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May 30, 2023

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Exploring how we build meaningful, win-win partnerships with government officials and advocacy groups–and why it matters.

As an institution founded by 19 United States governors, Western Governors University (WGU) is keenly aware of the vital role state and local governments play in a federal system. These are the laboratories of democracy–building, implementing, and regulating the policies that affect their constituents.

Governors, state legislators, and mayors are directly connected to the people who vote for them. They live in the cities they serve, shop in their grocery stores, and know which policies will have the greatest impact on their communities. But just like the rest of us, even the most competent leaders can’t do it alone; they need trusted partners to help them get the job done.

That’s where people like David Quam, Founder and President of 56 Capitals, come in. Over the years, David has educated myself and my colleagues at WGU about the power of partnership. I had the opportunity to sit down with David to talk about building meaningful, win-win partnerships with government officials and advocacy groups.

Starting with the States

From serving as a clerk for the Senate Judiciary Committee to leading Federal Relations for the National Governors Association, David has seen first-hand how the proverbial sausage gets made.

“I quickly learned that when it comes to implementing laws, actually making change, that has to take place at the state and local level,” he told me. “The states created the federal government, not the other way around.”

“The states created the federal government, not the other way around” – David Quam

Today, David provides comprehensive, coordinated public policy and advocacy strategy to leaders across the states, territories, and Washington D.C., with a focus on leveraging partnerships with national associations. One could call him a political relationship expert, and like any friendship or romantic relationship, David believes that a true partnership is rooted in honesty and mutual trust.

“This is somebody you’ve known for a very long time and you trust,” he said. “You know they will give you information, both good and bad, but they’ll give it to you in a way that you can trust.”

That trust is the foundation of the “Big Seven,” a group of nonpartisan, non-profit organizations made up of state and local governments. The Big Seven includes the Council of State Governments, International City/County Management Association, the National Association of Counties, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, and the National Governors Association.

Each of these groups is designed to bring peers together to compare notes, learn from one another, and collaborate on solutions to do their jobs better. They provide resources and expertise to help governments address complex issues and make informed decisions that benefit their communities.

“[Working with the Associations] allows me to bring clients who have a certain expertise to help build relationships or teach an issue: Why is this policy important? Why do we think more students should have access to education? How do you do that? That’s really what the Big Seven is all about,” David said.

Working Better, Together

In addition to hosting a handful of major conferences each year, these Associations work to bring their members together throughout the year for ongoing collaboration. With support from David, WGU has gone from a mere attendee at these convenings to an active participant, partner, and advocate, educating policymakers on the work we are doing to expand access to higher education.

We can all do more good when we do it together.

If there is one thing that I’ve learned from David, it’s that we can all do more good when we do it together. If there is a second thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you’re going to be part of the sausage making, you really better love sausage.

And that, my friends, is my Sage Advice.

Listen to Episode 5 of the Sage Advice podcast from WGU to hear more of my conversation with David Quam, Founder and President of 56 Capitals. 

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