What are my government engagement options?
15 February 2021 at 6:25 pm
From networking to in-house experts, Neil Pharaoh outlines some of the options for-purpose organisations have when it comes to government engagement, and shares the pros and cons of each one.
I had a great phone call last week with the CEO of a medium to large sized social purpose organisation, let’s call her “Beth”.
Beth was smart, had social purpose and business experience and board backing, and had an ambitious agenda she wanted to pursue with government. She wanted to know her options when it came to engagement.
The best organisations embed government engagement in everything they do, they reflect upon it, and have experts in the field challenge assumptions from their very formation. That includes strategy days, along with business and operational planning.
But when you know your aims and objectives, what comes next?
Here are the options when it comes to engagement:
- Capabilities based
Let’s work through these with a few pros and cons, to help you understand your options better. The least constructive at the top, most constructive at the bottom.
You all have one on your board, the name dropper, the person who knows such and such, “our government relations are excellent as I know <insert minister>” – I am sure you know the type. The unfortunate situation around the network government engagement people, is not only do they overestimate the strength of their relationships, but they also overestimate their ability to frame messaging, pitch properly, integrate the right stakeholders and secure the outcome you need.
I often lead workshops on government engagement and the “network” group very quickly calibrate their understanding when pressed. What’s more, networks fade, and even the closest of networks date.
Next time someone claims to know such and such minister, challenge them on it, get them to pull out their phone and see if there is any call history, text messages or meeting invites – chances are they will not even have their mobile number.
This is one of the more common approaches, where you just “make do”. Maybe somebody has a loosely defined job description that may or may not involve government and you call that “government engagement” – sadly this is all too common, and is by far the least effective model.
With no strategic or thought leadership, and no framework to operate, everybody points to somebody else when it comes to advocacy and campaigns. Reactive responses on short-term lines lead to contracts not being renewed, and only asking to meet somebody when you want something is the least effective relationship building tool I have seen. Those in the bootstrap group are sadly destined to decline.
Lobbyists usually sell access and networks, and can be very effective in securing those in certain circumstances. Lobbyists by their nature are determined to keep as much content to themselves as possible, and you never know how many others they may be reaping for when they talk to a minister.
They can develop strategies and plans for you, but typically don’t provide the insights and capabilities to deliver them, meaning you need to keep going back for more. Just like your street side dealer, they are definitely expensive, and just as everybody around the block knows who is dealing, through the lobbyist register so too everybody knows your lobbyist, and can guess fairly quickly how much money you are paying them.
I have written an entire article about many lobbyists using social purpose organisations to “wash” their lobbyist list, or report organisations they have actually never worked with. Long and short, you can get outcomes, but you won’t get skills transfer or capability.
This is the preferred outcome if you can find a great government engagement person, who will help build organisational capacity at a reasonable price – sadly the latter half of that sentence is the challenge. While in-house is the ideal outcome, it comes with a hefty price. Finding a government engagement person who can culturally fit your organisation, and actually engage in campaigns and advocacy and build the entire organisation to respond more effectively is a real challenge.
But if you have it, and can afford it, it is gold. Be cautious to political winds of change, and recognise that just because they were a chief of staff or senior advisor, doesn’t mean they will actually be good on the other side of the fence, or fit you culturally.
This is most certainly where I think there is a sweet spot, costs can be managed, outcomes achieved and capabilities built internal to the organisation. This model is a bit of a hybrid, using a government engagement professional to upskill, train, embed, challenge and assist to help you drive your strategy, with some of your own “bootstrapped” team learning, growing and evolving into roles.
Sometimes you may need to add a networker to give you access, or a lobbyist to open the door, but they are used infrequently and the capabilities, capacity and structures of government engagement sit within your organisation.
Shifting policy, securing or renewing funding, changing legislation are all worthy, ambitious and challenging targets for many social purpose organisations. How you go about it often determines your success. The best organisations continue to improve, focus, train, engage and embed government engagement structurally and systemically. If you want an outcome, focus on in-house or capabilities based.
And so, what did Beth do after we had a chat for a good hour or so? Exactly what a great CEO should – she reflected on the options, costs, challenges and her ambitions. I will let you know the outcome when we next chat!
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.