Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision-making. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.
Most of us are familiar with the famous quip from legendary former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, “All politics is local.” For many employers, never has it had more meaning than right now. I have been ringing the bell, banging the drum and shouting from the rooftops for years to the restaurant industry and other entry-level employers that threats to the business model are increasingly unfolding at the local level of government. The forums in which minimum wage increases, restrictive scheduling, paid leave and wage theft are mostly being debated are at city halls across the country, not Congress or even in many state capitols. On these core issues, the industry has been forced to spend exponentially more time and effort of late focused on the Minneapolis' of the world and not St. Paul, the Albuquerques and not Sante Fe, the Seattle’s and not Olympia.
However, the key to being successful at the local level of government — to protecting our brands, business models and reputations — is significantly different than at the state or federal level. As an industry we have become adept at leveraging our collective political resources (PACs), our lobbying strength, and demonstrating our grassroots reach to achieve desired outcomes at higher levels of government. But at the local level, the game is much different. It is far less about money and lobbying, although they still have a role (albeit significantly diminished).
To be successful locally, you have to be relevant in your community. You have to be a respected community partner in order to have the reputational credibility to successfully advocate for your issues. And that doesn't come from lobbyists and consultants — it comes from rolling up our sleeves and using the resources of our companies and industries to help cities, mayors and other stakeholders address local problems and challenges. It’s about sweat equity, not check writing. And wouldn’t you know it, even Uber, one of the biggest disruptors of our time and a political bad boy if there ever was one, has finally gotten the joke.
Lately, Uber has been the national poster child for how to antagonize local governments. But just this week, they announced a new technology platform called Movement where Uber drivers in a given metropolitan area will share real-time information with transit planning agencies, researchers and ultimately the public regarding traffic patterns and vehicle speeds across cities. Basically, the company is helping local government agencies and elected officials do their job. Brilliant! As the spouse of a longtime, community transit planner who has worked directly for two mayors, I can tell you, detailed traffic information is extremely costly and labor intensive to collect. Now Uber is offering it up every day for free. For free! And the key is they aren’t focused on building relationships with elected officials who come and go (especially at the local level) but building partnerships with cities that are sustainable. Just brilliant.
Ironically, they may be stealing a page from the restaurant playbook. The industry, through the leadership of the NRA and many of their state allies, has been moving swiftly in this direction and in many communities, the industry is partnering with mayors and city councils on workforce development programs, workforce re-entry programs for veterans, homeless people and past-offender constituencies. They’re also leading summer jobs programs and the list goes on. "Helping cities solve problems" is and should continue to be a significant theme in all our outreach efforts going forward. It will take years, but ultimately, when we walk through the door, we want mayors to see their local workforce development, recycling or hunger partners coming into their office — not the "minimum wage guys.” For those of us that have worked in government, we know all too well that animosity as a result of the wage fight — whether past or present — is the “gift that keeps on giving,” and we need to seriously address it.
If you want to change your relationship with local government, put away your checkbook, lean in and grab a shovel. Step into a classroom to mentor. Start programs that add value to your community. No industry is better poised to do that than ours and thankfully we are underway with that process. But it will take years. And it will take real effort. Being successful at the local level is not about fly-ins and fundraisers. It’s about being engaged in a way that is meaningful to the community — on their terms — and believe it or not, it actually plays to what we do best everyday in our restaurants —putting personal skin in the game and connecting with our community. When that becomes part of our political culture, we will then become the types of neighbors that cities want to protect.