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Features - Evaluating State Legislation Tracking Services

By Arnie Thomas, Published on December 1, 1997

Arnie Thomas is the Northern Regional Sales Director at LEGI-SLATE, Inc. Since joining LEGI-SLATE in 1985, he has managed several divisions including the National Law Firm Division. Arnie's e-mail address is ALTHOMAS@legislate.com. The LEGI-SLATE web page is located at www.legislate.com. The State Capital Strategies web page is located at www.scsalert.com.

(Archived January 1, 1998)

The federal government, through "reinvention," continues to hand off responsibility for many legislative and regulatory issues to the 50 state governments. At the same time, intermarriages between previously single industries have further muddied already murky waters. The combined effect of these twin trends has increased exponentially the ability to "just keep up" for many corporate executives, government and public affairs specialists, researchers, lobbyists and others who must track specific issues and legislation for their companies, associations, public interest groups, law firms, and lobbies.

According to a recent survey conducted by State Capital Strategies (an online legislative Bill tracking service and a subsidiary of The Washington Post) some 89% of these professionals today must monitor at least some states’ legislative and regulatory activities as part of their responsibilities, and almost 50% of those say they must wrestle with fast changing information from all 50 states on a near daily basis. It’s a trend that is putting an increasing strain on staff and resources.

The problem, says Daphne Beaty, vice president government relations for GE Financial Assurance, a subsidiary of GE Capital Service, Inc., is in the volume of information coming over the transom and the time it takes to figure out what is relevant. Further complicating this effort is the fact that most companies use many resources to understand and effect policy development. Finding the resources necessary to keep up with this rising flood can make government affairs executives feel like contacting Noah for some ship building advice. It can be done, but the reliability and speed with which this mass of information finds its way into a useful format is critical, especially when failure to do so can be extremely costly in terms of missed opportunities, or adverse rulings.

According to the State Capital Strategies survey, a company’s most frequently used sources of information about legislation and regulatory issues come from trade associations (87%), the Internet (64%), contract lobbyists (55%), online services (46%), staff (42%) and law and consulting firms (40%).

Clearly, no single source of information can provide the necessary level of information. Still, new technologies – specifically online systems -- which can handle this information volume under unrealistic deadlines, are becoming one of the dominant resources. The twist is that speed and good analysis don’t always go hand in hand. Just having access to information – even complete information – doesn’t ensure that the right people will understand its relevance.

It’s clear these trends will continue to accelerate. Ironically, as companies expand into new areas, the executives responsible for finding and assessing the information upon which decisions are built are often also watching their staff and resources decline. Their ability to track regulatory and legislative information from all 50 states with declining resources has left these people scrambling for new cost effective solutions.

"Those solutions require more than simply having instant access to data," said Tim Pittman, issues director for State Capital Strategies. "To make information valuable, someone needs to distill and analyze it."

Who’s Tracking What

A crucial element in selecting a state information service is the breadth of issues it covers. The type of information gathered in each area should include any activities which may affect the introduction or status of Bills, including timing considerations, leadership opinions, plans of committee chairs and opinions from knowledgeable legislative experts.

In the State Capital Strategies survey, companies reported that they track one or more of the following areas on an ongoing basis. The percentages represent the number of respondents out of the total group saying they track an issue.

  • Taxes -- 54%
  • Environment -- 39%
  • Health Care -- 25%
  • Energy -- 25%
  • Banking and Finance -- 18%
  • Insurance -- 15%
  • Labor -- 10%
  • Transportation -- 10%
  • Human Resources -- 9%
  • Telecommunications -- 3%

Filling that need is a growing list of information services companies that can break out the salient points and put them into formats that can be used effectively in the decision making process.

By using competent research information services, today’s analysts and corporate executives can more accurately prioritize their resources, focusing on issues that are current and sliding to the back burner those that are only simmering. The trick is finding the right resource. That decision process can be made easier by assessing each service using a consistent set of criteria.

Evaluating a State Bill Tracking Service

When analyzing a state tracking service, experts say, the selection should be based upon how the service can help answer the following questions:

  • What’s happening in the states that affect my company? And, how dangerous is it?
  • What are my organization’s priorities regarding state legislation? Is that legislation going anywhere? And, how significant is the threat or opportunity?

Finding answers to these mission-critical questions takes different kinds of services. The ideal would be a one-stop shop that could do it all. Although that may be an unrealistic expectation, there are services that go a long way toward meeting that goal through offering a hierarchy of services.

By evaluating three distinct areas, it becomes possible to determine how a particular service will be able to meet your requirements.

First, does the tracking service provide a comprehensive and full-text database of all legislative and regulatory information occurring in all 50 states? Clearly today, the only way to realistically provide this level of information in a timely fashion is online. Still, data integrity and completeness must also be checked. The key questions to ask in this area include:

  • Data – Does the service have internal checks and balances that provide a systematic approach to ensuring data integrity and completeness? Is the information presented in a predictable and consistent format?
  • System – What level of access is provided for subscribers? Is there online help available? Does the service provide both system and user activity reports? Does the service provide state-by-state overviews? Can information be downloaded to a file? Can the service’s system be easily configured to work with a variety of computer platforms, e.g. printing, etc? Are there html links such as from issue reports to particular Bills?
  • Searches – Are Bills searchable by word as well as by state, date, Bill ID, etc.? How much customization is allowed in the way searches are constructed? Are search instructions parts of the Online Help system?
  • File tracking – Does the service provide key-word triggers to alert users to pre-defined issues? Can saved Bills be sorted by file names and Bill IDs? Does the system support email? Can a user highlight and navigate to a Bill that was changed?

The second area to explore focuses on what level of value-added analysis the service provides? That includes more than providing simple summaries and needs to include relevant intelligence that can help direct resources effectively? Questions to ask in this area include:

  • Research – How does the service generate its intelligence? Does it employ on-site resources in all 50 states? Are sources "insiders" or "outsiders" and where do they figure in the legislative process, if at all? Does the organization use a vertical approach to generate single-issue research? Does the service have issue specialists on staff who can develop single-issue analyses across all 50 states? Does the service also employ a horizontal approach that gives a politically driven view of a wide range of issues in an individual state?
  • Analyzing – Does the service provide both issue and political analysis? Do seasoned professionals who understand the issues supervise and focus the field in the most effective and efficient way possible?
  • Delivery – How frequently are reports issued? Does the service provide a wide range of timely issue reports?

Finally, does the service provide a flexible and adaptable format? Within this realm, flexibility and scalability seem to be keys, according to industry executives. Regardless of the requirements, a tracking service must be capable of quickly adapting to meet a client’s reasonable requests.

"Even the best intelligence is worthless if the grain is hidden in the chaff," said Pittman.

Summary

Finding and using a state legislative tracking service can be an effective way to deal with the massive influx of information facing researches and executives today. Certainly, there is no one service or source that can "do it all." Still, by following the guidelines, services can be differentiated in a number of areas. The bottom line is that to fit well into an issue management/monitoring toolbox, a service must provide:

  • Timely input of data;
  • Excellent customer service;
  • Full-text word search of all Bills in each state;
  • Full-text word search of all amendments; and
  • An electronic format.