“The government should do something!”
We’ve all said that. One way or another, most people in Ontario are involved in government relations. It may be through the company you own or work for; through industry associations you belong to; through organizations from Parent-Teacher to Game and Fish.
Keeping an eye on government is important because government actions have such a huge impact. These lessons, gleaned from more than 20 years in the “lobbying” or government relations industry, can help you understand – and have a voice in – the government relations efforts that affect you, your family, your business, or your community.
Lesson 1: The trick is “no trick”.
There really is no trick to successful government relations.
People will tell you that you need “connections” for effective government relations and, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I didn’t think that was true when I started in government relations more than 20 years ago and I’m sure it’s not true today. I’ve always believed I help my clients build successful government relations by treating the people inside government exactly as I liked being treated when I was one of those people, a Member of the Manitoba Legislature. I believe in dealing with people in government respectfully, honestly and professionally, and by taking the time to understand exactly what they are striving to achieve.
Then, I tell my clients, we can help the government meet our goals while also meeting its own. That’s been my approach for the past 20 years because it works – at the national, provincial and local level. There’s no trick, but it demands a lot of thinking and hard work.
Lesson 2: Government relations and partisan politics are two totally different things.
Competition between political parties has become a full-contact sport. Politicians want you to believe the other parties are less capable, less trustworthy and honest, less sensitive. Politicians say quite terrible things about one another, so they sometimes hold grudges, especially at election times.
The basic rule in partisan politics is “You’re either with me or against me”. The basic rule in government relations, however, is “You have to work with the government that’s there”.
Governments don’t get there by accident. They’re elected – and that gives them the right to make decisions and take actions, including those you disagree with. You may want to vote against them at the next election, and even campaign against them. But for now, they’re the government. Get used to it.
If you act like a partisan enemy, you’ll be treated like a partisan enemy.
Lesson 3: Always find out what the government thinks it is doing – and focus on the “why” and the “why not”.
Governments almost never set out deliberately to do harm. They are almost always receptive to realistic suggestions that can help make things better for citizens. But there are so many issues and concerns, you should never assume that the people in government understand a problem the same way you do. That’s true for governments as a whole, and it’s true for individual elected members, too.
Lesson 4: Starting a fight with the government should be your last option.
There are some amazingly arrogant groups who try to dictate policy to elected governments. They ignore the election results and question the government’s right togovern.
They often act like political partisans – staging protests and press events to impugn the motives and character of the people in government, claiming to speak for “the people” or “all pensioners” or “the working man” or “the farm community”.
Look back at Lesson Two: If you act like a partisan enemy, you’ll be treated like a partisan enemy
Sometimes you must put public pressure on the government, but be very, very careful. Events like rallies at Queen’s Park help focus public attention, but should be managed very carefully: no personal attacks on people in the government, lots of notice so Ministers and others can develop answers, and even a plan to leave the Queen’s Park ground spotless.
The message should be that we are not the enemy; we are the people the government would like to have for friends.
We had a phrase on the prairies to describe going into real battle with the government. We called it a decision to “burn the cars”. Once you’d burned the cars and crossed that line into full confrontation, no one was going to be driving home. There could be no retreat.
That should always be your last option.
Lesson 5: Government relations are too important to be left to the government relations consultants.
The perceptions of the people inside government whose decisions affect you reflect the perceptions of the community at large. That’s why you must never treat government relations as a private activity between professionals and government functionaries – you must consider government and community relations as overlapping strategies.
Work actively to make sure your organizations are communicating the basic message right, and then take personal responsibility for sharing that message widely in the community. Talk to your local MPP. Talk to other elected officials, from Mayors to School Trustees. Talk to the members of service clubs, the chamber of commerce, and even members of your parish church.
The more people who understand your position, the easier it will be for government to take the actions you’d like them to take.
Lesson 6: None of this will work unless what you’re asking government to do really is in the public interest.
The people in government take a solemn oath to serve the public interest. Unless what you’re asking them to do passes that test, your government relations efforts will probably fail – and they’ll deserve to.
That’s why I believe modern government relations is a positive activity: You have to move beyond your own sense of entitlement and say “I know this is good for me, but how is it good for the community as a whole?” That’s the question the people in government will ask. It’s what you should ask – and answer honestly – as a key step in your government relations strategies.
Lesson 7: A commitment to respectful government relations, serving the public interest, doesn’t mean you can’t be very tough indeed.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Being polite, respectful, honest and non-confrontational will help you to develop the trust and the standing you’ll need if it ever becomes time to be a little, or a lot, tougher.