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5 Tips from Public Sector Pros on How to Manage Institutional Knowledge

by Veronica Magan, FiscalNote

High turnover and new lawmakers make managing institutional knowledge difficult in the public sector. We speak with veterans in the area who share best practices on how to navigate the intrinsic challenges.

Institutional knowledge management

Staff changes are the norm for government workers across state and federal agencies and offices. Election cycles and changing appointments make for a fast-paced and sometimes choppy workflow. This would present challenges in any scenario but even more so for government affairs or legislative affairs teams. Trying to direct policies and objectives; stay current on existing and proposed legislation; meet with local, state, and federal government officials and lobbyists; and provide advice on relevant laws and regulations becomes even harder when teams work in silos and there’s no single source of information to provide institutional knowledge and continuity.

“Coming out of the corporate world, where I've worked for two large investor-owned utilities, it's almost inconceivable that you're going to take your top level of management all out at the same time and replace them with somebody else, but that's what happens when you have a change in administration,” says Chris Schoenherr, chief external affairs officer at Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency. 

Throughout his career, Schoenherr worked as deputy secretary of the Department of Administration in the state of Wisconsin for Governor Scott Walker's first term, after working for three decades at investor-owned utilities Wisconsin Energy Corporation and Alliant Energy, so he’s seen firsthand the entire government relations ecosystem — from corporate to public, and now at a non-profit, member-led organization.

Brett Wilkinson is another veteran in the sector. He’s been doing government relations for the City of Dallas for 25 years, currently as the managing director for the city’s Office of Strategic Partnerships and Government Affairs. As one of the top 10 largest cities in the United States, Wilkinson leads a sizeable delegation both in Austin and in Washington.

We spoke with these two pros to get their tips and thoughts on how to navigate the challenges of managing institutional knowledge when working in or with the public sector. Here are their insights:

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1. Find and Build Relationships with the “B Team”

One of Schoenherr’s first pieces of advice is finding the civil servants you're going to want to get to know. “They always called themselves the B Team: ‘we'll be here before you and we'll be here after you.’ And that's true, and that's where a lot of that institutional knowledge is held,” he says. “You can take as long as you want to figure that out on your own but the sooner you figure it out, the better off you're going to be.”

Getting to know and building relationships with those who have been around for a while is particularly helpful, and don’t be afraid to ask for help, Schoenherr adds. You can lean on them to understand how a project got started, what went wrong, why it got abandoned, and where things left off. But keeping track of all the information the B Team can share in a single system of record is what will help you turn it into actionable insights.

2. Develop a Formal Legislative Program and Use it as a Handbook

Making sure your legislative priorities remain front and center is another one of the challenges when there’s staff turnover within your team or changes in elected officials. Wilkinson recommends developing a legislative program and using it as a manual of sorts to get people up to speed.

“We have our legislative priorities that we outline and are in our legislative programs. And so just making sure that the new members are up to speed on what those priorities are,” he says. 

But besides elected officials and their staff, developing a formal legislative program also helps new and existing members of your team and your organization. 

“All the time I'm going back and saying, ‘Okay, what was it that we tried to do back in 2010?’ and there it is right there in my legislative program,” Wilkinson adds. “When I hire somebody, the very first thing I have them do is read our federal and state legislative programs. And as soon as the council adopts those, we immediately ship them off to our legislative offices and we start making the rounds.”

3. Leverage Your Relationships Outside of the Public Office

When it’s proving hard to find the institutional knowledge you need internally, reaching out to external parties, such as an association or NGO that has been involved in the past, can also prove effective in helping fill in the blanks.

“The associations are great for that, and it may just be a call to ask ‘do you know anybody who knows anything about this.’ They've already got their network and can put out that feeler,” says Schoenherr. “That's kind of the give and take of being an advocate and working with people who are either elected officials or appointees; you understand they're going to need your help at times but they'll remember that too.”

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4. Keep Things Organized

Governing institutional knowledge will always boil down to organization and file management. Keeping track of all the relevant information has to be a team-wide effort with regular enforcement and an accountability strategy.

“We keep copies of all of our correspondence: when we meet with folks, what we talked to them about, etc.,” says Wilkinson. “I've been doing this for 20 years but somebody for who comes on board, I've got to bring them up to speed on everything we're doing and get them to try to get those relationships established on their own with different offices so everybody knows everybody.”

Setting up a collaboration and workflow system and enforcing it will be crucial to make sure you keep disruptions to a minimum when there’s a change in staff or elected officials, plus it will help you demonstrate value to your key stakeholders by providing you with access to the right information, at the right time.

“Some of that institutional knowledge, boy, it'd be great if it was all categorized in an electronic system somewhere, but a lot of it ends up being up here [points to head] or in a file in somebody's desk somewhere,” says Schoenherr.

5. Be Helpful for the Next Person

Beyond keeping track of all interactions with your key stakeholders and progress on your legislative priorities for your internal purposes, it’s also important to do so to ensure your efforts carry on even if you are the person moving away to a different position.

“As you're doing your job, think about what you can do to make the person who follows’ job as easy and effective as possible,” says Schoenherr. “We all know that this continuity, this body of knowledge is so easily lost. We're all busy but what can you do to try to at least capture some of it so that the next person doesn't have to start over from scratch. I think we all appreciate that so I think it's just being mindful of who's going to have to follow you. How would you want them to be treated?”

This will help you strengthen your relationships and help with continuity of the work you had already put in.

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