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Happenings on the hill  |  PolicyAdvocacy

The role of management in government engagement

1 July 2020 at 6:52 pm
Neil Pharaoh
Neil Pharaoh shares five key issues management need to consider when actively seeking government funding. 

Neil Pharaoh | 1 July 2020 at 6:52 pm


The role of management in government engagement
1 July 2020 at 6:52 pm

Neil Pharaoh shares five key issues management need to consider when actively seeking government funding. 

Last column I looked at the role a board of an organisation plays with regards to government engagement and the strategies it may employ to further its agenda. This week we’ll look at another crucial element in this equation: that of management and the key issues it needs to consider when undertaking government engagement. 

There are three traditional approaches an organisation typically has in place for government engagement: 

  1. An organisation engages government during a crisis or emergency, relying only on personal contacts or relationships. This “open doors when necessary” approach relies on efficient and effective use of resources. In reality this is ineffective, as calls may go unheeded when making a big ask of government without previously building strong ongoing relations and you may also be dealing with government stakeholders who lack a detailed understanding of your organisation.
  2. An organisation has a government relations strategy in place which is seen as “nice to have” but there are limited structures in place. One person only may be assigned to government relations and they may be isolated from other departments or overwhelmed by responsibilities. Involvement from members of the board and management is limited and other staff may not be involved in this area at all. As a result, your government engagement function has limited effectiveness. 
  3. An organisation outsources its government engagement to a lobbyist, employed to represent the organisation’s interests and lobby for legislation change. In this case you are further distanced from government due to the relationship being owned by an external representative who may lack deep understanding of your organisation and the context of the issue at hand. 

If you are an organisation that is committed to mobilising and organising your collective resources towards solving complex social problems, then you will need to be engaged in successful government engagement strategy at a managerial level. Government can be the key system participant for a better and more social orientated impact.

Too often, organisations underestimate the importance of successful government engagement, challenging their ability to mitigate regulatory risk and ensure long-term funding success. In this new, post-COVID economy, we are seeing increased interaction and dependence between the social, economic and political worlds. This has created an array of opportunities for organisations to find new growth, demonstrate value and be responsive to change. 

So, what are the key issues management needs to consider when actively seeking government funding? Essentially, it boils down to these five key elements – defining objectives, building capability and capacity, framing your issue politically, effective advocacy and investment spend. 

Let’s start with objectives. Every organisation hopefully understands the importance of setting goals, but when you start to dig deep, you often find there can be a difference of opinion between board, management and operational staff on what your overall objectives are. It’s imperative to spend some time defining and creating goals that align across the organisation. Everyone needs to be working to achieve the organisation’s overall strategy and aligning goals ensures everyone pulls in the same direction. To put it simply, if your organisation isn’t aligning goals, competing demands can put you at a disadvantage or cause you to miss an opportunity. You should always have a pool of agreed short, medium and long term government engagement objectives ready to go at any point.

Building capability and capacity is all about examining and growing the skills and processes you currently have in place. Embedding a structural and systemic government engagement function that is owned and operated by you will save you thousands in lobbyist fees and ensure that not only are your government engagement activities aligned with your organisational goals but also that any successful funding outcomes are owned by you. Effectively mapping your impact from a political standpoint is an essential part of this equation. Mapping all organisational inputs and outputs – clients, donors, supporters, staff, volunteers, visitors and other stakeholders – into the political sphere opens the opportunity for dialogue with politicians that is strategic, structured, evidence based and relevant. 

Framing your ask from a political standpoint is a crucial element in the equation and needs to be part of management’s thinking from the very start. Alignment and common purpose happen when people share the same meaning of events or activities and, in doing so, are more focused on the common goal or objective. Shaping how government stakeholders will view your vision of an outcome and the path to get there, by changing the terms and language used to engage and gain your target audience’s support, facilitates a shared objective. A classic recent example of this was the government’s rebadging of the Australian arts sector as the “creative economy” – language all parties could understand and get behind. An organisation should be continuously reviewing the messaging it uses around an issue through the lens of all the relevant government agencies and contact points.

Advocacy is an underutilised resource for many organisations. It is a powerful tool when actioned effectively and can accelerate and achieve lasting, structural change. There are two simple acronyms that I repeat constantly that will help you with regards to advocacy. They are W.I.F.M. (What’s In It For Me?) and K.I.S. (Keep It Simple). By engaging the five key elements of government (members and senators, shadow ministers, policy departments, political parties and central agencies), emphasising how the issue benefits them and keeping your messaging simple, you will go a long way to helping your cause. 

Lastly, investment. There is no way around it, there will be costs associated with acquiring, securing and renewing government contract funding and you need to measure, track and commit to that investment. Most social purpose organisations have a sufficient percentage built into their contracts for management and overheads as well as for costs associated with communications in relation to the project. While these still do not reflect the budgetary impact of project delivery, they do go some way towards mitigating costs. So, if you want money from government, you should be committed to investing around 10 per cent to attract, secure and renew that funding and be aware, it can take one to two years of investment to secure funds. 

In the end, whatever your government engagement strategy is, it will bear fruit so long as management is committed to playing their part and willing to spend both time and money investing in organisational structure and systems. While management may traditionally see their duties as more about having their eyes on the big picture horizon, a whole-organisation and united approach to defined objectives, capacity building and commitment to investment, plus some carefully crafted framing and advocacy, will give you a much higher chance of success at achieving your government engagement goals. 


About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. He regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems. @neilpharaoh on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.

If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.

Neil Pharaoh  |  @ProBonoNews

Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy.

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