As far as we know, since about 5,000 years ago, wherever groups of people have gathered to live, work and play, there is government of some kind. Government, at is most basic form, is the system around which we organize and make decisions as a group. The Greek root for government is the word for a rudder that steers a ship. Monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, theocracies, and democracies are all types of government, each with their own advantages and challenges, depending on your perspective, and degrees of autonomy and power.
Toward the end of the 17th century, the concept of representational government increasingly took hold in the Western part of the world, with the idea being that communities of people select individuals to represent their interests and those selected people then meet, debate and create processes and rules on behalf of the whole community. For as long as governments have been around, so too has government relations in one form or another. The need and desire to communicate, inform, persuade, and influence decision-makers, particularly representative decision-makers, is critically important to ensuring differing perspectives, interests and concerns are understood and championed.
Government Relations (GR) is the process of influencing public and government policy at all levels: Municipal, Provincial, Federal, Global. It involves the advocacy of an interest that is affected, actually or potentially, by the decisions of government leaders.
Depending on your industry or what stage of the process you are in, government relations can also be referred to as “advocacy”, “lobbying” and “public affairs”.
Why is it important?
Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” Another way of saying this might be: If you are not at the table, you may be on the menu.
There are few parts of modern life that are not impacted in some way by government. In the private sector, you can have the best product or business case, but if you find yourself up against unfavorable public policy, you will waste a lot of resources pushing proverbial rocks up hills. Additionally, governments today rarely lead innovation, they are most often trying to keep up. If your company is trying to break new ground and would really benefit from government sponsorship, but your idea or issue is nowhere on the government’s radar, you will need to do a lot of education to get the attention of decision makers. In the community sector, you are often making the case on behalf of those who have little or no ability to advocate for themselves, so your job is to make government decision makers understand the issues and care about the solutions.
But remember this: Decision makers are always listening to someone else other than you. Look at any news source on any given day and you’ll find an example of interest groups going head-to-head trying to influence government.
Example: Smallmouth Bass Infestation in NB
Currently unfolding in the province of New Brunswick: Several years ago, the Smallmouth Bass was introduced into the tributaries of the Miramichi. This species is not native to these waters and as such, has no natural predators to keep its population in check. The result has been that in a relatively short period of time, this species has added yet another deadly threat to the already fragile Atlantic salmon and brook trout populations here. In 2016, a coalition of First Nations and non-government organizations began working together to find a solution. After researching many options, they settled on a plan to use a Health Canada approved chemical that would kill the Smallmouth Bass exclusively, therefore saving the native salmon and trout. They worked hard to get the New Brunswick government on board with the plan and succeeded in lining up support from several other key players.
Sounds good right? Not if you are a cottage owner on these waterways apparently. Long story short, impacted cottagers along these waters claim they had not been kept sufficiently informed and are not comfortable or confident with the prevailing plan. This summer, for the second year in a row, plans to eliminate the Smallmouth bass have been stalled.
Creating an Effective Strategy
There are three main elements to any successful GR strategy. They are:
This essentially comes down to how you interact with government stakeholders. You begin with meetings to introduce and raise the profile of your organization with government-decision makers. Who are you? What do you stand for? What can they expect of you? Even if they think they know you and you think you know them, this is about setting the foundation for a good working relationship.
With a sufficiently strong profile, you can then begin to influence decision-makers. You do this through building relationships with those in a position to make or impact the making of a decision, by creating a two-way information flow, and learning to recognizing power dynamics.
Pro-tip: Trust is currency, so be trustworthy. Show up prepared. Listen well. Follow up. Never skirt the truth. Do what you promise. Be consistent. Be polite. Use public criticism sparingly, if at all.
Decision makers are asked to balance the interests of multiple stakeholders. When they take a decision that makes one group or organization happy, chances are good there are 10 others who are going to complain loudly. If they get that balance incorrect too many times, they usually find themselves out of a job. On the other hand, if you can demonstrate your solution, product or idea is endorsed by others, you lower the perceived risk to the decision maker. And the more you can show how many other stakeholders are already with you, the easier you make it for decision makers to align themselves to you. Even better, if you demonstrate yourself to be collaborative and solutions-oriented, you can become an asset to decision makers.
