Listen, Speaking from Past Experience, You Probably Need a State Bill Tracking Tool

by Jamaal Abdul-Alim // Oct 08, 2015 State & Local

Data Storage Concept Illustration

When it comes to keeping track of state legislation, Jeff Hanscom — a lobbyist with the International Franchise Association, or IFA — doesn’t see any viable way that an organization can do it without outside help.

“I’ve seen it from both sides of the table,” said Hanscom, who works as the Director of State Government Relations & Public Policy at IFA and is also a former government relations manager with a legislative tracking software company.

“I think that one of the primary things that helps in the world of state government relations is having some sort of outside service, some sort of a third party vendor to help keep track,” Hanscom said. “I think that is first and foremost if you seriously want to play in the state government relations advocacy world.”

“I don’t think it’s viable to do that from a national perspective unless you have a vendor helping you do it,” Hanscom said. “It’s unwieldy to try to monitor 50 state websites.”

But hiring a third party vendor is only part of the equation, Hanscom said.

“The other part is having a clear idea of what you’re looking for,” Hanscom said. “We’re talking about a quarter million to half a million pieces of legislation in any given year.

You have to be very specific with your legislative tracking software provider about what type of legislation you care about, he said. “If they don’t know what you need to see, it won’t help them do their job.”

“You have to understand your own issues and be able to communicate those issues to whoever your outside vendor is,” he said.

Hanscom speaks not only as one who has worked at a legislative tracking service, but as one who has held posts at three different trade associations: Besides IFA, he has worked as Director of the Financial & Insurance Division at America’s Health Insurance Plans, or AHIP, and as Director of State Government Relations & Public Policy at the Direct Selling Association, or DSA.

“Not one of them has not had a vendor,” Hanscom said of his previous organizations.

“You could retain counsel and a lobbyist in every state, but that to me doesn’t make any financial sense because you can retain a vendor for a lot less,” Hanscom said. “Even if your association was willing to pay an intern or a full-time administrative staff person and their only job was monitor state websites, it doesn’t make sense from a financial perspective and it takes too much time, money and effort to do it internally. At least that’s my experience.”

But even with the help of an outside vendor, Hanscom said there’s no way around having to put in work to digitize, prioritize and disseminate the information about relevant bills.

“When all the states get back into session in January and February, and they’re getting hundreds of bills every day, you have to have, whether it’s a person who is dedicated to reviewing them, you have to have some sort of internal system to distribute and delegate the information to whoever needs to see it,” Hanscom said.

At IFA, he said, the information is kept on an Excel spreadsheet on a shared drive.

“We may get a thousand, give or take, bills in a year,” Hanscom said. “But of that only 100 or 50 we actively lobby on. Of those we are actively lobbying on, we’ll keep a priority spreadsheet that we keep updated regularly in the office on a shared drive.

“It’s a two-step process,” Hanscom explained. “Rely on an outside server to notify us of bills and changes in status, and then distill that information to a smaller list of bills we’re actively lobbying on and put them on a spreadsheet and keep track that way.”

Hanscom said the Excel spreadsheet at IFA presently lists about 100 bills.

[View a sample bill report from StateTrack]

No matter what service is used to keep track of legislation, Hanscom said, ultimately it will be up to the end user to prioritize the bills, whether that’s manually or with a vendor tool.

“If it gets to the point where manually entering things on a spreadsheet becomes unwieldy, one way or the other, it doesn’t really matter if you’re entering them manually on a spreadsheet or monitoring them with a vendor, one way or another you’ve got to keep on top of it,” Hanscom said.

Vendors may know which bills are of interest, Hanscom said, “but they won’t know how to prioritize.”

[Related: Lawmakers Miss Tuff in Bills All the Time (And So Do You)]

“There will always be something inevitably on the end user to keep those bills in some sort of priority,” he said.

Speed is the most important quality for a tracking service to have, Hanscom said.

“It always, always comes down to the speed at which the vendors can get the information to their clients,” Hanscom said. “To me speed trumps everything else and everything else is a distant second.

“I would rather have an abbreviated alert about whatever it is,” he said. “The quicker you can get the information into the hands of the client, the better, because then I can take whatever action I need on it.”

As an example, Hanscom mentioned an instance when he got a particularly timely alert about a legislative proposal that could have had an adverse effect on IFA members. The irony, he said, is that it was introduced by a legislator who was “typically friendly.”

“It didn’t jibe with his history or voice within the Republican party,” Hanscom said. “We got the bill introduction alert from the vendor the day of or day after, which prompted us to immediately reach out to the legislator and have a conversation about what he was looking to do,” Hanscom said. “Long story short, he ended up realizing that while he may have had a positive goal, the way that he was going about it was something he hadn’t thought about. He pulled the bill a few days after he introduced it.”

Conversely, Hanscom said, lack of speed can cause major problems.

“You never want to have a member company kind of call you out saying, ‘Were you aware of this bill being scheduled for a hearing?’” Hanscom said.

But that’s exactly what happened a few legislative sessions ago, Hanscom said, when a member company alerted him to a hearing scheduled on a relevant bill.

“For whatever reason our tracking firm had not flagged that status update and we didn’t know and there was no way I was going to be able to get on a plane and testify in time,” Hanscom said. “That makes us as a trade association look like we don’t know what we’re doing and in the eyes of members who are paying your salary and to be members of the association, that is something you don’t want to happen.”

“We need to make sure that we’re informed all the time and if we’re not that makes us look bad and can inevitably lead to members questioning: What is the value of my membership in the association?”

On occasions in which legislative developments are missed, Hanscom said it is essential to review the incident with the vendor to find out what went wrong.

“As long as the vendor can come back with an explanation and say, ‘Here’s why this happened and here’s what we’re doing to ensure this doesn’t happen again,’ that’s really all you can ask for,” Hanscom said. “I’ve had instances where it was straight human errors, others where it was a technical glitch and an e-mail went to the wrong address or spam, and others where someone — for whatever reason — they didn’t realize the information in a timely fashion.

“The biggest thing is there has to be some sort of communication that’s clear and everybody knows what happened and what’s being done to make sure that type of thing doesn’t happen again.”

Hanscom said there isn’t necessarily a critical juncture at which an organization must decide whether to use an outside vendor, it’s more of an organizational goal that exists or it doesn’t.

“I don’t think there’s just a tipping point but it’s: Are we going to be in state government relations and, if so, we need some sort of service.”

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