5 Ways to Better Engage with State Legislatures

Experts discuss strategies for agency CIOs to interact more successfully with politicians on technology projects.

by / February 26, 2014
From left to right: Christian Griffith, chief consultant, California Assembly Budget Committee; Erika Li, assistant program budget manager, California Department of Finance; Jim Sweeney, principal consultant, California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes; Adam Dondro, assistant director, Horizontal Integration, California Department of Social Services (moderator). Brian Heaton

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Legislators and state agency CIOs need to communicate earlier and more often to ensure technology project success, according to a panel of experts at the California Public Sector CIO Academy on February 26.

The four-person group – composed of current and former California legislative staff members – emphasized that it's not enough for an agency to ask state lawmakers for funding and file status reports. CIOs and project managers need to regularly interact with legislative personnel and policy analysts so that lawmakers are more familiar with the nuances of projects, instead of judging them on statistics alone.

But it's not that easy. CIOs and IT managers often aren't sure who to reach out to at the capital and even if they do, the issues may be too complex and technical to be understood properly.

Erika Li, former senior fiscal policy analyst for the California Legislative Analyst's Office, said she believes part of the problem is that many legislators only focus on technology when there's a problem. Christian Griffith, chief consultant of the California Assembly Budget Committee, agreed and noted that technology projects often compete with other political issues for legislators' time. And because tech is often difficult to explain, it tends to get lost in the shuffle.

Jim Sweeney, principal consultant, California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, felt the California Legislature doesn't want to get overly involved in the day-to-day affairs of IT, but has a responsibility to appropriately oversee how money they appropriated to projects is being used. But he believes the traditional methods of standardized reports are just not effective and encouraged CIOs to change the way they interact with public officials.

The panel – moderated by Adam Dondro, assistant director, Horizontal Integration, of the California Department of Social Services – identified five ways to better connect technology leaders with state officials:

  • Drop the jargon. Using complex terminology when testifying in hearings or writing to representatives gets confusing. Spell out the issue with simple language and use examples to ensure understanding.
  • Be candid. If something went wrong and you're responsible, own up to it. More times than not, legislators are more forgiving if someone steps up to the plate to explain what happened.
  • Forge relationships. Do your due diligence and find out who the staffers are for various legislative committees and lawmakers, and build a rapport with them.
  • Engage early. Involve legislative staff at the outset of a project so that it's easier to discuss the intricacies later on.
  • Boast successes. Make it a point to stress to the media what IT projects are working and why, so those successes get the attention of both the Legislature and the public.

In addition to knowing the appropriate legislative staff members to contact, the panel said timing was critical when starting to develop relationships.

“Reach out early and informally to legislative staff in the quiet times at the capital – spring and fall,” Griffith said.

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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