The 10.1 Things a Government-Relations Officer Must Achieve

February 17, 2010

On a recent trip to New York, my wife and I visited the Museum of Modern Art. In its store, I looked at a book entitled something like 1,001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. At home I have a copy of a similar book about the 1,001 places I'm supposed to go before the end arrives.

Despite their morbid titles, the books offer an intriguing premise: You have to have goals in life. You have to get out and do something, whether it be looking at great art, traveling to great places, or less cultural goals, like "1,001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Pass Out."

I thought the same premise could be applied to the profession of government relations—not the beer-drinking part, but achieving great goals. So below is a list of professional accomplishments that government-relations officers should strive to achieve not necessarily before they die, but before they earn that well-deserved promotion. Of course, 1,001 is a big number, so how about if we just try for 10.1?

No. 1: At some level of government—city, county, state, federal—get a piece of legislation passed that benefits your university and that you are more or less solely responsible for. It's not necessarily your job, of course, to come up with the idea for the bill, but you are the one responsible for making the legislative process work. That is hard work because most of the time government-relations officers are operating in a defensive mode trying to stop harmful legislation such as budget cuts. But there are also opportunities to do some good proactively by gaining some unexpected money for your university or by having it included in a pilot program.

No. 2: Get a Congressionally directed appropriation for your campus. This is easier if you work at a large research university and your representatives or senators love handing out earmarks. Many faculty members and even some government-relations officers are under the false assumption that earmarks are always worth millions and go only to senior research scientists. Earmarks can be for lesser amounts of money and can go for specific projects, especially if those projects are of interest to members of Congress. The trick with earmarks is to match up a faculty member with an interest of your Congressional delegation. Earmarks are personal and depend on establishing relationships and being patient.

No. 3: Make a report to your institution's governing board. Often trustees are unaware that there even is such a person as a government-relations officer doing important work. Trustees have a primary obligation to oversee important institutional issues such as the hiring of the president, construction of facilities, and the budget. However, some trustees are interested in politics and government. If you have never addressed your board, the next time something good happens (you've played a key role in getting legislation passed or obtaining an earmark), ask your president for a few minutes of time at a board meeting.

No. 4: Speaking of presidents, establish a professional reporting relationship with yours. That can be tough if you are a couple of levels down in the hierarchy. But most presidents become presidents because they are politically savvy. If you are in government relations, you are, too. Assert yourself.

No. 5: Create and maintain a campus or community newsletter about political activities relating to higher education. Most people on the campus only know about local and state political news from what they read in the newspaper or see on television. Government-relations officers have unique knowledge because we talk to people—city-council members and state lawmakers, for example—who few others on the campus speak with regularly. We also discuss political issues from academe's point of view, which may not be reported in the local media. There is no reason not to share this information widely. Besides a newsletter, consider, for example, a political blog on your university's Web site.

No. 6: Take a trip to Washington on campus business. Even if you deal only with local politics, find some reason to make a pilgrimage to D.C. By definition, that's what government-relations people do. I'm not talking about just a sightseeing junket, although taking in a few national museums is worthwhile. Minimally, if for no other reason, you should go just to meet the staff members who work in your representative's Washington office. Or, attend a conference in Washington—there are plenty to choose from going on all the time.

No. 7: Shake hands with the president. I mean the president of the United States. (Shaking hands with the president before he became president doesn't count. Darn!)

No. 8: Be on a first-name basis with at least two of the following elected officials: the mayor, your U.S. representative, one or both of your U.S. senators, the governor, a federal cabinet secretary, and, of course, the president (see No. 7). Fortunately, the two easiest people to get to know personally, the mayor and your representative, are also the most important to your institution in terms of helping with financing or legislation.

No. 9: Hire someone who reports directly to you. Many government-relations officers are lone wolves with no professional or support staff members. That's OK if you like to stop and play 18 holes of golf on the way home from the state capital without anyone knowing. But higher-education administration is like business in that having people report to you raises your status. Plus, the fact is, government relations at universities is so complex and pervasive that no one person can do it alone.

No. 10: Have your institution pay for a high-quality (and that usually means expensive) cellphone or personal-communication device for you. There is no one on the campus who needs one more and no one who deserves it more. I'm starting to sound like Stuart Smalley, the character U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, used to play on Saturday Night Live.

No. 10.1: Buy a $1,000 suit and wear cufflinks—men and women.

Besides being a list of 10.1 things you should achieve as a government-relations officer, the above can also be a list of how successful you are at your job. Here's a rating scale. If you've accomplished zero to three of these: You're probably just getting started in your career. What's important to remember is that government-relations people cannot be shy. Be aggressive, and you will start moving through the list.

If you've achieved four to six of them: You're moving up the career ladder. Think about asking to be a vice president of government relations or to work directly for the university president. Between seven and 10: You have already taken the job to the next level. Perhaps it's time to start thinking about running for office yourself.

And if you've reached 10.1: You must have won the lottery if you can afford $1,000 suits, so why are you still working in academe?

Peter Onear is the pseudonym of a vice president for government relations at a university in the Midwest.