Government relations Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

On a daily basis, businesses run into a variety of obstacles on the road to profitability. One of those obstacles could be the government, which controls the regulatory landscape in which a business operates.

But government can be as much an enabler as it is an enforcer, says Jonathan Bryant, an associate with Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Indianapolis, who concentrates his practice in business and finance, government practice and real estate. Businesses should devote as much time to seeking out government programs that could help them as they do searching for, say, favorable tax treatment.

Smart Business spoke with Bryant about how a business can improve its chances of navigating the regulatory landscape and coming out unscathed.

Is the stereotype of government as a mindless bureaucracy true?

Forget the stereotype. If a business owner finds it convenient, or even necessary, to work with the government, the owner would be well advised to take a more progressive approach instead of grousing.

Business owners routinely put themselves in other people’s shoes — ‘What products or services will my potential customers buy?’ or ‘How will my competitor try to gain an edge on me?’ — to solve problems. It’s helpful to approach interactions with the government from the same perspective. The same business owner is unlikely to have regular dealings with any particular agency, but that agency is likely to have regular dealings with similar companies. So what may be a unique, even troubling, situation to the business owner is probably not unique from the government’s perspective.

Also, keep in mind that government is as much an enabler as it is an enforcer. Most successful business owners have probably put a great deal of energy into finding creative solutions to negative tax consequences. But not as many have put as much energy into discovering programs that can benefit their businesses, such as earning certification as a minority- or woman-owned business enterprise, obtaining grants, tax credits and abatements, finding their way onto preferred vendor lists, or seeking out awards and recognitions.

What is the easiest way for a business to know its government and how the government affects it?

Web sites for both the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Indiana Secretary of State’s Business Services Division present technical information in a user-friendly manner. Often, five minutes on a Web page can save significant amounts of time.

Since luck is not an effective long-term strategic plan, finding answers involves knowing where to look. From zoning to workplace safety, multiple layers of government affect business and, within each layer, there are usually multiple levels of guidance. Statutes and ordinances provide the framework, regulations add detail and informal guidance provides helpful insights.

Once the business owner has a solid idea of the regulatory landscape affecting his or her business, the owner can make more informed decisions on how to conduct business in a manner that maximizes opportunities from the government and minimizes adverse consequences.

How does a company go about changing government rules for its own benefit?

This process will take some time and a company’s chances for success depend on a variety of factors. For example, an agency’s policy may be easier to change than a state statute, or the political climate could make the government hesitant to consider a different direction. In any event, a business will need to invest time and resources communicating with the appropriate official, learning about the reasons behind the obstructing rule and educating the official about the negative impact of the rule on the company’s business. A cooperative approach will lead to more positive results.

Recently, technological advances made it feasible for a telecommunications company to deploy cable television service to customers, but federal statutes coupled with state delegation allowed local government units across the state to adopt varying regulatory schemes that worked as an impediment to the company’s entry to the market. By working cooperatively with state and local officials, the company persuaded officials to support legislation that created a uniform, statewide regulatory approach that removed the market-entry barrier.

What are the advantages of having a government relations go-to person?

Without relying on internal staff and outside professionals experienced in the industry and government practice, the previously mentioned telecommunications company probably would not have been successful in its efforts. It can be difficult for busy executives to stay current on the company’s regulatory landscape. As a designated government relations professional works with officials at government agencies, those officials will become familiar with the company and grow accustomed to working with the company’s government relations person.

JONATHAN BRYANT is an associate with Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP. Reach him at (317) 713-3458 or jbryant@taftlaw.com.