Jeff Crigler wants to give new meaning to the phrase "machine politics." So the president of Lobbyist Systems Corp. has turned to IBM's popular Personal Computer to bring Washington's teeming hordes of influence-peddlers and rainmakers into the information age.
"There are too many quill-pen old fogies out there" in the lobbying world, said Crigler, once a lobbyist for the government of El Salvador and a former speechwriter for failed presidential aspirant George McGovern. "This puts lobbying techniques and tools in the hands of people who previously couldn't afford it." Lobbyist Systems Corp.'s software -- or "lobbyware" -- is a classic example of tailoring a computer data-base system to match a specific market. Relying on an IBM PC capable of holding 512 kilobytes of information and a hard disk drive, LSC's "Congressional Liaison System" is stuffed with 32 programs and 50 data bases that are intended to be a lobbyist's delight.
The system contains biographical and district information on all members of Congress, as well as their recorded floor votes, committees and staffs. The system also tracks political action committee (PAC) contributions to members of Congress. A special telephone connection allows new information to be piped into the PC, such as updates on committee and floor votes. States News, a wire service that covers Congress and federal agencies, feeds in the updates. "The PAC module was the hardest one to build," Crigler said. "There's so much information you've got to keep track of."
Essentially, the lobbyist can sit down at the PC and, prompted by a menu of choices displayed on the screen, call up the desired information, fiddle with it and then create new files in which to store the new information.
For example, a lobbyist for Egypt who has a defense minister visiting key members of Congress in Washington could call up information on them, find out how they have voted on various Middle East issues, see which PACs contributed to their campaigns and determine whether any of those PACs do business in Egypt and then print out a neatly typed memo for the minister.
Similarly, a lobbyist trying to create a coalition could look to the data bases to find in minutes links between members of Congress that would otherwise take hours to find if the searcher had to forage through paper. With a few strokes of the keys, a lobbyist could easily compose a form letter for the client targeted to the appropriate congressional subcommittee members. "These kind of form memos and internal communications makes the Washington office look good to the client," said Dennis M. Neill, LSC's chairman and the man whose lobbying firm, Neill & Co., co-founded the company two years ago. "That may be our blue smoke and mirrors."
What's more, Crigler points out, the personal computer offers a way for busy lobbyists to leverage their time. "In the course of doing all the lobbying," he said, "you can't both be on the Hill and do the paperwork."
That was the impetus behind the birth of LSC, when investors decided to pour over $200,000 into developing the system. "Our office has increased in paperwork efficiency at least 50 percent" since it began using the system, said Neill.
LSC is not the first company to explore the concept of lobbyist computer services. Both Legislate owned by the Washington Post Co. and Congressional Quarterly own services that allow computer retrieval of up-to-the-minute congressional information. However, LCS is the first service based on personal computers, and it is also the first service designed to easily generate a blizzard of memos and paperwork helpful in impressing even the most jaded clients.
However, even at LCS's price tag of $8000 per system, there are a lot of doubts about the fledgling company's ability to get off the ground. Although it expects to sell only 25 systems in its first year, computer service industry experts say the company underestimates both the cost and difficulty of doing regular updates over the phone lines. What is more, while LCS founders have significant lobbying skills and experience, they lack marketing experience, and the business plan does not detail how the company is going to sell and support the service. Indeed, Crigler said the company is looking for outside investors to share the risks and burdens of selling the system.
Despite the fact that Washington has more than 10,000 registered lobbyists and over 5,500 trade associations, selling such systems clearly isn't easy. The two main services CLS is gunning against are not doing too well. LegiSlate has roughly 400 customers and is losing money. Congressional Quarterly's Washington Alert has more subscribers to its on-line service and is doing better, but the growth rate is, in one observer's view, "unimpressive".
However, unlike the other services, CLS does offer a ready-to-use software package that can be customized and linked to existing data bases that might be already stored on a lobbyist's computer system.
Still, Crigler said he fears that his company "might be ahead of the market" in a world where lobbyists fervently believe that who you know is more important than what you program. But if computer-aided lobbying can sway votes and win clients, Washington's influence community is sure to invest in it at some point. "Our clients aren't giving us money just for our contacts," said one Gray & Co. lobbyist. "They're paying us for results."