Government Relations for small enterprise can be a daunting situation. However, it need not be an impossible path to discover in your pursuit of being heard.
After 30 years in the corporate world, with the last half of my career in corporate affairs; I believe that I have a good handle on understanding government relations. It was close to 50% of my “accountability”, as a Chief Corporate Affairs Officer. My success was also grounded in the relationships that were built over time. Through relationships, you build an opportunity to better understand each other; your needs, your desires, the barriers and the opportunities for success.
Make it Local
The first premise for me is to make it local. Whatever your issue or opportunity beholds, you will gain the most traction if it is seen as local by your elected official. This is true for all levels of government. If you can strike an emotional local tie related to your issue or opportunity, you have a good place in the starting gate of government relations. If your issue or opportunity has little to do with the person you are reaching out to, they will have a difficult time finding time to review your matters. The fact is, all politics is local.
What I find fascinating about understanding government relations is the constant evolution of the practice. With a continued push for much-needed transparency and public accountability, the “relations” side of the game has come under pressure and increased scrutiny.
Across Canada, provincial and federal governments and their ethics commissioners challenge the established models of “pay for access and influence”. Lobbyists used to cozy up with clients at banquets, sporting events and fundraisers to enable a “meet and greet” with influencers. With new fundraising rules emerging, it now becomes more difficult to gain easy access to the ear of our elected officials.
Lobbyists and industry advocates will need to continue to build and maintain relationships with elected officials, their staff and the civil service. That is their business. Dialogue on issues is still required.
Many limitations have come into existence. There are now cooling off periods prevailing for the staff of Ministers. Watch dogs keep track of paid or volunteer work by lobbyists on campaigns. There continues to be cross party line squawking about who’s influencing whom. Political donations (where still allowed) are scrutinized to the absolute penny. Understanding government relations has become a much more complex game.
Even some municipalities have invoked lobbying regulations and process. However, in the hierarchy of the three levels of government, municipalities continue to have the most open accessibility to elected officials. I continue to be very impressed with ward staff at the municipal level. I guess it makes sense, based on my earlier point, all politics is local.
Access has become a challenge. With the explosion of social media, and so many channels flowing into an elected official’s office, it is no surprise that there need to be filters in place. Priorities need to be set. The tough part of this game is that “your priority” may not be “their priority”. Without access, you will lack influence. Even sadder is that correspondence may never even reach the eyes of your intended recipient. Given the volumes, it is likely that a staff member handles this for the member. Sad, but a practical reality, given the multitude of requests.
It takes hard work and determination to break through with your message, cause, concern or business issue. It takes persistence and multiple fronts of communication to get your matter on the radar. Email, phone calls, tweets are all required. I also think that the constituency office might afford you more assured access. By taking the time to raise your issue at their home office in their constituency, you might get a better return on the time you invest. It is back to the first premise of getting local with your issue or opportunity.
The “contact information” submission tools on elected official websites provide a filter but do not appear to provide a quick response.
Where the Parties Fail
Do you receive emails from a political party or elected officials? In most instances, political parties sending out propaganda tend not even to allow the recipient to reply. Another fault of the party propaganda system. If a party is going to send information to the electorate, they might as well open up the opportunity for the electorate to respond to an email. If pushing messaging is intended to garner support. I can only imagine that a conversation and dialogue about the message will help lead to that result. One-way “non responsive messaging” fails on that front. One area of influence however is that party executives have the ear of the elected members. Sometimes this can provide you with an avenue of accessibility.
Persist in Social with Your Voice
There is an opportunity, in understanding government relations, to tell your story and engage through social networks. Your blog, your post in Facebook, your article in LinkedIn, your tweet; are all communication tools that may help to position your issue or cause on the radar of the elected official. The old model would have seen a stack of “clippings” from news media dropped on a communications staffer’s desk each morning. Today it is more likely to be a google alert or other social networking monitoring tools to catch the conversation in the moment. The key word most likely to get your attention is the name of that elected official in a post. Those mentions will be monitored closely in a context of issues management.
The Final Point
The final point to be made is that in understanding government relations, you must realize that getting the attention of government is a complex and multi-layered grid. If you are experiencing frustration in your efforts to break through, perhaps I can help with some counsel on getting your message heard. Here’s to simplifying working with our governments. Have an awesome 2017. @FergDevins