This month, when the Legislature convenes virtually for the 2021 session, a major component of New York’s time-honored legislative ritual will be missing: Hundreds of advocates and lobbyists crowded into the lobbies and hallways of the Capitol building hoping to grab a legislator or staff member for some quick face time in support of their issues.
On topics ranging from criminal justice and affordable housing to healthcare and education, professional lobbyists and volunteer activists alike descend on Albany—and the steps of City Hall—to make their cases in what is, in a sense, a literal embodiment of democracy in action.
So, what happens now that Covid-19 has closed the actual lobby? The process of lawmaking and democracy will continue, only now remotely, which obviously will create challenges in terms of interaction with political stakeholders. But interestingly, could it actually spur even deeper engagement in some ways? Absent the historic, hectic, in-person hustle and bustle, lawmakers and staff could be presented with the opportunity to dig a little deeper on the unprecedented challenges facing us this coming year…and advocates and interest groups will need to respond in-kind with substance, creative ideas and solutions.
As a former legislator and as the founder of a government affairs and lobbying firm 27 years ago, I’ve served on both sides of the desk and have a good perspective on the role of lobbying and advocacy in the public policy process. And despite the old-time caricatures of lobbyists plying their trade in smoke-filled back rooms, I found in my years as an Assemblywoman and staffer that a good lobbyist or passionate advocate can be a real asset as a source of information and expertise. For example, most legislators aren’t experts on health care financing, so it just makes sense for them to seek input directly from hospital administrators, accounting professionals, patient advocates and healthcare unions before making a decision on a challenging hospital funding bill. The result? Better, smarter public policy.
So, for example, in the coming months, the more we can enable policymakers to hear first-hand from minority and women-owned small businesses about what relief programs are working and which are failing, the more focused and efficient state business support initiatives can become. Or faced with often-times inflammatory tabloid headlines about crime in city neighborhoods, shouldn’t legislators evaluating recent criminal justice reforms get the objective facts from the public defenders and social workers actually on the ground in the communities being impacted? Yes, of course, and you would also have to believe that a thoughtful, engaged Zoom call on a complicated, hot-button issue like this may ultimately be more productive than a five-minute chat in the back of a noisy legislative chamber.
A recent news article noted that attendance at city community board meetings has absolutely skyrocketed since the shift to Zoom and Webex, for both board members and the general public alike, leading one board member to suggest he felt “more informed” and “engaged” than ever before. With government now playing an increasingly important role in individuals’ lives, the day-to-day decisions made in Albany and at City Hall (and yes, even at community board meetings) have never been more meaningful. Public engagement like this has never been more essential.
And while there again will be significant challenges presented by our new remote, socially-distanced lawmaking process – including, critically, the need to ensure that the very real digital divide does not disenfranchise underserved New Yorkers or prevent those without internet access from participating – I can’t help but note the potential opportunity here as well.
Call me hopeful, but if 2021 is ultimately remembered as the year we tackled the virus, began a fair and equitable recovery, increased civic engagement and really began to appreciate the role of government and those who represent us, then we absolutely won’t miss all that time we used to spend in lobbies.
Joni Yoswein is the founder and CEO of Yoswein New York Inc. and a former member of the New York State Assembly.