Every profession is affected by government policy in some way or another. The bigger the impact a given policy has, the more those affected tend to voice their concerns. Unfortunately, many feel like there is nothing they can do to change things, or they are intimidated by what the responsibility of getting involved might entail. So why get involved in policy in the first place? How can geospatial professionals make a positive difference on their profession through political advocacy?
Why Policy Involvement Matters
“There are a couple of great quotes that really capsulize that,” says John Palatiello, executive director of MAPPS. “‘Take part or get taken apart.’ ‘If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.’ You have to be involved. Whether we like it or not, government has a big influence on our lives and on the geospatial profession, and it is important that people speak up, make their views known and exercise their constitutional right to try to impact policy in a way that is favorable and responsive to the desires and interests of the community.”
As far as Palatiello is concerned, it is absolutely essential for surveyors, mappers and other geospatial professionals to communicate their perspective with decision makers. If any policy-making body is going to make good policy, they have to do that based on good information, and if the profession itself doesn’t speak up and educate them, then policy can be made based on faulty information, which usually does not end well.
Robert J. Garster, Jr., PLS, is a member of MAPPS, the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) and the Maine Society of Land Surveyors. As principal and treasurer with KAPPA Mapping Inc., and principal and treasurer with Shyka, Sheppard & Garster Land Surveyors — both located in Maine — he takes policies and issues that affect what he does seriously. For example, this past spring he visited his congressman’s office and discussed flood insurance mapping reform. Garster had a pleasant experience in that the setting was relaxed and his congressman was very interested in the issue.
“I explained to him that I often use FIRM flood maps to determine if a property/structure is in or out of the flood zone,” Garster says. “I have also prepared numerous elevation certificates and letters of map amendments (LOMA). Improved elevation data for flood maps is an issue that is very important in my day-to-day work and would benefit many of my clients as well. The congressman expressed his thanks for the information and invited us to participate in a floodplain insurance roundtable that he was putting together in Bangor, Maine.”
Curt Sumner, executive director of NSPS, says surveyors can’t afford not to be interested in policy because, as in Garster’s case, somewhere along the line it will affect them if it hasn’t already.
How to Get Involved
There are several avenues that can be pursued in making a difference in policy to benefit the geospatial profession. First, ask yourself what is prohibiting you to increase your market share with government or private sector contracts, says Ken Fleming, state representative for Kentucky’s District 48. “Investigate joining a professional association that has your best interest at heart, like MAPPS or ACEC (American Council of Engineering Companies) and others. Understand government policies and regulations so that you decipher between a barrier and an opportunity. Increase your presence by attending government meetings and meeting decision makers. Put aside the notion of the competition and partner with other firms to show force to change policies. The more numbers you have, the louder your voice is, the more likely you change policy to the benefit of all.”
Now a policy maker himself, Fleming is practicing what he preaches. His family business, Park Aerial Surveys, was a founding member of MAPPS and he was president of MAPPS from 2003 to 2005. His family has been involved in politics for many years and when he joined his family’s firm, MAPPS gave him a launching pad from which to push for policies and regulations to elevate quality service and data. Fleming says it is vital that people remain involved to ensure fair competition, less government intrusion and the conservation of high standards.
Anyone in surveying, mapping or geospatial, particularly in private practice, ought to be a member of MAPPS because the organization heavily focuses on policy issues and how they impact private firms, Palatiello says. In addition, he recommends that every surveyor in the country be a member of their state surveying society and, as a result, a member of NSPS. Palatiello considers membership in an organization that is representative of one’s interests and positively acting on those interests the first and foremost prerequisite to making a difference in policy.
Membership isn’t where involvement ends though. Professionals need to be active. Ways to stay engaged include: attending meetings, conferences and other events that the associations put on; contributing to the organization’s political action committee; having meetings with members of Congress or state legislatures; and inviting elected officials and candidates to tour firms and see what geospatial professionals do.
“One of the great advantages we have as a geospatial community is there’s a real wow factor to what we do,” Palatiello says. “I don’t know anyone that’s not fascinated by a map. Very few know how a map is made, and when an elected official sees that and realizes they have a real asset in their own district or their own state that’s doing that, that makes a big impression on them. That’s the best way to lobby is just by showing who we are and what we do. Then the policy issues become pretty easy once they have this basic understanding and wow factor of having a mapping firm in their state or district.”
In order to stay informed as to what policy issues need attention, it is important for geospatial professionals to pay attention to the communication that comes from the organizations they belong to. By reading newsletters, other publications and engaging with association staff, professionals are able to stay abreast of what issues need their attention most.
All involvement does not need to be within associations like MAPPS and NSPS. Sumner notes that the issues affecting the surveying profession arise at all levels of government. NSPS encourages its members to be aware and active related to their respective state and local issues. Through participation in local activities and civic clubs, surveyors develop relationships with other community leaders — other professionals, business owners, local agency personnel and politicians. Through local relationships, they can affect public policy and regulations. Statewide, they actively engage with legislators and regulatory personnel on issues important to the surveying profession. Nationally, many of the 17,000 NSPS members have relationships with their congressmen and and senators. “Our goal is that all NSPS members develop these relationships at all levels so that the surveyors’ perspective is always considered,” Sumner says.