Another point to consider, relative to mobilization, is jurisdiction. All politics is local as they say, but very often the decision makers we are wanting to influence are working at the provincial or federal level where the competing interests of constituencies are far more abundant and complex. Do not underestimate or overlook the importance of mobilizing at the local level.
Pro-tip: It is important to identify aligned interests, but it is also critical to look at who stands against you or stands to lose something if a political decision goes your way. If you can listen well to your opposition and look or negotiate for points of alignment where they may exist, you are less likely to put a decision maker in a position to choose between interests. This often increases your opportunities to be successful.
You build your credibility and trustworthiness with decision makers and influencers by doing your homework. Sometimes that means producing data or identifying trends, but it also means developing alternatives too. There is a great expression that sticks with me on this subject: Science is not truth; science is the method by which we pursue truth. What that means is that while there is often research that supports one position or another, insist that any data or research you use rests on sound methodology that can stand up to scrutiny. If you are using your own data, make sure it is clean, and up-to-date. Passion for a particular perspective is strongly encouraged but obscuring the point can bite you. Consider your sources and use only those that contribute to building your credibility. Monitor developments and re-evaluate strategy as necessary.
Finally, use information to educate and inform, not overwhelm and confuse. If you want to position yourself or your organization as the “go-to” authority on a particular issue, be on top of your research and how you communicate it.
Pro-tip: If there are holes to be found in your research, find them yourself first. If you do not, someone else will and your credibility could take a hit.
Assessing your Readiness
A Few Things to Consider:
- Do you have an interest or need to become a thought-leader, solution provider, or “go-to” authority/subject matter expert with government decision-makers?
- Are you trying to make something happen, deliver a product or solution, or find a better way forward and there are too many government road bumps in your path, or maybe government is not paying sufficient attention?
- How good are you or your organization at building and nurturing positive relationships? Do you have the skill sets and time? What are your gaps? What resources do you have around you already?
- How many relationships do you currently have with government decision makers? Do you have the time to build and nurture these and new relationships with government decision-makers?
- Are you comfortable “going public” on issues? Do you have the necessary skills/resources to do so?
- Are you or your organization able to communicate your ideas, interests in clear and compelling ways?
- How easily are you able to convene stakeholders and interested parties?
- Do you know stakeholders on both sides of an issue?
- Do you have your own research or data? Is it up-to-date and clean? Do you have the time and tools needed to translate raw data into meaningful knowledge?
- Do you have an ability/tools to monitor government decisions and forums and stay on top of public opinion?
- Are your senior leaders on-side and prepared to support Government Relations efforts?
How to Get Started
- Clearly define what it is you are trying to achieve or change. Keep it as simple and clear as you possibly can.
- Identify the key steps, dates, and stakeholders (pro, con and neutral) you need to engage.
- Schedule consultations and meetings. Ensure you are keeping track of the names and contact information of all those you engage as you go along. A good contact list is key, and you will likely return to it many times.
- Identify the resources you will need and when you need to have them in place. Be prepared. Your credibility depends on it.
- Develop your case for support, gather relevant research, evidence or arguments and arrange them in simple, clear language.
- Create your key messages. Practice or train to smoothly deliver these messages and be capable of answering questions you can anticipate coming up.
- When you meet or consult on your issue, spend as much time listening as you do speaking. Carefully consider whether you need to amend strategy or key messages based on what you are hearing.
- Bring others along. Winning GR strategies often prove beneficial for more than one party. Share the journey and the successes. It will make your next effort so much easier.
- Pack your patience. Making change happen, especially legislative change, is a process. Identifying and celebrating key milestones helps to keep momentum up as you proceed, but the end goal will likely take some time.
- If you are just starting out on your GR journey, start small and build your confidence, skills and relationships.
- And finally, keep in mind that the emphasis in Government Relations is relationships. You cannot be in business long if you do not know how to build positive, productive relationships. Therefore, it is safe to say, you already have much of the skills and orientation to be successful at government relations. Get started!
As with any strategy, planning is essential to achieving desired gains. Work your plan with patience and persistence, build on your wins and keep the end goal in mind. While the wheels of government rarely turn quickly, when they do, the impact can be significant and well worth your time and effort.