?s fax machines with protest letters. ?We got a call from the FCC saying, ?We hear you! Make it stop!?? recalls Hotka, who runs the NRF?s IT Council. ?This couldn?t have happened without the IT Council. None of our individual members would have seen this coming or had enough access to the whole industry to be able to flag the issue and get such a quick response.?
Hotka suggests that if your industry group has no IT committee, you should start one. ?If you put together a small committee and then go to the association and propose [making it official] the association will say ?Yes,?? she says. Such a committee ensures that industry lobbyists will be more aware of IT concerns when they look at pending legislation. Although Hotka encourages CIOs to raise any issue with their trade associations, she warns they won?t be able to lobby for every issue. ?[At NRF] we look at thousands of pieces of legislation and regulation every year, and we have to be choosy,? she says.
4. Climb the Hill
1You can also appeal to legislators directly, provided you clear your meetings with your company?s lobbyists to make sure you?re not contradicting the company line. Mickey Edwards, an Oklahoma Republican who served eight terms in the U.S. House, says corporate executives only have to pick up the phone to get a meeting with their local congressperson. If you want to meet with a particularly powerful legislator?such as a committee chairman or party leader who?s not from your home district?getting an appointment is a little tougher.
Edwards, who now teaches about Congress and public advocacy at Harvard University?s Kennedy School of Government, advises choosing a topic that the person already cares about. ?And it?s best to try to team with other CIOs to see the guy,? Ernest adds, because it will look less like you?re only interested in what?s good for your own company.
At the meeting itself, get right to the point, just as you would when talking with your board. ?I almost never had a meeting that lasted over 15 minutes,? says Edwards. Ernest recommends supplementing the presentation with a one-page handout that explains the issue, your position and the action you want the policy-maker to take. Be prepared to answer questions accurately about alternate points of view, too, says Edwards, because your congressperson doesn?t want to be misled about the opposition.
Follow up later with the staff person who sits in on your meeting. Staffers who have technical expertise about an issue often decide whether it gets on their boss?s plate, Ernest says. ?Corporate executives may tend to have an overblown sense of importance and don?t want to deal with staff,? adds Edwards. ?This is a mistake. When you talk to a staffer, you?re speaking directly [to the congressperson].?
Finally, Edwards advises building a relationship with your representatives before you need their support on a specific issue. Attend political events, give them tours of company facilities and have them meet with your executive colleagues. ?You can?t just read The Wall Street Journal, watch TV, and ignore the political system and then, at the last minute, say, ?We want you to listen to us,?? he says.
Similar techniques apply when you want to speak with officials at regulatory agencies. It can be tougher to identify the right people to speak with at these agencies, but industry associations and your government affairs department can help.
Obviously CIOs who plan to sleep and eat can?t become full-time lobbyists and still do their jobs. But by following as much of this advice as they can, they can still become power brokers.