Garster recommends participating in a Capitol Hill Day, a joint effort led by MAPPS and NSPS. At first, he says he was quite nervous about the congressional meetings, but now he looks forward to them every year. It is also important to contact representatives about issues that are important. Garster stresses being respectful and courteous to all staff members who work under them. Attending town hall meetings is another way to voice concerns to representatives.
The single most important event each year is the MAPPS Federal Programs Conference (FPC) and joint Capitol Hill Day event for MAPPS and NSPS members, according to John Byrd, MAPPS government affairs manager and NSPS registered lobbyist. “This is the single best time for the voice of surveyors to be heard in the halls of Congress. The rest of the calendar is dependent on when legislators return to the districts and States.”
Strength in Numbers
The reason Palatiello stresses joining state and national associations is that acting as one person or one small firm can be very difficult, but there is strength in numbers.
For one, benefits of membership in MAPPS, for example, include access to its staff. Palatiello and his team very frequently get questions from members including: What is the law on this? What is the impact of this regulation? Is Congress going to address this? What is that agency doing? “We’ve always marketed the idea that the MAPPS staff is a resource to the members and by being a member firm in MAPPS you basically have access to a consulting firm to help you through policy issues,” he says.
Sumner adds, “Although NSPS doesn’t have in-house government affairs staff, we have a longstanding relationship with John — he was the first government affairs director for ACSM years ago — and for some time have had a contract with his firm, John M. Palatiello & Associates Inc. (JMPA), for government affairs consulting services. Through that arrangement, John (JB) Byrd serves as the NSPS registered lobbyist and our members have access to JMPA staff for government affairs issues. The NSPS Government Affairs Committee chair and I regularly interact with John and JB to directly address both legislative and regulatory issues affecting the surveying profession”.
The support offered by professional organizations is important to consider. Leading up to Capitol Hill Day, MAPPS and NSPS offer webinars, briefing sessions and issue papers that members can read to become familiar with the issues. The associations also set up the appointments for members to visit their state representatives with other MAPPS and NSPS members from their home states.
“We really do spend a lot of time preparing our members [MAPPS and NSPS], getting them ready to go to Capitol Hill, raising that comfort level and helping them be as effective as they possibly can,” Palatiello says. “We encourage people to follow up on that as well ... We have a guide on how to do that effectively and then we’re always here as a resource, so our members can call us and, if they have any questions or need help with anything, we’re here to help them with that.”
Another benefit that association membership offers is coordination through an overall campaign instead of a singular, one-off voice. One of the most important elements of the joint effort is consistency in message, Sumner explains. “You need to have all of the people who are pushing for an idea speaking with a unified voice in terms of approach. … You always want people to be active and speak to the issues, but what you hope to do as a national organization and through your state organizations is to talk it through collectively as a group so everybody talking about it has the big picture and not just one particular perspective that, although it might benefit that one person, might not benefit the public or profession overall.”
Present Policy Issues
There are a number of issues MAPPS and NSPS are looking at now that would benefit from input from geospatial professionals. Palatiello says the number-one opportunity right now is the executive order President Trump has issued with regard to the organization of the executive branch of the federal government. This executive order provides a platform for the community to make recommendations to the president and hopefully improve the way the federal government is involved in the collection and use of geospatial data.
He lists other prominent issues that impact the profession today: workforce development to attract and recruit the next generation of surveyors, mapping professionals and geospatial practitioners; and market issues including infrastructure, FEMA flood map reform, pipelines, parcels, federal land inventory, and government and university competition.
One of the things Sumner says NSPS and its state affiliate associations are currently monitoring is a seemingly increasing trend in which state legislators are beginning to look at their licensing laws. They aren’t necessarily looking at them specifically for surveying or engineering. However, there is concern that the professions will get caught up in general questioning of licensure related to the costs to operate the boards that regulate a multitude of activities in comparison to the revenues generated from exam fees and fines, as well as questioning whether licensing is required for protection of the pubic for a particular service.
Moving forward, Sumner and Palatiello say NSPS and MAPPS are working to gain more feedback from members. While the staff of these associations can be the national level eyes and ears, reporting on what’s happening in Washington, they need members to tell them what is happening out in the field. “One area that I am working to try to develop is to get our members to be generating and percolating more ideas on proposals for legislative initiatives, things that we can proactively address, ideas that people have that serve our community, that serve the public and our members’ clients that serve society.”
Palatiello says he is pleased with his experience as a leader in policy involvement and organization of activism on behalf of the geospatial profession. He has seen a lot of maturity in they way association members have grown into various roles.
“It’s easy to sit back and complain about our elected officials or have the opinion that nothing you do will make a difference. I feel that in some small way I have made a contribution to my profession,” Garster says.