Towards a Government Relations-Tech Partnership

Government relations doesn’t exactly have a forward-thinking reputation. According to many critics, the profession is little more than an old boy network clinging to outdated business practices. The diverse body of practitioners working in Canada today might take issue with the first part of this characterization. But most would probably agree that, when it comes to technological adoption, their industry is lagging behind.

Slowly, things are starting to change. Many government relations (GR) professionals are waking up to the necessity of adopting productivity-boosting technologies. But most GR firms and departments are complex environments – readymade products don’t always mesh with the processes they already have in place.

Often, a collaborative approach that draws on the knowledge and experience of tech innovators will lead to a better outcome. But the question is, how many innovators are ready to provide the solutions GR practitioners need?

The Current Landscape

It’s no secret that digital platforms and tools are changing the way we work. In almost every industry, professionals have begun to adapt to the new expectations of clients, who have grown accustomed to convenience and seemingly-endless customization options. In the business world, this process of transformation is known as digital disruption.

If recent studies are to be believed, digital disruption has many executives waking up in a cold sweat. Why? As products, services, and business models evolve to meet new demands, the companies (and in some cases, entire industries) that subscribe to antiquated businesses practices risk being left behind.

In government relations, this may seem like a distant threat. Even those who are open to trying new, efficiency-building technologies often have little more than a vague future plan to do so. A reduced workload would be nice, but when an insightful team is already in place, there’s no reason to rush into anything (so the thinking goes).

Then there’s the fact that a large segment of the GR population is comprised of seasoned government veterans. Some practitioners are of the belief that an industry that (rightly) places a high value on experience will not be subject to significant changes.

Part of the reluctance to commit to new technologies comes from popular discussions surrounding digital disruption. Business publications are constantly reminding us that, not so very long ago, every city was teeming with video stores, and only a handful of people had iPhones. Such reminders push an all-or-nothing approach, which professionals in many industries just can’t relate to. For example, many teams in GR are not dependent on recent technologies, yet they have developed relatively- effective processes for monitoring, analyzing, and responding to crucial government developments.

The truth is, even for these teams, massive leaps in productivity and overall work quality can be achieved by augmenting existing processes with the right technology. For example, analysts can perform deeper-level analysis when an automated system is set up to perform some of their most basic tasks.

What’s really needed in these situations may not be wholescale adoption of a new product but the ear of a talented tech developer. Unfortunately, this is a precious commodity that can be hard to find.

One-Way Street?

Thanks to high levels of disruption occurring in many different industries, tech innovation has never been more in demand. Those who pioneer new technologies have a lot of options. They need not (necessarily) bend their solutions to fit the needs of a particular market. In a sense, they create their own markets.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But it’s also true that some people who work in the tech world could work harder to improve their relations with the public sector, not to mention those stakeholders who oppose their interests.

A recent Globe and Mail article discusses how some tech innovators operate in the government relations arena. Author and public affairs expert Peter Landry notes that, while governments are often slow to adapt to technological change, the companies and individuals driving said change can also be “senseless when it comes to helping governments pave the regulatory roads.”

Consider the case of Boxee, a New York Internet video provider that struggled against proposed legislation favouring big cable providers. The startup’s founder, Avner Ronen, didn’t “pay much attention to American politics”. Unfortunately, due to this attitude, Boxee was caught unawares by potentially threatening legislation. Ronen claimed that it was unrealistic to “expect startups to pay much attention to government proceedings”, while Boxee intern Nick Miller lamented the fact that regulatory groups didn’t attempt to contact the company. Such stories are not uncommon.

Then, of course, there’s Uber, a disruptive company if ever there was one. In contrast to startups like Boxee, Uber engages in government relations in a big way. The army of lobbyists at the company’s disposal show the extent to which those in GR are willing to jump into controversial situations. In such cases, these professionals act as bridges, bringing together technology developers and providers, government regulators, and the general public.

One could hardly call the relationship between GR practitioners and tech innovators one-sided – the lobbyists advocating for Uber are obviously befitting greatly. But it is, for the most part, a relationship in which empathy, advice, and services flow in one direction.

Better Together

If those creating new technologies are ignoring regulations and the people who negotiate them, shouldn’t they in turn be ignored? This type of resentment does exist. Of course, it only works against the practitioners who hold onto it – industries are evolving, and that’s not going to change. More importantly, though, not all innovators have the same attitude towards government and government relations professionals.

Consider Quorum Analytics, a software company created by two recent grads in their early twenties. Alex Wirth and Jonathan Marks created Quorum to fill a demand they saw in Washington. The software, which was designed to improve networking in the government relations realm, was created after months of“consulting with former chiefs of staff of members of Congress, lobbyists and staffers”.

Even the injection of a relatively small number of millennials into an area steeped in tradition can bring on a wave of digital innovation. Some see this as a threat. But the GR practitioners we at Gnowit have spoken to are aware of the immense, industry-wide benefits that can come out of tech-government relations collaboration.

So, how can these benefits be harnessed? Consider the difficulties inherent in parsing large quantities of data.

Historically, government relations practitioners have been experts at filtering and managing information. From wading through long, difficult-to-skim government transcripts and gazettes to creating onerous reports, data struggles have always come with the government relations territory. Unfortunately, what it means to excel at parsing data has changed dramatically in recent years.

Back when everything was done manually, firms and departments weren’t able to catch every potentially-relevant government development. The logistics of doing so were unfathomable. The difference is that, now, due to the amazing breadth of information available on the internet, expectations are higher. And unfortunately, finding the “needles in the haystack” has never been more difficult. It’s a task that requires outside expertise.

Who can offer this expertise? Web developers, data scientists, and a slew of other tech professionals, many of whom devote themselves exclusively to the challenges associated with information overload and digital disruption. While adopting a product developed to meet the needs of GR professionals may solve a team’s biggest challenges, it may not. As technological solutions in the field are still relatively new (and the needs of GR teams are diverse) direct consultation and collaboration will often yield the best results.

Moving Forward

From automated government-monitoring software to manageable contact databases, high-tech solutions are gaining traction in the government relations industry. But given the unique and varied needs of GR teams, not to mention the lack of industry knowledge on the part of many (though by no means all) tech developers, most solutions are not as sophisticated as they could be.

For this reason, government relations and tech professionals will need to find common ground in the years ahead. As the challenges associated with digital disruption and data accumulation continue to mount, the most successful GR practitioners will be those who sit down with tech developers to discuss potential solutions. This will be a lucrative endevour on both sides of the divide.

Feature Image Courtesy: Nils Ze