It’s time to discuss coalition advocacy.
Apologies to some in the readership who have not yet reached 50 years of age, but the majority of those reading this received an AARP membership card in their mailbox on their 50th birthday. How we all use the benefits of the AARP card varies greatly. In fact, the card is probably the least impressive way in which AARP touches your life.
As a member of the largest (and growing) cohort of the population, AARP recognized long ago that representing large numbers when speaking about policies in Washington, DC, that affect their membership is very helpful.
AARP regularly weighs in on issues affecting their membership, such as social security, financial health, eldercare, and more. The key to AARP’s success is that they can represent to Washington, DC decision-makers that they are speaking on behalf of its roughly 40 million members.
AARP is perhaps the largest and most effective example of successful coalition advocacy. Unlike unions that demand membership in exchange for employment, AARP membership is actually voluntary. One can simply choose not to activate their AARP membership when they receive a card in the mail. However, most see and gain value from their membership (There is no remuneration for me from AARP for this preamble).
Three other examples of coalition advocacy
Over the past few weeks, several large defense coalitions have been exercising their own version of coalition advocacy. Prime contractors of several large ship platforms have orchestrated three that are worthy of mention here for comparison, consideration, and perhaps re-evaluation.
1. The Submarine Industrial Base Council (SIBC):
This has been in existence for 32 years. They advocate for, and you guessed it—submarines. Over the years, the SIBC has successfully encouraged Congress to fund two VIRGINIA-class submarines per year, modifications to the OHIO class submarine, and acceleration of the COLUMBIA class submarine. Additionally, SIBC has successfully sought funding for direct support to the submarine industrial base.
2. The Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition (AWIBC):
This is a smaller group focused on, you guessed it—amphibious warships (the type that carries marines and moves them ashore). The AWIBC message is primarily to maintain a minimum number of amphibious ships on the active ship list while also assuring the continuity of modernization and new construction of amphibious ships.
3. The Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition (ACIBC):
A large group of companies that make parts, components, and subsystems of US Navy aircraft carriers. Over the years, the ACIBC has argued for constructing additional carriers, maintaining a minimum number of aircraft carriers, and, most recently, the two-carrier buy (intended to generate cost savings through economic order quantity).
Every year, members of each of the groups above come to Washington, DC, to meet with their Representatives and Senators to carry the designated message and put a local flavor on how each program impacts their business in the respective district or state. A typical meeting script on the part of the business might go like this:
“I’m Barbara Jones, and I am the Vice President of Business Development at ACME Corporation. We make widgets for the (submarine, amphibious ships, and carriers). ACME employs 175 people in (state/district) and generates (5 million – 100 million dollars) in annual revenues. We encourage you to (fill in the coalition message) because it directly translates to a predictable workflow for us while serving this vital national security requirement. ACME would be delighted to host you at our facility at a time most convenient for you.”
At each meeting, there may be some general chit-chat and questions from the office staffer assigned to the meeting. Sometimes, the member of Congress will actually attend the meeting. Whether the Representative of Congress attends the meeting truly depends on their schedule, how senior the company official is, and how persistent or regular the ongoing dialog with the office may be.
Two versions of coalition lobbying
Here’s how the two versions of coalition lobbying differ and what companies should consider when deciding how to support their primes on Capitol Hill.
- When AARP goes to the Hill in the name of supporting you, your presence is not required to make the message work. In this scenario, you are an anonymous number that is helpful to the overall cause but not needed to make a personal appearance.
- When you represent your company in support of a large platform and its prime, you must spend some of your personal time. But you also spend part of the capital inherent in the special relationship you have because you reside and work in the district or state. If you consider the script above, how many times do you think you can go back into the same office with roughly the same message?
I observe plenty of companies participating in multiple “Hill Days” as coalition lobbyists in support of programs, not realizing that they are surrendering a little bit each time they come to an office.
I understand that visits to Congress can be a nice change of pace, often interesting, and even fun. However, I encourage clients who supply prime vendors and support these types of coalitions to be mindful of how often they go to the Hill.
Here’s how it can look to the staffer on the other side of the table.
First visit, “Oh, hi Barbara, nice to meet you.”
The second visit, “Oh, Barbara, yes, we did just see you last week. I wasn’t sure it was you coming in again.”
Third visit—staffer under their breath, “I have to go meet with Barbara again.”
Get it? At some point, you are now wasting the time of the staff. They know you. They know your business. There is only so much time in the day, and in Washington, DC, the clock and deadlines drive outcomes.
Someday, you may want to ask those congressional staffs for help with something that has nothing to do with the prime whose message you are carrying with the supplier day coalitions.
I’m not saying don’t participate in coalition supplier day events. I’m suggesting that you don’t have to spend your chips on each and every one.
- Are you a company president who attends?
- Do you send someone to carry the flag of your company to these events?
- Are you unsure what you may ever ask of Congress on your own if given the opportunity?
Here is something to consider
It’s possible to support prime coalitions in the same style you support AARP’s coalition. You can be a card-carrying member, attend the events, and then temper your use of your own congressional relationships.
I’ve observed industry, agency, and Congress for years—this idea didn’t just pop into my head. Give it some thought.