The five biggest mistakes when undertaking advocacy
19 October 2020 at 6:05 pm
Take a few moments to check the most common mistakes social purpose organisations make when it comes to advocacy, campaigning and engagement with government – are you doing any of them, asks Neil Pharaoh.
I caught up (virtually of course) with a colleague of mine the other day. He is a smart, ex-political advisor, and he said it was amazing that social purpose organisations keep making the same mistakes with government, and yet expect a different outcome. We decided there were five common mistakes that need addressing. So, while Happenings on the Hill is usually a checklist of things to do, this week it is a list of what not to do.
The five worst things social purpose organisations do in relation to government engagement:
- Think that what they are doing is amaaaaaazing, and talk only about themselves.
- Spend their life focused on the public service, or their contract manager.
- Only see value in the minister – believing one person is the cure to their ills.
- Believe they know better than to read any political party policy or do their homework and research.
- Think that they/their board members/friend colleagues have such a great relationship with the minister/member that it isn’t an issue – but then will admit they don’t actually have that person’s phone number and they only spoke once three years ago across a table.
Let’s jump into the fact and fiction for each of these common mistakes.
Fiction: That you are so unique and important, that you spend the entire time talking about yourselves.
Fact: There are many truly amazing, innovative and dynamic social purpose organisations in Australia and around the world, and whatever your constituency or work, I am certain you are making a difference. The problem is so are 40,000 other social purpose organisations, as well as the millions of businesses, small and large, all of who want a contract, policy change, different regulations or legislation, or funding from government.
Political stakeholders, from the PM to a backbencher, are often in back to back meetings where somebody talks at them. We all have friends who do this, and how do we feel after discussions with them? I have been on a number of dates where I get to the end of the coffee, and wonder if this person even knows my name, let alone anything about me. Irrelevant of how good the MP or minister makes you feel (that is part of their job description) if you just spoke about yourself, it is probably one of the most common mistakes.
Think strategically, listen, ask questions, seek advice, do your research and the outcome will be much better. I sat on a call the other day with a federal senator, who freely said that it isn’t your idea which counts in Canberra, but how big a stick you can bring along with you, and how big the stick is of your opponents.
Fiction: That MP’s and ministers have no part in the decision, it is all made by the public servant/contract manager.
Fact: Everyone has a different role in the process, public servants are often the experts at the policy frame, will it work, how does it work, what are the risks – and while they can work within budgets and are highly influential, if you are relying on the public service to shape an entire new grants program tailored for you, it isn’t going to happen. So, while you need to have a great program that is rigorous, legitimate, functional and have a great relationship with the contract manager, s/he will only be able to get you so far alone.
Fiction: My program/project/idea speaks for itself; I do not need to research how this relates to the policy/platform.
Fact: Political stakeholders, including in the public service, work within guidelines, frameworks and strategies. Many of them are driven by the ideologies, specific ideas and concepts that are contained in documents like the Labor Party Platform, or the Liberal Statement of Values. Have you read the governing party’s policy documents? Do you at least attempt to make your ideas aligned? Have you framed it in their language? For instance, Marriage Equality and Freedom to Marry are identical concepts, but one aligns to the progressive side of politics and the other to the conservative side – can you do the same with your project or idea?
Fiction: I am great friends with/my board member is really close to/we have a great relationship with….
Fact: This is one of my favourites. I call it the “network effect” – where people who once met someone 10 years back are somehow the solution to your government engagement challenge. My response these days tends to fall into two categories: “Okay then, can you call them now and ask to have a meeting” – (leading to them admitting that they don’t have a number, wouldn’t feel comfortable, or don’t know them that well) or “Well if that is the case then why haven’t you solved your issue already?” (leading to much soul searching). The fact is that even if you were or are well networked, relationships age and date. While it is hard to admit it, as our own egos are at play, we are probably all not as well networked as we think – or else we would have been able to solve the problem already.
It is always a little bit disheartening to do an article on the things not to do, and make it valuable and not just clickbait. With that said, I genuinely believe the social purpose sector has tremendous power to change, and an insightful, deep and genuine voice, which if heard can change the trajectory for all Australians. When it comes to our own halo we are all, myself included, less reflective than we need to be.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.