What can Bill Clinton's former secretary of state for transport teach us about infrastructure lobbying?

As a former US secretary of state for transport, Rodney Slater - now at the transportation division of law firm Squire Patton Boggs - knows a thing or two about infrastructure and its place in the political process. Andy Walker caught up with him on a recent visit to Manchester.

The first thing you notice about Rodney Slater is his presence. Whether that’s because this is a man who has worked closely with US president Bill Clinton in the past or whether it’s because he possesses an air of calm assurance and knowledge is hard to determine. The bottom line though is that he knows his stuff and his views on how the infrastructure sector should be looking to influence politicians and the political process are worth listening to.

Construction professionals, particularly engineers, have long lamented that they are not properly listened to by national decision makers on key issues and Slater thinks that professionals simply need to engage, look at the bigger picture and get more active in the political arena.

“I listen to Transport for the North chair John Cridland talking about transport and he has a good grasp of the issues,” said Slater. “He takes transportation out of the context of being just concrete, asphalt and steel and connects it to the economy and to one’s quality of life and clearly makes the case for a business that helps business do business.

“What I find interesting about someone like Cridland is that he’s a historian and not an engineer. I think it takes that kind of broader understanding, of an appreciation for the implications of infrastructure investment, how that has played out historically and what happens when it’s not supported over time and we get a degradation of quality of life. Articulating that from a historical perspective allows professionals talk about the issue in ways that are engaging and positive.

“It’s important also to highlight the need to make decisions in the future that are based on the needs of people more than just in the interests of the policy makers independent of people. You have to combine the two and infrastructure professionals need to engage and make the argument,” Slater tells me.

Need to engage
Slater is big on engagement. As US secretary of state for transport, his bipartisan and inclusive approach to issues earned him wide respect and admiration on both sides of the political divide, enabling him to have one of the best relationships with the White House, Congress, and business, labour and political leaders worldwide in the history of the Department of Transportation. Under his leadership, the federal transportation budget doubled and his work in government is widely credited with altering America’s and the world’s appreciation of transportation as more than just concrete, asphalt and steel.

In the UK, historically, engineers and construction professionals have stepped back from the political process, waited for things to happen and dealt with the hand that the politicians have given them. It’s not necessarily the approach across the pond. “Not at all, and it shouldn’t be,” Slater says. “We have people who have been in the transportation arena who have an idea about what’s needed and they need to proactively engage the political process and make their case,” he explains. 

But how do you do that when you are not used to it and you’ve spent a career doing what the politicians want, almost trying to avoid being ‘political’? “The best way to do it is for the industry to find individuals who are seeking to become political office holders,” says Slater. “Clearly you have to talk to politicians who are in place if you can, but a lot of times they come with their own agendas. If you identify someone early on - it could be a back bencher or just someone who is making himself or herself known at a local level – you can start to educate them about the importance of transportation and infrastructure,” explains Slater.

“You need to get in early with politicians. They are then likely to go to Parliament with a much better idea of how to make the case for their local area. They need the support of experts. Engagement with politicians is much more important than simply telling them what to do,” Slater claims.

Get a seat at the table
Slater says that as a global law firm, that has an appreciation for local contacts but international influence, there is much that his organisation can bring to the table. “We are from the sector and we have a unique perspective of serving at the intersection of business, government, law and policy so we can help those who play the various individual roles understand what the collective role is all about. We’ve got lawyers who have been in government, lawyers who have served in the private sector, lawyers who have seen that interconnection between law and policy, and so by bringing those collective strengths to bear we can help navigate often uncertain terrain,” said Slater.

Many professionals though, especially engineers, are still hesitant about getting involved in the political side of things. What advice does Slater have for them? “The reality is that if you are not at the table, you’re sometimes on the menu,” says Slater. “People are discussing your interests anyway so it’s appropriate for you to be there and discuss them as well. It’s also very important that the industry is seen as a part of the process and respected. Being isolated, even when you have real power, limits your power. You want to have the ability to take that power to the table of power and use it for collective benefit,” he says.

He cites the Northern Powerhouse as an example. “Investment in the north strengthens the north to play a larger, more significant role in what makes the UK important and valuable in a global context. If the north does not fulfil its full potential, it leaves London and the UK weakened. You just need to look historically at what the north has brought to bear. There was a time when this region was the motor force for the entire UK. In this age of globalisation the UK needs all its regions very much at the table and offering their best so that the collective can be as strong as it can be,” Slater says.

Confidence is key to success
Of course, the US experience isn’t necessarily about hiding your light under a bushel or being backward about coming forward. So, isn’t it the case that US professionals have a different experience to that of professionals in the UK? Slater says it’s about being confident and thinking big and that the UK industry can learn from the example of Bill Clinton (pictured below with Rodney Slater).

Rodney Slater and President Bill Clinton.

“In certain parts of the US, there were those who didn’t necessarily believe that if you are from a small state like Arkansas that you can go to the top table and compete with say people from New York State or some of our larger states,” Slater says. “But someone did in the US and he became president. Early on, he had his detractors and the ‘knock’ on Clinton was ‘Where is Arkansas exactly? Is it some place near Oklahoma?’ And then, when he started to come forward, there were questions over whether you could apply the policies and the energy that Clinton had exhibited to move forward a state of two and half million people, to running a country of more than 250 million people. 

“There was also this belief that coming from the south you couldn’t really shoulder the responsibility of a great nation. Every day, Clinton had to demonstrate that he could do it and eventually the people saw him as such. In the case of the north there will be those who claim that it can’t be done but we are here to not wither in the face of the challenge, but to stand firm and to move forward,” says Slater.

The industry in the UK can draw inspiration from this, says Slater, to punch well above its weight on the political stage. “Infrastructure professionals have vast knowledge and experience to bring to bear and they should use and apply it in their conversations with politicians to get fully engaged and involved in the political process. They need to use their power to speak to power. That’s how you influence and get things done,” Slater says.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.